Racial Identity and the Multiracial Child
For many interracial couples, helping young children carve out a racial identity can be challenging. Here are some suggestions from parents who have been there.
A casual look around most neighborhoods today reveals an undeniable trend: more multicultural families exist in the United States than ever before. In fact, in the 2000 census, more than six million Americans described themselves as being of more than one race. And families that embrace several ethnicities are asking that their uniqueness be recognized.
“I think that biracial people are not allowing themselves to be categorized,” says Ronelle Lichman, an African-American woman who is married to a white man. “That was clearly the case on Census 2000.” Lichman, who has a four-year-old son adds, “I hope he won’t allow himself to be categorized. He’s not all African-American, he’s not all white, he’s biracial. I don’t think prejudice in society is going to be lessened until people become more tolerant. Accepting that people are more than one race is just the beginning.”
Older Americans may remember that marriage between different races wasn’t even legal in every state until 1967. But today, young people are likely to embrace all parts of their background. Tiger Woods is but one example of a famous person who has refused to “choose” one race over the other.
“Last year, our older daughter remarked pityingly that she and her sister were two things and poor Mama and Daddy are only one thing,” says Julia Nguyen, who is white, while her husband is Vietnamese-American. “My kids definitely see their multi-racial identity as a good thing.”
Jennifer Osorio, an American-born daughter of Colombian immigrants whose husband is white, says she expects her two-year-old biracial son to have some of the same benefits and challenges as she had. “Speaking for myself, the main advantage is also the main disadvantage. While you can navigate two cultures fairly easily, you never feel 100 percent at home in either one. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I like my roast pork and cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving, and I love being able to move around in two worlds.”
Those two worlds sometimes create friction in a household, however, as parents grapple with issues that arise because they weren’t born in this country while their children were. When American-born children do not become fully literate in their parents’ language, it limits the children’s access to books, newspapers, or even letters from far-away relatives. This is often sad and disturbing for immigrant parents. Jeannette Perez, the adult daughter of Afro-Cuban immigrants who raised her in Teaneck, N.J., says, “I was raised in a perfectly Cuban household—until I went to an American kindergarten. I can speak Spanish, and so can my 21-year-old daughter, but when it comes to writing and reading, I have to do it with my mother there, and she really has to help me.”
Although there are more multiethnic families today, parents in this situation still say that you need to prepare yourself to try to understand the experiences your child may face.
Christine Edgar of Seattle, who is black, and her husband, who is white, have a three-year-old daughter. Edgar advises parents to educate themselves while also exposing their children to a variety of people. “Read as much as you can about race and how children understand it. Make friends from different ethnic groups so your kids are comfortable in multi-ethnic settings, and see you being comfortable in such settings. Teach your kids about all the cultures that are a part of who they are, but not in a preachy way. Just make it an everyday part of your family’s life to read about and celebrate the cultures you come from. If you don’t know other multiracial families or adults, find an organization for such families in your area so that you can build a supportive community for your child.”
It’s also important that parents of multiracial children speak with them early and often about racial differences, and acknowledge that the children’s racial makeup differs from that of their parents. Parents who repress these discussions miss out on an important avenue for communication with their child, suggests Jen Chau, founder of Swirl, Inc., a national organization for mixed-race people. “Everyone says ‘you have the best of both worlds,’ as if that kind of washes away the possibility of any conflict or struggle,” she says. “You really need to provide a safe space for children to talk about it in the family, to process their experiences. My family shut down any conversation about race because it made them feel uncomfortable. Parents shouldn’t judge their children’s feelings about this. Just listen to what they are saying.”
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