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Did You Just Compare My Mixed-Race Kids to a Mutt?

"What a cute dog! What is she?"

As anyone who follows me on Facebook or Instagram knows, our family recently got a new puppy. And while I knew that in many ways, having a new dog in the house would be kind of like having another new baby—the sleepless nights, cleaning up various messes—there was one thing I wasn't prepared for.

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Just like when I had my babies, I walk around the neighborhood every day, sometimes morning, noon and night. And I quickly learned that random strangers often have similar reactions to a floppy puppy as they do to a baby in a stroller.

With her big brown eyes, slender body and red brindle coat (her fur looks like Tiger stripes), Amber attracts a lot of attention. Toddlers run up to "pat the doggy" and tough-looking men give me the silent nod of approval.

The conversation usually goes like this:

"She's adorable!"

"Thanks, we just adopted her."

"What is she?"

"We don't exactly know, but we think she's part Whippet or Italian Greyhound, mixed with something else. She came from the animal shelter."

At that point, the conversation can go one of two ways…

"Thank you for saving a life," they gush, as if I were the Angelina Jolie of the canine kingdom.

Or the inquisition begins.

"Hmm, she looks too small to be a Whippet … "

"Do the stripes mean she's part pit bull?"

"Luckily, she got the Italian Greyhound genes."

"How big do you think she'll be?"

"Mixed-breeds are so much healthier than purebreds."

The conversations seemed vaguely familiar, and after it happened a few times I realized why. When my boys were little, I'd be pushing them in the double stroller, just trying to get to the nearest Peet's coffee, when the comments would come out of left field.

"Wow … one is dark and one is so fair!"

"Is your husband Mexican?"

"Are they part Hawaiian?"

"Do you think they'll look more like you or their father?"

"You're so tiny, they must get their size from your husband!"

My kids are racially ambiguous. My dog doesn't neatly fit the profile of one breed. Once again, my life is getting complicated, as if raising a family weren't complicated already.

For multiracial families, the constant stream of questions can get tiring.

I hesitated to talk about the comparisons between the way people talk about mixed-race kids and mixed-breed dogs. After all, the language surrounding multiracial people has for so long borrowed from the vocabulary of animal husbandry: mutts, purebreds, half-breeds.

Then there's the whole idea of hybrid vigor—the theory that greater DNA variation reduces genetic flaws (think Tay Sachs, sickle cell anemia) and produces hardier offspring. Or the idea that mixed-breed dogs have unstable temperaments. On the other end of the spectrum, there's the notion that multiracial people, with their mothers and fathers of different colors, will bring Dalai Lama-like peace and harmony to the world. It's kind of a tall order for a toddler sitting in a stroller.

I have to admit—I'm curious, too. As I looked up various dog breed sites searching for clues as to Amber's lineage, I found nasty comments about people trying to "pass off" their mutts as purebreds and other sites listing the various litmus tests (broad chest, short hair, square jaw, etc.) which determine a dog to be legally considered a pit bull, and perhaps subject to special laws governing the breed. It reeks of the one-drop rule and the brown bag tests of the Jim Crow era.

Of course, whether Labrador Retriever or Akita, all breeds of dog were created by humans to serve a purpose, be it fetching ducks, guarding the manor or simply looking cute. It's fun to have little Shih Tzus and giant Mastiffs and everything in between. So it doesn't bother me too much when people try to play the guessing game with my dog. Since Amber was found as a stray puppy near the county fairgrounds, I imagine the scenario: Her father was a show Whippet who escaped and mated with a stray female. Maybe when she grows up she will choose to self-identify as a member of the sight hound family. Or maybe she won't. (Just a little race and ethnicity humor there.)

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We may never know Amber's full backstory. At the end of the day, she is our dog and we are her family. She plays fetch with the boys and we have to train her to stay off the beds and not bark at strangers, just like any other dog owners. And that's where it reminds me of raising kids. For multiracial families, the constant stream of questions can get tiring. Sometimes we want to have those conversations, and other times we just want to get to band practice on time, finish the homework and enjoy our lives together … just like any other family.

Photograph by: Grace Hwang-Lynch

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