“Is he yours?” A stranger’s voice interrupts me as I browse the Gap clearance section, my six-month old son sitting in his stroller. “I’m sorry?” I ask, startled, as she gives a little wave to my baby. “Is he yours?” she repeats, still looking quizzically between me and the excited baby boy slobbering all over his squeaking giraffe. Oh, I realize, with a sigh. Of course. This again. “Yes,” I say, annoyed. “He is mine.”
As the white mother of a multiracial child, questions about my son’s appearance and identity are nothing new. I’ve heard them all, from, “His eyes are so big!” “Is he adopted?” to “What is he?” and the classic, “Is he yours?”
I went home and complained to my husband later that night, indignant yet again over the Audacity of Strangers, cursing my polite Southern upbringing and wishing I had just told the woman exactly where she could shove her probing questions. What right did she have to make such personal inquiries about my family, my child? Then, my husband asked me something that made me go quiet, which isn’t always easy when I am mid-rant. “What will you say when you know our son is listening?”
While my son is currently operating with a vocabulary of about eight words, as he gets older he will understand these questions and remarks. What will I say when I know he is listening? And what will I do when he is the one with questions about our differences? Research shows that children as young as 30 months old recognize and assign meaning to racial differences. It is probably tempting for many of us white parents to leave “race talks” to our partner of color. I mean, surely they know better, right? But, as I told the stranger at the Gap, he is mine as well, so I must find something to say to him. And abstract platitudes like “we don’t see color” or “everyone is equal on the inside” won’t cut it either. Considering the fact that racial bias develops around 3-5 years, these are statements they will soon find false and inadequate.
So here are five things I’ve decided that I should (and should not!) say and do, as the white parent of a mixed race child, to help my kid navigate the unique challenges of being multiracial:
- I should help my child understand that he does not have to be “half” this or “part” that, but that he is a whole and complete person. Being multiracial does not mean my son is divided or split in two between his “Korean side” or his “white side.” He isn’t a pie chart, he is a person. In the 90’s, psychologist Dr. Maria Root wrote the “Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage,” asserting that the only person who has the right to determine how a multiracial person identifies is him or herself. So no matter how often his appearance is commented on, I will allow my child the right to identify himself how he wants, even if it is different from how others (including myself) want to categorize him and I will be understanding if that identification changes over time or in certain situations.
- I shouldn’t feel hurt because my child identifies as something that I am not. If we perceive our child’s racial identification as something that separates us from them, then we may feel rejected or threatened by our child’s affiliation with a particular racial category. As difficult as it may be to accept that there is anything that separates us from our children, we must acknowledge that being multiracial will affect their experiences in the world in ways that we, being white, can’t understand. So I do want my child to accept and embrace his multiracial identity, knowing that doing so isn’t a rejection of me or his white family and heritage, but a joyful sign that he feels secure and loved.
- I should make sure that people of color and people of mixed races are visible in my child’s world. We live in a society where whiteness is the default. As the white parent, it’s easy for me to find a children’s book with pictures of people like me, or to find a movie where the hero or heroine is white. It takes concerted effort to seek out books, movies, and toys that represent children of color and it is especially difficult to find media narratives that reflect the unique experiences and challenges of multiracial kids. Media representation is vital for children and it is my responsibility to find and advocate for content that represents my child and the millions like him.
- I shouldn’t allow others to police my child’s identity and racial category. Particularly as the parent who benefits from white privilege, it is my responsibility to educate my child’s family, friends, teachers, and classmates and make them aware of the casual microaggressions, such as racial probing, that multiracial people face every day as a result of their “ethnic ambiguity.” I can be sure that everyone, including him, knows that his multiracial heritage is something to be celebrated.
- I should celebrate Loving Day with my family every year! On June 12th, we will celebrate with mixed and multiracial families around the country the anniversary of the Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia that legalized interracial marriage in 1967. Only 48 years ago, interracial unions were illegal in our country. Last year, my son was born under our nation’s first multiracial president. I can’t wait to talk to my son about Loving Day and the brave couple that helped make our family possible. Will it be difficult to talk my son about the white supremacy that is still embedded in our society? Yes. Will it be hard to tell him that he will face racism and discrimination that I have never known? Certainly. But I should do it because he is mine.