Today is Mother’s Day, which also marks the end of the series where I’ve offered your wisdom to people who have, or will have mixed race children. It’s been a very interesting writing process– sharing some of our most private moments (thank you for allowing me to reveal our story with others, btw).
As you texted me yesterday, my childhood was, indeed, a journey. There was a lot of shouting, crying, laughing, and, most importantly, talking. And as you reminded me in yesterday’s text, when I’d ask you questions you didn’t know how to answer, there was also silence. The silence was your way of telling me, you needed some time to reflect on, or research the answer to my question. Maybe that was one of your greatest skills. You never thought you had raising a mixed child all figured out, and you weren’t afraid to ask for help. You were wise enough to build a community who served as your support, and you’ve always been one who sought out knowledge. You seemed to be on a continuous mission to become a better parent, and were constantly seeking ways to improve your parenting skills. You took raising a child who you knew would experience the world differently from you seriously. You were continuously trying to ensure that you prepared me for the black and white world we live in, while ensuring I knew about my rich, and complicated identities. Sometimes, you’d say something, or make a decision you later thought wasn’t right, and would apologize, and talk to me about it. I wonder how many other parents do that…
Do you know what else I find amazing? Some of the parenting maneuvers you pulled were so skilled, so remarkable, and they were done in tough circumstances. We didn’t have a lot of money, some of our own family members were rooting against us, there were times when it felt like bad news was constantly raining on our lil’ ol’ apartment, but you still equipped me with an armor of self-love, pride, as well as amazing experiences. You equipped me with an education on self-identity that even my private schools couldn’t offer, and you did this, again, with little resources.
Do you realize how brilliant , and resourceful you are? Thank you, mommy.
5. Defend your child—particularly when s/he is faced with racism.
I know this is hard for some people to believe, but children/ people of color continue to experience racism- even though we have a President who’s half Black. The most devastating experiences are when we’re confronted with others’ ignorance, and the person we seek for support doesn’t validate our feelings. I can recall multiple moments when I felt as though I was experiencing racism, and when I sought support from an adult, s/he would say I was being too sensitive, or even questioned if I was telling the truth. The first time I was called the n-word, I told a teacher, and she told me to get over it. A classmate told me that his mother said all Black people are ugly, and when I told my teacher, he complained, “You’re always crying,” and dismissed me. Yes, I’ve always been a crier, but I think these moments deserved attention. Such silencing of my feelings further isolated me from my school community, and made me feel as though my feelings were stupid. Now, as a teacher, I am very sensitive to moments of racial tension in my class, and take precautionary measures to try to prevent such occurrences. When they do come up, I handle them with care, and never ignore them.
While most teachers failed me when I needed them most, fortunately my mother didn’t. When I reported such instances to my mother, she always took them seriously. Her usual shy personality took a backseat when I told her about, or when she saw acts of prejudice. When able, she confronted those being prejudice or racist, and called them on their ignorance. In the case of the boy who told me his mother said all Black people are ugly, my mom sat in the parking lot, and waited for his mother after school. When the boy’s mother got to school, my mom got out the car, as I jumped into the backseat and ducked from not knowing what to expect. My mom didn’t get wild, or even that loud, she simply confronted her with what I told her, and shamed her for telling her son such lies. My mom handled herself with respect. She may or may have not changed this family’s view on race, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that she justified my feelings that such things shouldn’t be said to me, or about my community, and modeled how to confront racist statements.
This wasn’t the only time my mother stood up for me when people were treating me, or us, differently because I’m half Black. There was the lady following me and my brown friend at the drugstore because she thought we were stealing, my fifth grade teacher who was simply a mess of prejudice (I think my grandmother actually confronted her), the man in the passport line who questioned how we could be related, racist relatives, and many others. It may have been extra work to check all these people, it may have been, at times, awkward, but her refusal to allow people to speak to me or treat me wrong because I’m half Black validated my feelings , as well as showed me how I should and should not be treated.
As a parent of a child of color, you must be prepared to deal other people’s ignorance. Some of this ignorance may come from your own family or friends. I suggest not ignoring moments of racism, because ignoring them doesn’t make them go away, nor does it deal with how your child’s feelings. While it may not always be possible to confront everyone who treats you and your family wrongly, at the very least, you can talk to your child about their feelings, and remind them that such moments are wrong. My mother’s insistence to call people out on their behaviors and assumptions has validated my beliefs that people shouldn’t treat me differently because I’m half Black, as well as empowered me in speaking, and writing about racial justice.
I know my mom’s been waiting for this piece, because my hair has been a continuous tension between the two of us. I could very easily write a series, possibly a book, about my hair experiences, and the politics of Black/ mixed hair. Before I get into my personal experiences, however, I’d like to begin this piece with an inquiry I found on a blog for mothers. One mother writes:
“[Are] there any moms out there with mixed little girls? My daughter is almost 4 and mixed with black, white, and Spanish. I know poor baby. But I have been trying for a couple of years now to find something to put in her hair that will calm it down so that she can wear her hair down and to look nice instead of frizzy all the time. Someone help PLEASE!!”
Comments like these make me sad, and create fuel for writing this series. “Poor baby?” If one thinks being mixed is a deficit, they shouldn’t have mixed children. But the part I want to focus on for this piece is the last part. While this mother is making the right steps by seeking support for doing her child’s hair, the attitude behind her research is demeaning to the uniqueness, and beauty of her daughter’s curls. Her quest to “calm it down” so that it can “look nice instead of frizzy all the time” is offensive, and loaded with European ideals of beauty that shouldn’t be projected onto this little girl, especially not from her mother. In my experience, I’ve met the most well-intentioned mothers with similar attitudes towards their children’s mixed hair. Simply because you may not know how to care for your child’s hair doesn’t make it difficult; it’s simply different from what you’re used to, and you need to learn how to care for it, not change it, deal with it, or “calm” it down. As I always say, if God wanted my hair to lay flat, I would have climbed out the womb with straight hair.
Before you go about learning how to properly care for your child’s hair, however, you need to, first, learn how to love it, and appreciate it for its uniqueness. Every word coming from your mouth should be in praise of the beauty of each curl on your child’s head. When referring to your child’s hair, avoid words like difficult, lioness, troublesome and for goodness sake, don’t say “nappy” (a relative of mine used that word often when describing my hair). Instead, use words like beautiful, special, soft, and unique.
My grandmother (who spent many weekends caring for my hair), and mother loved my hair. On the rare occasion that my mother allowed me to straighten my hair, my grandmother would literally have a hollering fit: “Why would the baby do this to her curls,” my nana would shout. When I’d complain about the thickness of my hair, my mother would break it down by saying, “In the Bible, it says Jesus’ hair was like wool. You, and your hair are more like Jesus than any of us.” For my mother, my hair was holy; for me, it was what separated me from being as pretty as Kelly Kapowski. It took me until college to truly appreciate and love my kinks and my curls. Regardless of what was said at home, I was teased at school for having kinky hair by my classmates, the media gave little to no love for hair like mine, and the hair industry catered to “calming” the Africa out of my hair, rather than caring for it.
My mother, however, did what she could to combat the negative messages around me, and took the duty of doing my hair seriously. She’d walk all up into Black hair salons (while I shuttered with embarrassment- “Moooommmmy, you’re the only white person!”, and inquire how to care for my hair. She’d ask her friends for tips, and, have them show her how to style it. Just like all my Black friends, my hair was most always, shiny from grease, and braided with colorful barrettes. We also had some unfortunate missteps—I have school photos for proof–but we got through it. My mother never acted like doing my hair was a chore, or nuisance; it was just another part of caring for her daughter, who happened to have different hair from her. Thankfully, I now see why my mother and grandmother thought my hair was holy, because it is a crown of goodness.
Fortunately, there’s a hair revolution going on at the moment, and there’s plenty of support available for caring for your child’s hair. Caring for, and maintaining naturally curly hair is supported by products like Mixed Chicks, Miss Jessie’s products, and my favorite: good ol’ natural products like coconut oil, avocado oil, shea butter, and jojoba oil. There are websites and YouTube tutorials, as well as hair salons that specialize in caring for our hair. There is absolutely no excuse for not properly caring for your child’s hair, but again, you must begin with loving their hair, and teaching them how to love it.
For parents who want a list of things of do’s and don’ts, I hesitate to list these (other than, DO love their hair, and DON’T try to change it), because mixed hair/ Black hair comes in so many different textures. A child can have bone straight hair, really thick, curly hair, and anything in between, and come from the same parents. You need to get to know your child’s curls, and go from there. In regards to which products to use, I suggest to go as natural as possible. Here are some websites that may be useful:
3. Have Black friends. Plural. No Tokenism Allowed.
Look at the pictures on your wall, your facebook page, the phone numbers in your phone. How many Black people can you call your friend? A real friend—not a co-worker, not the person you chat with as they provide you with a service, but someone who you celebrate with, laugh with, cry with, “get real” with. Not only should your child have relationships with people who share their multiple backgrounds, they should also see that their parents choose to have friends who share their backgrounds. Such relationships are validating to your child’s identity.
I always joke with my mom that I have more white friends than she does, but I guess it’s not a joke, because it’s true. My mom was/ is NOT that white person who sets out to make a Black friend simply because they’re Black (there was a girl in college who actually told a mutual friend, “Let’s make Kirsti our black friend.” FAIL). My mother has simply always had Black friends, since before having me. Raised in the Bahamas, she never had the “I’m-the-only-white-person-phobia,” and as I said in a previous post, when she came to the U.S., it was Black people, and other people of color who welcomed her into their communities.
When I was growing up, my mother wanted to make sure I had positive Black role models around me. My pediatrician until I was 18 was a Black woman, our Pastors were Black, and many of the people my mother called her close friends were Black, people of color, and if they were white, also had mixed race children. Many of these friends became adopted “aunties,” and “uncles,” of mine, and took me in like I was a blood relative. They were church ladies, nurses, producers, mothers, fathers, business owners, musicians, beauticians, hard workers. They played pivotal roles in my own positive association with my Blackness. While my mother exposed me to great music, food, art and writing produced by Black folks, it was especially her creation of a Black community (which included mixed families) that allowed me to feel safe, proud, and not alone in my skin.
If it’s still not obvious why creating your own community of color is important, let me break it down differently. Your child is looking to you for guidance about how to perceive themselves. If you’re telling them that they’re beautiful, they’re special, they come from a strong history, but you don’t interact with people that look like them, what kind of mixed (no pun intended) messaging is that sending them? Why am I special and awesome, if mommy/daddy/parent avoids, or has no interactions with people that look like me?
If you’re realizing that, oops, you have no Black friends, it’s time to make some- not one token friend who you refer to as your “Black friend,” but a community. You need to build authentic relationships. You first, may consider why you don’t have any Black friends. And if the answer is: “There aren’t any in my neighborhood,” then you probably need to move. Did you see Buzzfeed’s “27 Things you Had to Deal With as the only Black Kid in Your Class?” As someone who could relate to most of the things listed, it ain’t pretty, but I’m fortunate that my mother created a community where I never felt like I was the “only one” at home.
2. Talk about race: Speak candidly with your child about their identities, and about how they will be perceived by others.
When I speak to my friends who have mixed race children, I always ask if they’ve spoken to their children about their identities. Some look at me quizzically, because they think their kids are too young, or don’t notice. But the thing is, as soon as children start learning colors, they begin looking at their own skin, your skin, their friends’ skin, and notice who they’re similar to, and to whom they don’t share similarities. They notice difference, and as soon as they enter school, if they haven’t noticed the differences, someone else will.
It’s important to equip mixed race children with what to say when interrogated about their identity. For me, the questioning started in Kindergarten. My best friend asked me why I’m Black, but my mother is white. In second grade, during summer camp, I was told by a girl I was adopted, because I couldn’t have a mother who is white. There are many other stories interwoven throughout my childhood, of outsiders questioning my connection to my family, and asking about my background. Though there were moments when I found such identity interrogations frustrating, I’m grateful my mother taught me what to say: “You’re mixed: African-American, Finnish, Scottish, and Indian.” And at random moments, she’d remind me: “Don’t let people call you a mutt, or an Oreo; you’re a person who’s mixed, not an animal or dessert.” Sometimes, people would try to tell me I couldn’t be everything, and I had to choose, but my mother had warned me about such lies: “When people tell you to choose, tell them you don’t have to,” so I didn’t.
I was mixed race, and proud.
As I got older, and spent more time with friends than family, my experiences changed, and I was questioning how to self-identify. It felt as though the world started to receive me differently without my white family by my side. While I knew I was mixed, and was proud of my ethnicities, I also felt as though I shared many experiences that people who may solely identify as Black. For example, I can recall multiple instances when teachers and peers assumed I was irresponsible or performed low academically in my predominately white and Asian schools. There were numerous moments when I had been followed in stores, while my white friends were not harassed at all. The experiences and privileges I noticed my white friends receive was not trickling onto me, though I was mixed with white.
I was mixed, but read as Black.
My mother and I discussed my feelings and experiences. While she insisted I wasn’t just Black, she could empathize with what I was going through. She explained America’s history with the “one-drop” rule as a qualifier for treating someone as less than. “People look at you, and see your skin color and hair, and assume you’re only Black. Even though you’re mixed with European and Indian, they treat you like you’re Black. Being Black is beautiful, but not everyone knows that. Some people [including some family members] assume things that are negative about you, but don’t let anyone tell you, you can’t do something- you can do anything.” These conversations were just as, if not more important than teaching me about all of my identities. While it would be ideal if my ethnic background didn’t influence the way others treated me, it did and it continues to effect my experiences.
The conversations I had with my mother during adolescence started to really resonate as I got older. I noticed that securing housing with my Black partner was a different experience than when my white mother and I looked for housing. Interviewing for jobs, making expensive purchases, also, sometimes came with racial tensions. As I got older, and started doing more things that marked my new economic status, I realized that regardless of my mixed background and how light “skinnededed” I look, because of the way society perceives me, I live my life as a Black woman while honoring and taking pride in the multiple cultures of my mixed ancestory.
I am a Black/ mixed woman.
When I brought my observations to my mother, we had some long, sometimes difficult conversations. “But you’re mixed—you’re not only Black.” For a moment, I think my mother feared that her hard work of providing me with self-love for my multiple ethnicities had vanished with America’s limiting ways of viewing identity; but it hadn’t. As I explained to her, it was actually her intense will to provide perspective around the Black experience that allowed me to to recognize, and deal with the shift of my experiences. While I’m still so proud and confident with being a mixed race woman, I also understand that I live in black & white world, and the world views me as Black.
Before I close, let me name that mixed race people vary in hue, hair texture, features, and experiences. I have friends who are half Black, but U.S. society reads them as white, Latino, Middle-Eastern, and so on. But the piece of universal advice that I can offer is to have these conversations about race and the continued tension between who your child is, and how they’ll be viewed by society. These conversations will help your child stand in solid footing, as they are confronted with the limiting scope of our society.
1. Educate yourself, so you can educate your children.
That awkward, or, rather, tragic moment when you meet a person who has a child who is half Black, and you realize they know little to nothing about Black culture/history.
If you’re going to, or already have a child who is half Black, you need to learn about Black culture.** I’m writing this piece with the assumption that you also know about your child’s other identities, and will pass those along to her or him as well. If your child is half European-American, the good news is our education system is set up to teach them about that half of their culture. If they’re half Black and half something else, then you need to work twice as hard.
So how does one go about learning about Black culture? This is not the type of question that can be answered with a few websites and book titles. Nor should you sit somewhere and attempt to “observe” Blackness. That’s ridiculous. Your learning experience is not synonymous to an anthropological dig, but a life long dedication to learning about a group to which you don’t belong. The learning process will be multifaceted, complicated, and eternal. Hopefully you’ll continuously immerse yourself in Black culture while passing down the richness of the African Diaspora down to your children.
How did my mother do it? Again, a question that isn’t easily answered. My mother was raised in the Bahamas, and came to California in the 70s. She says she felt rejected by white Americans because they looked at her as being different—she had an amazing tan (before tans were lucrative), and a thick Bahamian accent. She was often told to “go back where she came from.” Black-Americans, and other people of color, accepted my mother, and her community of friends has always been mixed. While my mother knew about Bahamian culture, she learned about other parts of the African Diaspora through friends, and her own “learning experiences.”
When I was a little girl, together, we read books, and watched films centering African-American history. We went to cultural events where she was often the only non-Black person, but I always noticed it more than she did. Together, we learned about African-American traditions, about soul food, about soul music. When school history books got Black history wrong, or simply ignored it, she told me what she knew, and supplemented the rest with books. She introduced me to Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Alice Walker when my schoolteachers didn’t. Billie Holiday, Bob Marley, Al Green, and Natalie Cole sang my childhood lullabies.
In order to learn more about Black culture, my mother didn’t take an “Intro to Black Culture” course. She didn’t have a token Black friend who broke down my complicated history. My mother immersed herself in a culture that was not her own with the same investment that she had when learning about her own ethnicities. And she’s never stopped learning. She still sends me articles about race, about Blackness, about being half Black. We continue to have conversations surrounding Black/mixed-race politics. My mother’s investment and eagerness to learn about Black culture not only allowed for me to learn more about myself, but it also showed me that I come from a culture- a race of people- that is worthy to be learned, to be loved, to be celebrated.
** I want to clarify that I’m not suggesting you should learn what it’s like to be Black, as that is impossible. While you will have great empathy for the Black experience, you will never understand what it’s like to be Black, or mixed, unless it is your experience, and that’s okay.
Mothers Day is coming, and I’ve been thinking about my momma a lot lately. She’s in Florida, and I’m in Cali. We don’t talk enough, but our love is strong, yet complicated. When we get the chance to connect, our phone calls are far from ‘calm,’ in spite of each of our potential to be zen spirits. Voices raise, jokes are made, and we exchange shrill reactions to each others’ news.
“Noooo, she didn’t!”
“Nooooo you didn’t!”
And the role we take as mother/ daughter alternate , depending on who’s in crisis.
“Go to the doctor.”
“Remember to ask if there’s peanuts in the food.”
“Do something fun.”
“Go to the dentist.”
My mother raised me with the help of my grandmother, but she was essentially a single parent who went from being poor to working class within the span of my upbringing. In other words, things went from being fiscally really challenging, to just challenging. Yet, I rarely felt poor- thanks to a mama who had an imagination for adventures (I was raised at every free reggae/jazz festival/street fair in LA county), and a Nana who helped us when times got tough. There are many blessings my mother bestowed upon me— empathy for others, a love for culture, independence, a fierce walk—but one of the things I’m continuously grateful for is that my mother taught me to be proud. Black and proud. Mixed-race and proud. Proud of who I am.
But, dear reader, don’t get it twisted; my mother is white (she hates it when I say that). And when the cops pull me over, when I walk into a U.S. store, and when I fill out most forms, I’m “Black (not Hispanic).” I’m also part Scottish,Finnish, and Indian (as in, from India), but I’m Black to most North American eyes, and thanks to my white mother, I’m oh-so-very proud of my Blackness. As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve realized not every mixed-race person has/or will have this experience of having pride in and understanding of their mixed identity. I’ve met too many mixed-race people who have said they felt confused, or tragic (oh, Mariah Carey), and have even referred to themselves as a mutt (let us refrain from referring to ourselves as animals—the legacy behind this “nicknaming” is painfully present). I’ve met mixed-race people who— with their varied skin tones, and shouts and whispers of Africa in their hair—tell me they were raised to be white… wha wha whaaaaat? Yes, white.
Equally troublesome, I’ve met people who say they want to have mixed race children with the same nonchalance as requesting a Cosmopolitan. “They’re so cute!” nowadays. “Black guys are hot; I want to have kids with one,” a college peer told me. The multiracial experience is shifting from what I remember; it’s trendy! Being mixed isn’t as alien as it was in the late 80s, or taboo as it was before then. Mixed race children are more accepted, expected and celebrated. They’re exotic, titillating, and according to reports, “they’re the future!” We’re told, eventually, everyone’s going to be mixed— mestizo—so race won’t matter. So lets all have mixed race babies, and raise them to be colorblind!!!!
Aside from being problematic, such statements are untrue. With a country founded on distinguishing rights based on skin color, colorblindness is not happening any time soon, and quite frankly, I don’t want anyone to be blind of my colors. Also, deciding to have mixed children shouldn’t be made without contemplation. Actually rearing mixed children is not like decorating a room. It requires responsibility, consciousness, and care.
While I have no children of my own, I’m a product of a child-rearing that featured a woman who understood the responsibilities necessary to raising a a mixed race child. A child who would experience the world very differently because of her skin color, her hair texture, and her complicated identity.
In honor of responsible mothering, I’m counting down to Mother’s Day by highlighting the top 5 things I think parents should remember as they bring up the new generation of mixed race children. I want to honor that my advice may resonate with those who have adopted children who aren’t of their own race/ethnicity, as well as with people who are mixed with backgrounds other than Black.
My mother’s decisions in how she raised me give me the words to write this piece; the people squealing that they want children who are half Black, with little to no context to the Black experience inspire me. Please feel free to engage in the dialogue.