Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Mirror, Mirror

 ©  Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, May 15 2013  

 I’m 35, Taiwanese/Slovakian/German/French Canadian, and just realized I don’t really have Asian hair. I mean it’s dark, thick and straight. But it’s not black or almost-black. It’s a mousse chocolate brown. And it’s much finer than the coarse hair of many monoracial Asian women I know. I blame my husband. We were riding the Light Rail. An older Asian woman got on with a fabulous hairdo. I leaned over, pointed her out, whispered “Could I get away with that look?” “No,” he said frankly, “You’re hair wouldn’t do that. It isn’t course enough.” I felt kind of shocked. I sat back in my seat and thought to myself, HE’S RIGHT. And then over the months that followed, why didn’t I know that??

I have long prided myself (and often been complemented) on what I always considered my “Asian” hair. It’s been surprising to realize I don’t look the way I thought. It’s like I couldn’t see myself. Similarly, my husband says for the longest time he looked in the mirror and saw a White person. The first time he looked in the mirror and saw an Asian person was a terrible and painful jolt. For him, it spoke to a history of denial and internalized oppression. Having been made fun of at length in school for being Asian, I speculate perhaps a filter, a set of protective lenses, had lowered down over his eyes to ease the pain.

My husband and I

Both cases are very symbolic and have to do with invisibility, invalidation and subsequent adaptation. The multiracial child looks around, does not see themselves powerfully reflected in society, and so alters their self-image into something that does fit. I have been greatly concerned about this when it comes to raising my multiracial Asian son. These days there are certainly a tremendous amount of mixed race children around, especially in Seattle, so I don’t worry he feels different on that account (the way my husband and I did). Also since my husband and I are both multiracial Asian, our son looks like us (neither my husband nor I look like our parents). We rarely get unsolicited questions from strangers about his heritage (which I got endlessly as a young person) I guess because our family “matches.” These are all powerful validations for him.

That said, I have had one hell of a time finding children’s book depicting multiracial Asian children or families. There are barely any parenting books on the subject. I have found only a couple child-appropriate TV shows that featured multiracial Asian. And dolls or toy figurines? Forget it. It’s impossible. You have to mix and match on your own. Sure I see tons of mixed Asian peoples in advertising and entertainment. My husband thinks this is because marketers recognize our population is exploding and want to sell us stuff. But when it comes to validating or empowering our multiracial Asian children – apparently nobody's interested?

Indeed since my son has turned 3 I’ve noticed a disturbing trend of him liking the look of White children over others. It’s very obvious not only through his behavior but because he says it. When looking at the following pictures of diverse children, he made a point to single out the fairest, blue-eyed child in each and say, “I like this kid”:

(image source)
 After the first time, and my probably noticeable reaction, he got wise to my concerns. That didn’t stop him, though. Instead of not saying anything at all, he still kept saying he liked the White children best but when asked why, it was because of their clothes. “I like her because her dress is yellow and theirs aren’t”:

From Sun and Rain: Exploring Seasons in Hawaii by Stephanie Feeney
In one case, when I asked him to find the child that looked like him on a birthday card, he picked out the White blonde boy with blue eyes over the Asian boy:

When I stopped him and said, “Wait a second. What color are your eyes?” He said, “O yeah. I have brown eyes.” And then changed his choice to the Asian boy. A White parent recently suggested to me he was doing this just to get my goat because he knows I write and research on race. Maybe. Or is he already internalizing messages about White being the best? It’s all so confusing. 

It’s hard to know if what you’re seeing

Is real.


  1. This happens with my daughter sometimes too. Sometimes she'll pick out the brown haired kid as the one she likes best (she has dark brown hair). When she picks out the blonde, blue-eyed child as her favorite, I'll pick out another one as my favorite. It's my chance to say, I think the little girl in the orange dress is prettiest because I like her cornrows or I like the little girl in the red kimono because she looks the most like you, and I think you're the prettiest.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing Claire. It's ESPECIALLY important for those of us with "brown" babies to pay attention when our children show preference for dominant White beauty ideals because of what it might be saying about their self-image (i.e. self dislike, rejection, disgust or even hatred). A pivotal 1940s study done by African-American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark used dolls to study children's attitudes about race. Children were presented a White doll and Black doll and asked questions including which they would like to play with, which was the "nice" one, which was the "bad" one. The experiment showed clear preference for the White doll among ALL children in the study and exposed deeply rooted internalized racism in African-American children. The work made important connections between segregation, society and self-hatred. The Clarks went on to testify as expert witnesses in the ground-breaking Supreme Court case Brown v Board of Education (1954), which ended school segregation. In 2006, filmmaker Kiri Davis recreated the doll study in "A Girl Like Me". Despite many changes in our society, Davis found the SAME results. Meaning the messages are still out there. And they are strong.

    To date I haven't found similar studies examining self image in Asian and multiracial Asian. This work still needs to be done. In the mean time, the reality that my child could learn to dislike the way he looks when he walks out the door is always on my radar. I try to be ever vigilant (like you) in providing "counter-narratives". It's a huge job to battle the societal messages bombarding our children every day. Bravo