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.
Francis Wardle, PhD, the director of The Center for the Study of Biracial Children, and himself the father of biracial children, agrees. “Starting at about age three or four, a child should be given a word to describe who they are. My children liked the word, ‘brown’; later they can use ‘biracial,’ ‘mixed,’ or ‘multiracial.’ It is very important that biracial children, starting at an early age, are taught to feel good about their combined identity; they must never feel that they are only one of them,” he says.
“We’re very matter-of-fact about any questions our children might have about race and culture, and they have picked up on that attitude—it’s no big deal, it’s just who you are,” says Julie Nguyen. “My husband is very proud of being Vietnamese. The girls have known from a young age that Mama is Caucasian, Daddy is Vietnamese, and they are both.”
For some interracial couples that include a white partner, that partner may be concerned about whether he or she will be able to communicate adequately to the child about race, and what it’s like to experience racism. Wardle says such concerns are overblown. “While it’s critically important that the child be exposed to other biracial children, and children and adults of their minority side, we have all experienced cruelty, putdowns, failure, and name-calling. We all know what it is like to be disrespected,” he says.
Ronelle Lichman adds, “I want to believe that as the African-American in the relationship I would have more of an understanding since I have been through the struggle. I know what it feels like to experience prejudice. I know what it feels like to feel different when you are the only one. On the other hand, I may not. Even though my son’s color is like mine, he has a white father that he loves and respects. I don’t know what it’s like to have to respect the feelings of a black parent and a white parent.”
Marguerite A. Wright, EdD, author of I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World and herself the biracial mother of biracial children, says that it’s important for parents to understand race from a child’s point of view. “Children think about race differently from adults. Adults hold the reins for how children will understand race as they develop. It’s amazing that when adults take a positive, constructive approach to race it really works wonders in how children view themselves.”
She cautions parents to “humanize, not racialize” situations and to handle incidents where they believe a child is being treated differently because of race in a discreet manner, rather than making the child aware of what’s going on. She also advises parents to shield their child from negative images in the media.
While this new generation of multiracial Americans is redefining and transcending racial categories for all of us, Chau says it’s important for parents to remember that multicultural kids, like all children, go through different stages before they reach a mature identity. “You have to just go along for the ride. Don’t feel scared that your child is going to reject you because you’re black or white or Asian. You need to calm down and be a supportive parent. It has nothing to do with color, because your child will always love you,” she says.
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