Parenting a Multi-Racial Child in A One Dimensional World on The Thirlby
Several months ago I penned a think piece for The Thirlby entitled, Parenting a Multi-Racial Child in A One Dimensional World. This week, I was honored to see it in all its published glory and I'm even more excited to share it with you in its entirety! I urge you to visit Almila's amazing website in order to see the article as it was intended.
"Where did you get her?," "Is she yours?," "Is she adopted?"
These are just a few of the questions that plagued our first forays into the world with our daughter, Lo, in tow. I would be lying if I said that those microaggressions didn’t come as a shock and knock me, a new parent, off kilter.
In one instance, taking in the weekend and browsing a local art gallery with a toddler on my hip, I was hounded by a woman excitedly demanding to know which agency we had used and insisting that a) I shouldn’t be ashamed to tell people that my child was adopted and b) her friend “wants one just like that”. “Are you kidding me!?” I thought, as I bid the woman farewell and kept plowing through the world as the mother of a mixed-race child. Another time I watched countless concerned white women clamor, beside themselves with worry as my strapping black husband hoisted our fair-skinned three-year-old (in the midst of a tyrannical temper tantrum) into his arms, bee-lining for the exit of Target. I felt compelled to follow closely behind, even though his stride is much longer than mine, to assure them that yes, this man does have my permission to be leaving the store with his daughter.
In those first couple of years, living comfortably in the bubble that we had created for ourselves, not much thought went into the differences between us and our offspring. Hell, we were lucky if we could make time for the truly necessary things like cooking a warm meal, washing last week’s laundry, or sleeping. There was no room for ruminating on the complexities of race and the myriad of intricacies that awaited having a multi-ethnic child, nor were we equipped to help her forge her own racial identity in a world that places a lot of value on which box you mark during standardized testing.
Our daughter is six-years-old now and often talks about being “brown”
She makes off-handed comments while playing with her dolls . . . most of whom are white because, on the sliding scale that is skin color represented by twelve-inch plastic dolls on the shelves of the toy store, white heavily outweighs brown and black. She casually talks about the color of her skin in reference to why she’s not quite like the other kids in her class. I don’t think she has yet to fully understand what goes into making her different from her peers but something tells me she’s on the cusp of identifying it. You see, it was easier to parent a child of multiple ethnic backgrounds until the age of six. There were few instances of racism, despite the fact that we spent these years living in the Bible Belts of Florida and Alabama. Nevertheless, at that age, few children even realize that they can be different from one another unless they’re home-schooled. I fear now, with Trump- era chats about racism taking place in the first-grade classroom and a clear divide echoing its way throughout the homes of our neighbors, that this time is coming to an end.
As the act of parenting trans-racial and biracial children becomes even more common, I realize that there is a huge lack of references that exist to dole out advice to eager yet naïve parents of all creeds. We’re left to wonder how best to navigate the knottiness that is the race-identity of school-aged children. How do we relate to and parent that which is unlike us? And with little help from the outside world, it seems.
Biracial identity development is something that’s been playing on a loop in the background of my thoughts for years. I’m aware that my child, as is the case of so many other children, faces specific challenges to which neither my husband nor I can necessarily relate. She is a unique mixture of ethnicity and identities that are completely foreign to our respective frames of reference. The 2000 census showed that there are more than 4.5 million married and unmarried couples in the United States of whom the two members were from differing racial or ethnic groups. (Hud-Aleem & Countryman, 2008). If the census were to come knocking on our door, Lo would fit squarely into the “other” category (she is parts African American/Caribbean, Pacific Islander, Asian, Hispanic and Caucasian). There are only two percentages that matter to me, though: … she is 100% human and 100% ours.
Because I am the mother of a multiracial child, I am tasked with the lofty ambition of raising a well-adjusted, confident child that who feels she is both understood and represented. One who celebrates the best of all of the cultures that came together in her making. It is my responsibility to make sure that she does not exist in a constant state of identity crisis, though I’m not sure anyone can protect her from that fate. I, with the help of my husband and our families, must teach her that love knows no bounds… not even skin color. I must take to heart that, as someone who is different from me, my child will have a different experience of the world and I won’t always be able to relate. I must trudge forward anyway. As I set out to accomplish this I will need to remember (and I urge you to remember) tips we will be sharing in the second part of the series.
Allow discussions about skin color
In a racially charged world it is often the gut reaction to shut down conversations revolving around skin color and racial identity. This instinct is wrong. A six year old is apt to notice differences in color, gender, beliefs, etc. and talking about those differences doesn’t breed racism. Instead it creates possibilities (in age appropriate ways) to truly understand the concept of racial identity, how the color of one’s skin impacts lives and opens up a healthy family dialogue.
Putting an end to these conversations does nothing for growth,… rather it renders the topic taboo and can only lead to more confusion. Instead of saying, “we don’t talk about that,” to a child questioning why mommy looks different than daddy, use that discussion as a vehicle to lean into your differences and explain how we are all, in fact, different and why that is such a good thing. The failure to acknowledge these differences, the differences between you and your child, breeds the erasure of identity.
While it would be easy to sit back and teach our children not to “see color”, I think it is a major parenting mis-step and does a disservice to multiracial children. The act of denying that color, colorism, racism, etc. exist in our world is one that’s especially damaging to the children of mixed-race identities. You cannot learn to accept something that you refuse to see. Saying things like, “I don’t see color,” to your children conveys that they are not seen. Being seen and being understood are basic human desires and by refusing to identify the things that make them unique, you are refusing to acknowledge their very existence.
Discourage words like “exotic”
“She’s so exotic,” is a phrase I’ve heard leave the lips of many a rogue commenter on the appearance of my child. Condoning the use of these kind of “compliments” (exotic, worldly, foreign, tropical…) only serves to further commodify, fetishize and dehumanize our biracial and mixed-race children. It teaches them that their value rests solely in their “otherness” instead of in their character.
Understand that mixed kids don’t represent the end of racism
Touted as beautiful and the aforementioned exotic, multi-racial children are hailed as the solution to racism. If I had a nickel for every time I heard something along the lines of, “In 50 years all kids will look like her and there will be no more racism,” I would be a very rich woman. Racism is not something that simply disappears because the most common skin tone changes. The end of racism must be endlessly championed. It won’t be eradicated solely by the existence of little girls with deep brown skin and blue eyes or little boys with kinky, curly hair and fair skin. There is a long journey ahead and it is paved with tireless discussion and brave actions, not breeding.
Having multi-ethnic children does not make you the antithesis of racism
You are not the beacon of hope for the future and are not incapable of exhibiting racist behavior simply because you had a hand in the creation of a mixed-race human being. You are not exempt from racism. You will need to constantly check your privilege and unlearn the teachings of a world that hasn’t always been inclusive. You are not done simply because your child is multi-ethnic.
Begin your lifelong education
As the caretaker of a child with ethnic makeup that differs from your own, you must take responsibility to understand your child’s identity as best you can. You must also realize that you’ll never have a full scope of what being made of your child’s unique mix encompasses. It is your job to ensure that your child is exposed to cultural experiences and at times, you will need to be a champion for experiences that are different than those you might have experienced growing up. This will require you to be in a constant state of learning about all of the factors that have come together to create your child.
Lo’s paternal grandma is Filipino, a culture I know very little about, so I’ve taken steps to understand the paradigm of Filipino cultural identity. Lo has visited the Philippines and we use the Filipino word for “grandma” (Lola) when talking about my husband’s mother. These are small actions that make a big impact on the way my daughter sees herself. I know that I could do even better across the board and will continue to work to understand the parts of my daughter that are different from me. I worry that there will come a day that she doesn’t feel “Black enough” or “White enough” or “Asian enough” et al but all I can do is equip her with experiences and references to the best of my ability.
Ultimately I know that she must choose her cultural identity for herself and it will likely be one different from my own. My goal is to equip her with everything she needs to make a decision that feels right for her. In this pursuit, representation is key - find biracial/multiracial/multi-dimensional role models, expose your child to with positive role models of all kinds and create a world of uplifting examples of greatness regardless of race.
In the same ways that you are, your child will one day be on a journey to ask life’s most basic question: “who am I?” Your role in your child’s life is to provide him/her with a frame of reference from which to answer that question. Parents of mixed-race/multi-racial children have the social responsibility to advocate for all aspects of their child’s racial experience and when it comes down to it the most important thing that you can instill in your child is that he/she is so much more than the color of their skin.
Hud-Aleem, R., & Countryman, J. (2008). Biracial Identity Development and Recommendations in Therapy. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 5(11), 37–44.