Raising Mixed Kids 101: Tip 2. Talk about race

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LET’S TALK ABOUT RACE by Julius Lester- a children’s book I use in my class to begin the conversation around race.

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.

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