Thursday, May 8, 2014

Talking Mixed-Race Identity with Young Children



by Sharon H Chang
for Hyphen Magazine: Asian America Unabridged  ~ www.hyphenmagazine.com
 
“Mom, am I white?”

A few weeks ago, I got this question from my four-year-old. Technically he is “biracial”—but that label does him a severe representative injustice, because his bloodline is actually Japanese, Taiwanese, Slovakian, German, French Canadian, British, and Welsh. He also does not possess a parent of one race and a parent of another race as “biracial” is usually assumed—both my husband and I are mixed-race Asian/white too. To that end, I much prefer to describe us, and him, as multiracial.

I write about and research race, families, and children with an especial focus on multiraciality and the intersection of mixed-race ID/Asian. I don’t believe in avoiding race talk with my child, though I do discuss it in age-appropriate ways. I’ve tried to stand by my conviction that it’s better he learn how to think and talk about these issues within the family first, rather than have normative ideals force-fed down his throat by everyone else when he walks out the door.

That said, I wasn’t fully prepared when he turned to me and asked, “Mom, am I white?” When I told him no, he immediately followed up with, “Am I Black?” Then when told he wasn’t that either, he started crying and plaintively turned downtrodden eyes to me, “But I want a color too.”


I know something about battling with the obscurity of race-labels, as I have never fit neatly into boxes myself. But I really didn’t expect to have a discussion like this with my son until he was older. As I sat there, stumbling over describing “Black” and “white” to him in the context of skin tone, I could see profound confusion cross his face. And then I stopped talking, because he was totally right, of course. As I’ve written before and as we all know on some level, nobody really has “black” or “white” skin. Nothing better unveils the ridiculous, arbitrary, and shallow nature of the supposed race divisions than trying to explain race-labels to a still pretty literal preschooler. We’re all various shades of brown, almond, caramel, tan, pink, peach – there are a million more accurate colors for skin pigment. In the end he and I got to talking about brown and color mixing, and he finally decided he was “a mix-up of brown and white.”

I realize that my son...already knows a great deal 
about the racial hierarchy -- including that he 
most certainly does not sit at the top of it.

At the same time, I know that race is very real, and that it needs to be constantly and critically addressed. I realize that my son, though he might not have the words or cognizance to tell me so yet, already knows a great deal about the racial hierarchy – including that he most certainly does not sit at the top of it. And when I tell him he’s not white, I also know I’m telling him that some things will always be harder for him than for his white friends, and that people will sometimes treat him in ways his white friends will never have to endure. As a parent of color whose soul will be forever connected to the wellbeing of her child, it hurts that I have to be the bearer of this bad news – especially because I worry that my son already feels “less” because of his race.

In our family, we have the additional complexity of overlaying all these tough conversations with being “mixed” -- not only existing somewhere in between our nation’s incredibly polarized white-constructed racial extremes, but then also falling uncomfortably off the whole spectrum entirely fogged in some sort of ambiguous racial ether. I imagine the conversation unfolding like this over the years:

Yes, honey, separating people into races is illogical, but racial categories do exist and they are nasty. No, you’re not white. Well, yes, your paternal grandpa and maternal grandmother are white – but you’re still not white. No, you’re not Black, either -- or Latina/o or Native. You’re Asian, but other Asians might not accept you on that count, so be prepared. Then again, if non-Asians see you as Asian, that might have repercussions for you too. But what race are you and how should you prepare? I’m sorry, honey. I should know, being mixed-race myself, but I think I really might have no idea.

All this complexity and insufficient language leaves me with the million-dollar mixed-race parenting question: How do you prepare your multiracial child to exist in a society that persists in being racially divided, when he’s one of the many stuck straddling the divide? And how do you give him a straight answer to a question to which you don’t even have the answer? How do you foster a meaningful discussion on a topic most adults typically avoid talking about, because it’s so overwhelming confusing and painful – 


before your son even starts kindergarten?

read this article at Hyphen

om, am I White?”
A few weeks ago, when I got this question from my four-year-old, I wasn't sure what to say. Technically my son is “biracial” -- but that label does him a severe representative injustice, because his bloodline is actually Japanese, Taiwanese, Slovakian, German, French Canadian, British, and Welsh. He also does not possess a parent of just one race and a parent of another race, as if often assumed when people hear the term “biracial” -- because both my husband and I are mixed-race Asian/White too. For these reasons, I much prefer to describe us, and our son, as multiracial.
I write about and research race, families, and children, with an especial focus on multiraciality. I don’t believe in avoiding race talk with my child, though I do try to discuss it in age-appropriate ways. I’ve tried to stand by my conviction that it’s better he learn how to think and talk about these issues within the family first, rather than have normative ideals force-fed down his throat by everyone else when he walks out the door. That said, I wasn’t fully prepared when he turned to me and asked, “Mom, am I White?”
When I told him no, he immediately followed up with, “Am I Black?” When told he wasn’t, he started crying and told me, “But I want a color, too.”
I know something about battling with the obscurity of race-labels, as I have never fit neatly into boxes myself. But I really didn’t expect to have a discussion like this with my son until he was older. As I sat there, stumbling over describing “Black” and “White” to him in the context of skin tone, I could see profound confusion cross his face. And then I stopped talking, because he was totally right, of course. As we all know on some level, nobody really has black or white skin. We’re all various shades of brown, almond, caramel, tan, pink, peach –- there are a million more accurate colors for skin pigment. Nothing better unveils the ridiculous, arbitrary, and shallow nature of the supposed race divisions than trying to explain race-labels to a still pretty literal preschooler. In the end he and I got to talking about brown and color mixing, and he finally decided he was “a mix-up of brown and white.” 
I know that race is very real, and that it needs to be constantly and critically addressed. I realize that my son, though he might not have the words or cognizance to tell me so yet, already knows a great deal about the racial hierarchy -– including that he most certainly does not sit at the top of it. And when I tell him he’s not White, I also know I’m telling him that some things will always be harder for him than for his White friends, and that people will sometimes treat him in ways his White friends will never have to endure. As a parent of color whose soul will be forever connected to the wellbeing of her child, it hurts that I have to be the bearer of this bad news -– especially because I worry that my son already feels “less” because of his race.
In our family, we have the additional complexity of overlaying all these tough conversations with being “mixed” -- falling somewhere in between our nation’s incredibly polarized White-constructed racial extremes, and also being left uncomfortably off the spectrum entirely and existing in some sort of ambiguous racial ether. Sometimes I imagine the conversation with my son unfolding like this over the years:
Yes, honey, separating people into races is illogical, but racial categories do exist and they are nasty. No, you’re not White. Well, yes, your paternal grandpa and maternal grandmother are White –- but you’re still not White. No, you’re not Black, either -- or Latin@ or Native. You’re Asian, but other Asians might not accept you on that count, so be prepared. Then again, if non-Asians see you as Asian, that might have repercussions for you too. What race are you and how should you prepare? I’m sorry, honey. I should know, being mixed-race myself, but I think I really might have no idea.

All this complexity and insufficient language leaves me with the million-dollar mixed-race parenting question: How do you prepare your multiracial child to exist in a society that persists in being racially divided, when he’s one of the many stuck straddling the divide? How do you give him a straight answer to a question to which you don’t even have the answer? How do you foster a meaningful discussion on a topic most adults typically avoid talking about because it’s so overwhelming confusing and painful –-before your son even starts kindergarten?
- See more at: http://www.hyphenmagazine.com/blog/archive/2014/05/talking-mixed-race-identity-young-children#sthash.Svp2Sbp5.dpuf
om, am I White?”
A few weeks ago, when I got this question from my four-year-old, I wasn't sure what to say. Technically my son is “biracial” -- but that label does him a severe representative injustice, because his bloodline is actually Japanese, Taiwanese, Slovakian, German, French Canadian, British, and Welsh. He also does not possess a parent of just one race and a parent of another race, as if often assumed when people hear the term “biracial” -- because both my husband and I are mixed-race Asian/White too. For these reasons, I much prefer to describe us, and our son, as multiracial.
I write about and research race, families, and children, with an especial focus on multiraciality. I don’t believe in avoiding race talk with my child, though I do try to discuss it in age-appropriate ways. I’ve tried to stand by my conviction that it’s better he learn how to think and talk about these issues within the family first, rather than have normative ideals force-fed down his throat by everyone else when he walks out the door. That said, I wasn’t fully prepared when he turned to me and asked, “Mom, am I White?”
When I told him no, he immediately followed up with, “Am I Black?” When told he wasn’t, he started crying and told me, “But I want a color, too.”
I know something about battling with the obscurity of race-labels, as I have never fit neatly into boxes myself. But I really didn’t expect to have a discussion like this with my son until he was older. As I sat there, stumbling over describing “Black” and “White” to him in the context of skin tone, I could see profound confusion cross his face. And then I stopped talking, because he was totally right, of course. As we all know on some level, nobody really has black or white skin. We’re all various shades of brown, almond, caramel, tan, pink, peach –- there are a million more accurate colors for skin pigment. Nothing better unveils the ridiculous, arbitrary, and shallow nature of the supposed race divisions than trying to explain race-labels to a still pretty literal preschooler. In the end he and I got to talking about brown and color mixing, and he finally decided he was “a mix-up of brown and white.” 
I know that race is very real, and that it needs to be constantly and critically addressed. I realize that my son, though he might not have the words or cognizance to tell me so yet, already knows a great deal about the racial hierarchy -– including that he most certainly does not sit at the top of it. And when I tell him he’s not White, I also know I’m telling him that some things will always be harder for him than for his White friends, and that people will sometimes treat him in ways his White friends will never have to endure. As a parent of color whose soul will be forever connected to the wellbeing of her child, it hurts that I have to be the bearer of this bad news -– especially because I worry that my son already feels “less” because of his race.
In our family, we have the additional complexity of overlaying all these tough conversations with being “mixed” -- falling somewhere in between our nation’s incredibly polarized White-constructed racial extremes, and also being left uncomfortably off the spectrum entirely and existing in some sort of ambiguous racial ether. Sometimes I imagine the conversation with my son unfolding like this over the years:
Yes, honey, separating people into races is illogical, but racial categories do exist and they are nasty. No, you’re not White. Well, yes, your paternal grandpa and maternal grandmother are White –- but you’re still not White. No, you’re not Black, either -- or Latin@ or Native. You’re Asian, but other Asians might not accept you on that count, so be prepared. Then again, if non-Asians see you as Asian, that might have repercussions for you too. What race are you and how should you prepare? I’m sorry, honey. I should know, being mixed-race myself, but I think I really might have no idea.

All this complexity and insufficient language leaves me with the million-dollar mixed-race parenting question: How do you prepare your multiracial child to exist in a society that persists in being racially divided, when he’s one of the many stuck straddling the divide? How do you give him a straight answer to a question to which you don’t even have the answer? How do you foster a meaningful discussion on a topic most adults typically avoid talking about because it’s so overwhelming confusing and painful –-before your son even starts kindergarten?
- See more at: http://www.hyphenmagazine.com/blog/archive/2014/05/talking-mixed-race-identity-young-children#sthash.Svp2Sbp5.dpuf

9 comments :

  1. "your paternal grandpa and maternal grandmother are white – but you’re still not white....You’re Asian"

    I don't get this. Why is he Asian but not white? He has white ancestors as much as Asian ones. So if it's OK to call him Asian, it's OK to call him white. Or, if it's not OK to call him white (because he's not completely white) then it's not OK to call him Asian, because he's not completely Asian either. Probably 'partly Asian, partly white' is the most logical.

    I know some people believe that white is some special thing that cant be sullied at all by other races and still be white. But that's not a good idea to pass on to the next generation!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
  2. Hi Sharon, I wanted to let you know the road is rough, but the discussion is rich. Here’s how it played out in our family:

    http://mothermade.blogspot.com/2013/05/slow-to-see-myself.html
    http://mothermade.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-misguided-guide.html
    http://mothermade.blogspot.com/2014/05/the-box.html

    Your roots in your family are extremely essential, especially to your children. It is natural to want to know ones biological background. Relish it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi Sharon,

    I couldn't find a link to email you so I'll just comment on this post because it applies most directly to me, I think. I have been reading your blog like water in the desert. I know mixed race material is hard to come by as it is, but to find something about parenting a mixed child with a mixed husband as a mixed Asian person? I do exist!!

    I'm biologically half white and half Thai (hate those words too but I don't know how else to say it) but I was raised and adopted by Mexican-Americans (Tejan@s, specifically). So I don't really feel connected to other Asians at all. Except that people look at me and can't figure out "what" I am until I tell them I'm half Asian, and this huge Ohhhh comes out of them. Like it all makes sense now.

    I've always known that I am kind of weird looking, or kind of exotic looking, depending on who you ask. I've had people try and guess my race on COUNTLESS occasions. So I don't feel bad marking "Asian" on a form because if it wasn't for that "half", I wouldn't be having these experiences. But most of the time I just identify as a "person of color" and skip the race thing altogether.

    My husband is half white and half Mexican. When our newborn daughter gets old enough to ask, I'll tell her she's Mexican. Everything else is too complicated. Besides, a Latin@ identity is pan-racial.

    I don't know why I'm spilling all this. Maybe because I got a Black Studies degree and quickly realized that even critical race studies had little place for me. But you make me realize that the field is constantly expanding, and that I shouldn't give up.

    Anyway. Thanks for the blog. :)

    Lenzi

    ReplyDelete
  4. what do you tell your dear son?
    ...well... you can tell him the story of Adam & Eve (or "Chavah", as our Jewish brethren call her), & ask him, "what colors do you suppose they were ? maybe every baby they had, came out a slightly different color than the others." -- scientists say it's genetically possible. :-) ..........or, perhaps the story of Noah -- "Noach", "Noe", etc -- and how each son had a different wife, & some families turned out mostly dark-skinned & others varying other shades.... so we KNOW those families on the Ark were mixed-race....
    .................whatever you say, I hope you will let him see that it's love that mixes people together. He is a living proof of love. The real kind, the lasting kind, the BEST kind of love. Perhaps, when all wars are finally ended & all people really do look beneath the skin, at character -- perhaps a generation or 2 later, we will all (finally) look like your precious boy. <3 Shalom.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hello Sharon,
    My child asked me a similar question some time ago. 'Mommy if I were a colour what colour would I be?' Like you it sparked something really deep within - I think it takes a lot of courage to answer your child so honestly and directly. For me it was a start of a long journey to go down the rabbit hole and research this question. Finally I put together all the information and started a culture day on Fridays where we explored their mixed ancestry identity.. I think this is a good time to be mixed because according to research the 21st century will be a mixed race majority - There is an opportunity for mixed identity to integrate the best of both worlds - East and West and show leadership by being the model citizens of the 21st century.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hmm it appears like your website ate my first comment (it was super long) so
    I guess I'll just sum it up what I wrote and say, I'm thoroughly enjoying
    your blog. I as well am an aspiring blog blogger but I'm still
    new to everything. Do you have any recommendations for
    first-time blog writers? I'd certainly appreciate
    it.

    Check out my blog - Contemporary South East Asian Art (asart.com)

    ReplyDelete
  7. 'mom am i white?'

    the answer is yes, he is. Stop confusing the poor child and STOP telling him he's of Asian decent when you and the baby daddy are clearly white. He will grow up with an identity problem and will very likely hate you for it. Have some decency as a parent.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Excuse you for your ignorance and audacity. The mother and child are clearly NOT white, and will be reminded of their non-whiteness on a regular basis in our dominant white culture (if I had a dime for every time someone called the boys in my mixed race family 'grasshoppah' or 'long-duck-dong'). Further, why do you feel you have the right to tell an entire mixed-race family how to identify, racially or otherwise? Honestly, I'm curious. I'm curious what would drive someone to write such an openly hostile and derisive response to such an honest and thoughtful piece on the complexity of these issues, for both parents and children? Lastly, as a multi-racial person of asian and white descent, I tell you I WISH my parents had talked with me about these issues in a more open and loving way. It is a gift of love to help a child navigate the tricky and often painful waters of mixed-race identity. It is neither decent nor loving to tell a mixed-race child to ignore their non-white ancestry, perhaps more so if the child does not present as white. Yes, these are difficult and challenging discussions to have, but children are wiser and more intuitive than you seem to think.

      Delete