Blended with Love (guest article)

By Nadiyah Louise Sharif Tarver

I am part of a blended family. If you don’t know what that means, basically my brother
and sister are each 100,000 years old. Well, more like in their late thirties, but same difference. Because I’ve never actually lived with my two half-siblings, Stacy and Aaron, due to our giant age gap, I have never gotten advice on how to ask someone on a date, been taught how to sneak out, or observed what not to do from my siblings’ dumb mistakes.

While they haven’t taught me the life skills I desire as a teenager, Stacy and Aaron have taught me a lot about identity. Growing up biracial, Stacy and Aaron always struggled to fit in — today, they teach me to stand out and be proud of who I am.

Over Christmas break, we joined my big brother Aaron’s family on a visit to his wife, Lesley’s, side. Ecstasy consumed me as we got closer and closer to visiting Aaron, Lesley, and my beloved toddler nephew and infant niece, Naijah and Alia. Each time I closed my eyes, I could only picture Alia snuggled up in my arms, with her big brown eyes staring at me. Images of Naijah smiling with all fifty of his pearly-white, crooked teeth at his rainbow of toy cars flashed before me.

blended with love: Nadiyah and niece and nephew.
Enjoying Christmas with “blended” niece Alia (left) and nephew Naijah.

Aaron’s family holds a special place in my heart. Though Aaron is my half-brother, he has always made me feel whole. It is devastating to think that around seventy years ago, it would be illegal for such a happy family to exist. Aaron and Lesley are mixed. Lesley’s mom is white and her dad is Filipino. Aaron’s mom is Chinese American and our dad is black. Though married in 1979, our dad, David, and Aaron’s mom, Diane, faced prejudice in their everyday lives. They were pushed to believe that they were unworthy of love, respect, and happiness.

As New Jersey newlyweds in their late twenties, David and Diane bought a house in the town of Little Silver in 1981. Little Silver is very close to Red Bank, a racially diverse town, so David and Diane were a bit shocked to look down the street and see that their Silver neighbors were all white. However, as tenacious Tarvers, David and Diane didn’t take the color of their skin as a signal to move out. Even as ignorant people stared as David and Diane held hands walking down the street or dined together at restaurants, they stood their ground and remained in Little Silver. They settled and started a family, beginning with Wilson Wong — the collie. On the way home from a family walk, Diane, David, and Wilson stepped upon Seven Bridges Road. A police car approaches them.

“What’s your name?! Where do you live?!” a white officer, Officer Touhey, yelled from the patrol car. My father freezes and turns to face the officer.

“What?” my dad said. The officer repeated himself, speaking to my African American father, not Diane.

“I said, what’s your name?!”

Earlier on Sixty Minutes, my dad had watched a story about a court case involving a black man being harassed by police. He recalled from the story that he did not have to identify himself.

“I don’t have to identify myself to you,” David responded calmly. My father’s words cut
through the police officer’s ego like hot knives through delicate styrofoam.

“Well, if you don’t want me to bust your chops and take you downtown, you better tell me who you are and where you live!” My father thought for a moment, trying to conjure the perfect words to say back to this officer.

“You see that big house over there? On two acres of land? That’s my house! That’s
where I live! And my name is David Tarver and you don’t have any business asking me who I am or where I live… but that’s where I live, right there in that big house!”

The police officer slouched back into his seat and drove off. Still angry about the ordeal, David went to the next city council meeting and told them what happened. He demanded that the council pass an ordinance that would ban police officers from stopping people without probable cause.

“I don’t think we want to live in a town where people are forced to identify themselves
just because the police officer doesn’t know who they are,” David said.

A reporter from the Asbury Park Press went on to write an article in the paper about
David and Officer Touhey’s encounter, but the city never passed the ordinance. By 1987, the people in town had grown to respect David out of admiration for the successful technology business he owned. Wildly enough, one of the people who bowed to my father the most was Officer Touhey himself.

“Oh, Mr. Tarver! Hi, Mr. Tarver!” he’d say congenially as my father passed him in town.

In fact, in the early 2000s when my sister, Stacy, was in high school, Officer Touhey’s
daughter went to her sleepover! How bizarre is it that within about fifteen years, a disrespectful, bigoted police officer, could go from treating my dad like a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of his shoe to one of his peers, or higher-ups?

I tried to tie up this complicated story by asking my dad what these experiences taught
him about identity.

“What did it teach me about identity? Didn’t teach me anything about identity.”

I stared at my dad, confused that he hadn’t learned anything about identity from his experiences. I mean, the entire root of the story was that he was black, right? My dad sat back in thought for a moment as I stared at him, hoping for an answer. After a while he said,

“Because I knew who I was. I was a very confident person.”

He realized some people would look at him for his race and not for how extraordinary he was. My dad didn’t learn anything about identity from his experiences, because he knew he was a smart, loving, and powerful young person with his own business and a promising future. His encounter with Officer Touhey just reminded him that he couldn’t let other people define his identity, as they’d always get it wrong. He followed the wise words Michelle Obama wrote, “If you don’t get out there and define yourself, you’ll be quickly and inaccurately defined by others.” Instead of allowing a small white police officer to teach him about his identity, my father taught him who he was, and who he would become.

Although David and Diane aren’t together anymore, Stacy, Aaron, and I all feel
unconditional love from our dad, David, their mom Diane, and my mom, Kishna. We also bond with one another as we share commonalities and differences in our childhoods.

I now return to the trip I took to visit my sister-in-law’s family. Each night, we were all
blessed with mounds of mouthwatering Filipino food that we would eat at the table as one happy family. But the best part was, I got to help make the food too — most notably the dish Lumpia! Lumpia is a form of spring roll from the Philippines, filled with meat, cabbage, and other veggies. My sister-in-law’s family enthusiastically sat me at the table to help them roll up a batch. I had such an amazing time with them, that I ended up sleeping over for two whole days instead of returning to the hotel with my parents. Lesley’s family proved to me, although most of them had never met me before, that anyone is capable of showing love towards others. Her family defines themselves by their values of compassion and inclusivity.

I asked Aaron and Lesley to reflect on their unique childhoods. Living in all-white,
suburban Little Silver, New Jersey, Aaron was the “odd one out” everywhere he went. He always noticed that he was the only person of color in his classes. Although he “never felt discriminated against” he “definitely felt othered.” It wasn’t until college that he began to feel included among his peers.

“When did you start to feel included?” I asked.

“Once I got to college and was surrounded by people from many different backgrounds
and ethnicities.” At the University of Michigan, he got to learn about people from a myriad of backgrounds; gay, Indian, Nigerian — everyone had a unique story to tell just like Aaron did. He even got the chance to join the Michigan Mixed Club. It was an amazing opportunity for him to mingle with people of mixed races who too had to “navigate different worlds.” “At times it can feel like you don’t have firm footing in one group or another […] it’s nice to become friends with people who are operating in the margins.”

Aaron’s wife Lesley had a similar experience. She grew up in the diverse Bay Area, but never felt in touch with her Filipino roots.

“[I] grew up not heavily identifying with my Filipino culture, and only discovering that side of me when I went to college, mostly because I went to a predominantly white school.”

Once she got to college, she was “able to explore outside of [her] identity” and discover new facets of who she was.

blended with love: Nadiyah and siblings.
Blended with love: the “sibs.”

Lesley and Aaron continue to learn about themselves and others. For a year, they
traveled around the world to be immersed in a variety of cultures and experiences. They also incorporate the life lessons they have learned into their son Naijah’s life; they send him to a Spanish immersion daycare, so he can communicate with those who are different from him. Living in Harlem, Naijah and his little sister Alia are constantly exposed to a diverse population, something their parents didn’t have.

Our sister Stacy also told me what it was like growing up mixed.

“I hated the feeling of not belonging […] the feeling was always there that I was somehow being watched, like some sort of social experiment hidden in the shadow of Ruby Bridges, as if I made the other students and teachers feel uneasy in a way that was only matched by the constant discomfort I felt in my skin.”

Every day someone asked her, “Where are you from?”

“I never had a good clap back for that question. I didn’t know how to identify.”

When she turned twelve, sick of constantly being defined by her race, Stacy “realized
[she] could influence people’s response to — and expectations of — [her] with [her] outfits.”

“The cool kids liked me if I wore the coolest clothes […] my outfits became an obsession through which to channel my cultural angst, […] a strategy that would last throughout much of my twenties.”

But, even into her adulthood, like many mixed individuals, she feels “a specific anxiety,”
especially when she has to select her race on a form.

“I am both Black and Chinese. I can’t select just one or the other without feeling like I’m ignoring integral parts of myself.”

She fears that if she selects “‘two or more races’”, people would incorrectly assume what
her exact mixed ethnicities were. She prefers to “‘select all that apply’”, as some forms offer nowadays.

When she entered the workforce, she realized her “intersectional sensibilities in an
environment driven by one-sidedness, conviction, and certainty […] could serve [her] ability to observe and extract insights” from others. This notion has fueled her lucrative marketing career, as she shared her knowledge working for Nike’s Beijing and Shanghai branches, and continues to motivate startups across the country. Stacy once believed that she’d never feel whole being biracial. However, she has “come alive” in realizing that “one plus one can equal three”. The experience she brings to the table is more valuable than her twelve-year-old self had ever known.

Now, I must admit that I’ve made a terrible mistake in this essay: I’ve gone over five
pages barely mentioning my outstanding mom! My mom, Kishna, grew up Muslim. She read the Quran and fasted during Ramadan with her parents and four brothers. The rest of our family is Christian, but they love my mom’s family no differently than they love their own. One of my mom’s biggest role models was her grandmother, Iva Gertrude Davis, or Granny. To this day, my mom can recall memories of Granny pushing her in a shopping cart around the vibrant aisles of the grocery store she owned, Davis Food Center. She even took my mom with her to church on Sundays. Was Granny trying to indoctrinate my mom with Christian beliefs? No! She was just trying to spend time with and show love to her granddaughter. When my mom decided to become a Christian later in life, the love she received from both sides remained the same.

Today, I face a similar situation. I adore my mom’s Muslim side of the family. Despite
them living in Los Angeles, my cousins and I do everything together — whether that’s playing Minecraft over a FaceTime call each Friday until 3:00 am or spending a few weeks in Barbados together.

During one of my visits to Los Angeles over spring break, it happened to be Ramadan, so my aunt and uncle were fasting. My cousins and I were too young to fast, but we were all curious about what it would be like to fast once we were older. So, instead of having us not consume anything from sun up to sundown, my aunt challenged us to go a full day with no bowls of Goldfish, our favorite couch snack. It was a brutal challenge, but my cousins and I were determined to face it together! Did my cousin and I want to fast because we didn’t want to eat all day? No! We wanted to do it because it made us feel more connected to each other.

Even though I lived in Michigan and didn’t practice Islam, I sought to experience the camaraderie the tradition of fasting brings. I also enjoyed listening to my aunt expound on what Ramadan is all about: stepping into the shoes of those who are less fortunate than yourself. She asserted the ideals of compassion, togetherness, and love that I was always happy to share with my family — the same feelings that overcame my mom when she went to the grocery store or church with Granny. Determined to spread unconditional love and accept those different than themselves, my family welcomed my mom and me with open arms to experience their traditions, and help others.

Our identity is shaped by how we use our uniqueness to change the world around us. A
person needs to always showcase their best qualities through how they treat others; or else, as Michelle Obama proposed, other people will try to define us. My family continues on this journey to define our values by showing love and respect towards others and ourselves. We are proud of our identities and encourage others to be proud of their own.

5 thoughts on “Blended with Love (guest article)

  1. Nadiyah is an amazingly gifted writer and scholar, but knowing who she is, and the gifts and examples she’s received from her parents and blended family, is no surprise to me.

  2. Nadiyah tells a life story in a manner similar to the writing style and quality of her dad, David. ( Remember “Proving Ground “ ) I’m not surprised by her capabilities. As for the points she is making about being a member of a blended family, I readily relate to that experience as a mixed race person and having mixed race grandchildren. It is a joy watching Nadiyah mature. I have photos of her and my grandson dancing at my son, Darryl’s wedding, 9 years ago, this month. Keep us enthralled with your writing about your life experiences, Nadiyah..

  3. That was amazing!! You have an insight and wisdom that reaches far beyond your age. It has been amazing to watch you grow and I am so proud to be a part of your family!!

  4. Wonderful story and beautifully written. Your family should be so very proud of as I am too. I’m your dad, David’s second cousin, Linda Catchings Edwards. You are an amazing writer. Keep up the great work.❤️

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