Stepping out my front door on a sunny afternoon sometimes feels like I’m stepping into Mayberry. Children are riding their bikes back and forth, parking them lawn-side (okay, throwing them down on the grass), and running around with their neighborhood friends. Parents are in the middle of the street, chatting and catching up with each other. It’s a typical scene straight out of a fifties television show. The only difference? My Mayberry isn’t in black and white. Rather, it’s in many different shades of beautiful brown.
My Chester neighborhood, just like many others across the country today, is filled with families made up of different racial and cultural backgrounds. In fact, my street has six multiracial families in all – with children of Indian, Asian, African-American, and Hispanic descent. It’s a growing trend, with multiracial families increasing every year. According to the 2010 census, the amount of people who identify themselves as multiracial has increased by 50 percent since the year 2000. Raising well-adjusted children is difficult enough, but for the parents of multiracial children, there are other challenges that may arise when bringing up kids who don’t quite fit into one box. These parents strive to look at most of these issues not just as challenges, but as gifts – gifts that can teach us all about respect, compassion, and tolerance in an ever-changing world.
Multiracial Children Today
Times have changed. Children are growing up with neighbors and classmates who don’t all look the same. The landscape looks much different than my own eighties childhood, where my siblings and I were one of the few, if not the only, biracial children in our elementary school. My parents married in 1979, just eleven years after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage. People weren’t quite as open about what it meant to be a biracial child back then. And I didn’t spend a whole lot of time pondering the color of my parents’ skin either. My father, who passed away in 2013, is African American as well as Native American. My mother is Caucasian and grew up in Great Britain. I thought it was pretty cool my parents were so diverse, but I do wish we’d had more conversations about what our unique heritage meant, and how to address other people when they were being insensitive or even just overly curious. Parents of multiracial children today appear to be more interested in discussing and celebrating their children’s heritage.
Take Troy and Erin Moore of Midlothian for example. The parents of two biracial (African-American and Caucasian) boys, Emmanuel and Khalil, the Moores continuously remind their children about their heritage. Says Erin, “We think an open line of communication allows for our children to learn about their culture, as well as make other conversations with difficult topics easier to approach.”
In a broader sense, the global social community keeps this conversation in full swing for parents. Alex Barnett is a New York-based Jewish comedian, author, and creator of a podcast called The Multiracial Family Man. The podcast is based on his marriage to Camille, an African American, the parenting of their 4-year-old son, Ivan, and the experiences they face as a multiracial family. Barnett says it’s important for parents to educate themselves about their child’s other race, and not just be the expert on their own. “One thing that any parent in a multiracial family has to be attuned to is understanding the background, culture, and heritage of the other parent so that they can be more sympathetic and empathetic when the child inevitably will have questions or needs help relating to that other heritage or background.”
Megan Vengala, a Caucasian woman whose husband is from India, agrees it shouldn’t be up to just one parent. “As a family, we have visited India about ten times, with our next trip planned next summer. Our four girls also love to wear typical Indian clothing and eat Indian food weekly. My husband has introduced us to goat meat, one of our favorites, goat brains – interesting, but not a favorite – and a variety of vegetables used in Indian cuisine that we do not have here.” Vengala, who is originally from Chesterfield but now lives in North Carolina with her family, will don Indian attire when appropriate. “I do wear traditional Indian clothing, as do my children. In fact, one of the traditions in India for when a girl comes of age is that she gets to wear her first half-saree,” Megan says. “My mother-in-law had some made for my two oldest daughters, and they wear them to a celebration that is also an Indian tradition.”
How Come We Don’t Match?
We learn to match at a very early age. Kids match colors, shapes, and numbers. It’s not surprising younger children of all different backgrounds tend to want to pair people up as well. In her book, Does Anybody Else Look Like Me? A Parent’s Guide to Raising Multiracial Children, Donna Jackson Nakazawa writes children of multiracial families start to have matching questions, not surprisingly, when they start kindergarten. It occurs naturally in children, before they’re even aware of what race is, let alone racism.
I still remember a little girl telling me I couldn’t date my boyfriend (now husband) because he was white and I was “tan.” In her 5-year-old mind, she just didn’t think that made sense. In fact, many children within multiracial families will sometimes question why they don’t look like their parents or even like each other. They can also have entirely different racial experiences from their own siblings. Nakazawa tells parents to use these opportunities to remind your child it takes more than just looking alike when you belong in a family. Reinforce with your kids that families are about relationships and traditions, and most importantly, love. Looking alike has nothing to do with how you fit in your own family. In her book, Nakazawa describes the family as a “port in a sometimes hard-to-navigate sea of racial complexity.” Families need to continue to have open, healthy conversations where their children feel they belong, are safe, and that their racial identity is never an off-limits topic.
Hey! They Look Like Me
One of the first ways to venture outside the safety zone of family life is to introduce your children to books which feature characters who look like them to help them better understand themselves. I still remember reading Alex Haley’s Queen when I was twelve. I had always been an avid reader, but this was the first book I had encountered with a biracial main character. It was mind-blowing to me at the time, and I remember it giving me a deep sense of comfort.
Fortunately, today there are more books families can draw from that showcase multiracial people as main characters. For specific titles, check out weneeddiversebooks.org and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison at ccbc.education.wisc.edu.
Comedian and father Alex Barnett says “there are quite a few books out there that speak to the multiracial child’s experience, and the number is growing all of the time.” He notes a series of books by Sebastian A. Jones and Garcelle Beauvais, including I Am Mixed. Taye Diggs’ Mixed Me is coming out next month, and the groundbreaking Black Is Brown Is Tan is always worth checking out. Barnett also points out that while television and movies might be a little behind in featuring multiracial families, many celebrities and athletes identify as multiracial. “And, most importantly,” he says, “there’s the President of the United States. You can’t get much more prestigious and visible than that.” According to Barnett, it’s a parent’s responsibility to expose your child to as many of these people as possible, show them that they are not alone, and that multiracial people are succeeding at the highest levels in all spheres of life.
What Box Do I Check?
When I entered middle school, I started to realize that maybe I was a little different from the other students. I’m not sure if comments were coming from classmates or just the fact that when you get older you become much more aware of your surroundings. I was never bullied or harassed because I was different. Regardless, I realized the decisions I made about who I sat with at the lunch table and which boys I had crushes on, might be a little more complicated for me than for students who were just of one race. As multiracial children become older, how they self-identify can become a bigger issue.
Adolescence is a time of confusion for any preteen and being from a diverse background can make it even more confusing. Monique Porow, PhD, adjunct professor of sociology at Rutgers University, whose research is focused on multiracial children and families, believes once again, that communication is the key to helping children figure out how they see themselves. “You need to foster an open dialogue and use opportunities as teachable moments,” says Dr. Porow. Ideally, these conversations should happen organically, when a child has a question about something a classmate has said or something he or she sees on TV, use it to speak with her about how she views herself. Dr. Porow recommends asking your child questions like, Well, how did you feel about that? or How would you answer him next time? as a means for achieving healthy development. Make sure kids can articulate an answer to these questions. Dr. Porow reminds parents not to give children answers outright, but through exposure and conversation, help children formulate their own answers.
In her book, Nakazawa advises parents to “provide children with an array of ways to articulate their identity and actively discuss their multicultural backgrounds and heritage.” In time, children will choose to decide how they wish to describe themselves.
The Siddiqi family of Midlothian takes this advice to heart. Mom Karen says “we’re well represented within the United Nations. Between my husband and me, we have seven, if not more, nationalities, from Irish, to Hawaiian, to German to Pakistani. It’s impossible for our children to choose one or two cultures to identify with, therefore, we encourage them to be Americans. American is a mix of all types of cultures and heritages and we feel our kids represent that perfectly.” Karen adds their grandparents on both sides also do a fabulous job of educating their children about their heritage, making them feel comfortable with their roots.
When Problems Arise
Just like when we are small and want to match everything and everyone together, humans have a natural desire to want to label everything, even people. After all, as Nakazawa points out in her book, “race is a socially constructed concept created to make use of human variations, create artificial boundaries, and ultimately put people in different categories.” It is possible that knowing someone’s background may give us a better understanding of who someone is, but there are also times when this information can lead to acting inappropriately or saying things in an insensitive way.
Whether it’s being mistaken for your child’s nanny (which happened to Alex Barnett’s family in New York) or being called a racial slur, uncomfortable situations do happen. It’s important for parents to equip their children with both a healthy sense of self and the tools for how to respond in these situations. Nakazawa contends that when children have had mindful parenting, with purposeful conversations that encourage a sense of confidence, many incidents may be remembered, but can pack less “emotional wallop” with kids.
Says Dr. Porow, “If you aren’t helping children develop who they are, somebody else will. It’s just like any developmental process – when they don’t have any guidance, it makes it far more difficult to be comfortable.”
Joan Plotkin Han, a Caucasian-Jewish woman and her husband Jiho, who is South Korean-American, made sure their five, now-grown children were proud of where they came from. “As elementary students in Chesterfield, the kids were teased from time to time for being different. They would ‘go to hell’ because they were Jewish, or be teased because they had Asian eyes. We rejoined our synagogue in Richmond so they would have a better sense of their Jewish identity and made sure they had ample role models in their peers, cousins, and in academic, media, and political worlds so they found pride, not shame, in their rich heritages.”
Parents can model healthy responses for their children when situations arise. The Moores make sure they do it as soon as it happens, but with a sense of grace. “We correct the individual in a polite and constructive way – or at least try,” says Erin Moore. “Sometimes people don’t realize that what they are saying is offensive. For example, people have said that we have handsome ‘mixed’ babies. That is offensive to me and to my husband because children aren’t dogs, they are human beings. However, most people don’t realize how that sounds when you are talking about a human being,” says Erin. “We also inform our children that they do not have to tolerate people being offensive towards them, and they should stand up for what they know is right.”
Ultimately, modeling and showing respect for others can teach our children to not only love themselves, but to love each other. Alex Barnett reminds us that it all comes down to teaching tolerance to our kids. “Every parent should be teaching their child about tolerance for others, whether those others are different because of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, height, weight, intellect, whatever. Teaching respect and tolerance are at the core of raising a good person,” says Barnett.
For Barnett, parents of multiracial kids, and all parents, the crucial element should be respect. “I think the key is to teach your child to respect others, to acknowledge and appreciate differences, and to be strong enough and to have enough self-esteem to know that the fact that some other child is different doesn’t pose, by definition, some type of threat to you. Unfortunately, I think this is still a lesson we all need to learn, even, and perhaps especially, as adults.”
Erin and Troy Moore agree. They are making sure their own little boys are growing up learning one basic principle. Erin says, “We teach our children that God creates all people the same – all are special and all are unique in their own way.”