I was in a department store the other day, when I crossed paths with an Asian boy, maybe 5 or 6 years old. He looked at me for a few seconds, then retreated around a corner out of view and I heard him say “Mommy I’m glad you’re not brown”. I knew he was referring to me, and I definitely had a WTF expression on my face. I was eager to hear the rest of this, so I peered through the racks to eavesdrop on the conversation. The mom, who was lighter-toned Asian as well, paused from browsing the dresses on the rack and crouched down to his level. “What do you mean, sweetie?”. He repeated, “I’m glad you’re not brown, your skin”. She replied “I am brown. And you are too”. She held up her forearm next to his. He looked confused, probably because compared the the random woman he just saw, he and his mother were not nearly as dark. His mother continued, “God made everyone a different shade of brown, and no shade is better than another”. He paused and said “Ok, I’m glad we’re brown”. She went back to browsing the rack and the little boy bounced down the aisle. I stood there close to tears and completely in awe (truth be told, preggo hormones may have played a role in the emotional response).
But I had just witnessed something incredible: in a matter of one minute, a mother was able to explain race and completely shift her young son’s paradigm about ethnicity. I had so many questions. Was her response something she just pulled out of thin air? Had she been contemplating this conversation for awhile and carefully chosen her words for this opportune moment? Was she not high-fiving herself in her mind the way I was?!
So this got me thinking about discussing race to our children. At some point, Chase and his soon-to-be little brother will realize that Mommy is Asian and Daddy is black, and that they are a hybrid of both. This is clearly not a novel phenomenon in today’s society and many before us have confronted similar thorny issues on this subject matter. In fact, based on recent data from Pew Research Center, there has been a sharp rise in the number of interracial couples in the US. According to the Pew data, 17% of marriages (as of 2015) are between couples of different ethnic backgrounds…this is up from 3% in 1967! So Chase and his brother are a part of a growing demographic trend. Which brings us back to that future conversation about race and identity. What are we gonna tell these kids? How do we broach the subject?
When I was growing up, my brother and I were a few of the only non-white kids in our school. I honestly don’t remember the moment that my parents told us we were adopted. I do remember being given a stack of books about adoption and picture books about Filipino culture. There was even a biography about a girl named Carolyn who was adopted from Honduras. My mom took things a step further. In the first few weeks of kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade, my mother would ask my teachers if she could come in to do a presentation to my classmates about the Philippines. She would show my classmates where the Philippines was on the map, explain the meaning of adoption and why we did not “look like we were mother and daughter”. Mom encouraged my classmates to ask any and every question. Astutely, she sought to proactively frame the conversation about my identity in an open, positive and educational manner, rather than run the risk of behind-the-back ridicule or discrimination outside of the classroom. Yes, my mom was a rockstar advocate for her kids.
Although I am fully Filipino (as far as I know), I am often asked what I am “mixed with”. Some don’t believe that I am just Filipino, based on their conceptions and biases of what a true Filipino looks like. Because Chase is indeed a mix between Filipino and Black-Jamaican, he will likely receive similar questioning throughout his life. However, I don’t want him to ever feel obligated to settle a stranger’s curiosity just so that they may appropriately categorize him. Ultimately, it will be up to him to choose how to respond to those who inquire about his identity, but I am perfectly happy with the response “I am American”. Race, relevant though it may be, is a social construct after all….(great article about this in the Scientific American). Chase and his brother will hopefully live in a world where he has the freedom to decide how to best answer the question to their personal satisfaction.
Which begs the question, as a biracial or multiracial person, is your true identity defined by society, or is it based more on how you chose to identify?
I started doing some extensive research (ahem…googling) about being a parent of biracial children. I also informally interviewed a few friends who are also interracial families, to pick their brain about the topic. I found a few superficial articles talking bout hair care, but the ones I honed in on offered a few tips of advice. For instance, in this Huffington Post piece, “7 Things Your Parents Didn’t Tell You about Raising a Biracial Child“, the author writes “At some point, your child may identify with one race over another. This may not be yours and you may feel hurt”. It hadn’t crossed my mind if my child would ever decide to not identify as Filipino at all. One of our friends, J.M., told us that his 4-year old daughter has done this too. He says “I let her identify with whichever race she chooses. If one day she says “Daddy I’m black”, I agree and affirm this. If the next day she says “Daddy I’m Filipino” I agree again, because that is also true.” There is no right or wrong answer.
In another article on Parenting.com, “Where I Got Daisy: Parenting a Bi-racial Child“, it mentioned a feeling with which I could relate to at times: being the outsider. The author articulates her advice well, “You have to be clear about your goal. And the goal is: You don’t want that track to start in (their) head every time there’s an incident—the one that says, ‘I’m different, I’m different, I’m different”… You want to be a buffer for her. You want to make sure that she knows what’s wrong is out there in the world, not inside of her.” Our friend, D.W., shares a similar perspective about educating her two young children very early on. She explained to us, “I want to teach her about ethnicity and race before the world tries to teach it to her first”. Her and her husband discuss race very openly in their multiracial household in an effort to preemtively arm their children with relevant information regarding their ethnic background in an upper class, predominantly white Silicon Valley neighborhood. The best defense against ignorance is knowledge and self-assurance.
Another friend, B.Z., has raised her son with that notion as a priority: “to have a global perspective and a strong educational foundation that can foster his intellectual curiosity and help him grow into a confident and productive young man”. She and her husband began raising their son in Germany, where interracial families were not as “mysterious” or a curiosity as they are in the US. There are, however, many places in the US where this also is the case. My friend, JM, grew up in the same town as myself in CT, and now raising two beautiful asian-caucasian children. She reminds her kids ,”that everyone is different in size, shape, looks, height, talents, etc. so that the world is an interesting and beautiful place”. Although she feels somewhat removed from the racial tension that other multi-racial families experience, at times she does have some awkward encounters. She told me, “I get asked if I am a nanny or babysitter pretty frequently which can launch me pretty quickly into my birth stories … these babies might not look like me but they are all mine!”
Another friend, CM from Georgia, has an awesome approach to helping his two kids embrace their ethnic makeup: “I have always been completely straightforward with them about their race with a positive twist: You are white and black, like President Obama, you have the best of both worlds. Your experience with both cultures is a blessing. Your genetic combination and beauty is a blessing. What your ancestors have achieved, both white and black, is amazing and a part of who you are and what is unique about the country we live in. You are truly special and symbolic to what makes America Great…again.”
So the question of “How to raise a bi-racial child?” is pretty loaded, or not really the right question to ask in the first place. There is no right answer to this, other than raising them in the same way one would raise any other child: with love, time and patience. Some might feel that this entire topic is much ado about nothing…but for many, it’s a reality in which we live. Race is still at the forefront of many parent’s minds who only wish to raise their child in a loving and safe environment. As parents, our hope is that Chase and his brother will develop a very healthy self-concept and racial identity early on, so that they may confidently embrace who they are. I look at Chase’s caramel skin, his big, almond eyes and massive, curly fro and I pray that every day he sees the wonder that God has made him.
“I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” — Psalms 139:14
“Never forget what you are, for surely the world will not. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armour yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you.” –George R.R. Martin
…with contributions from TMhusband and some of our awesome friends 🙂