Home > Parenting, Personal > Race & my mother’s footsteps

Race & my mother’s footsteps

“So it’s gonna be biracial.”

These were my mom’s words when I showed her a picture of me and my future baby daddy.

These words could have been uttered with just about any kind of emotional inflection imaginable: humor, rage, disregard, antagonism. As actually spoken by my mom, they might have been about a trip to the supermarket or the day’s weather: “Oh, fancy that. Another cloudy day in Eugene!”

I told my mom drily, “Yes, that does tend to be a consequence of having a white mom and a black dad.”

My beautiful family

That was it. That was our entire conversation on race before my mom passed away almost a year later. Frankly, it was a much more exhaustive conversation than I’d expected on the matter, which–knowing my mom–I hadn’t even realized would warrant note.

Much more important to my mom was the question, “How’d that happen?” When she asked these words immediately after I announced that I was pregnant, she wasn’t asking for a refresher on sex ed. She was asking, “How’d my presumably lesbian daughter end up pregnant?”

That I expected!

In retrospect, it’s unsurprising to me my mom commented on race. She always talked very openly about it when I was growing up, which left me feeling a little embarrassed as I got older. If race was proper discussion fodder, why weren’t other folks talking about it?

“Shh, Mom, we’re not supposed to be talking about that!” I’d either whisper this message fiercely or will my mom to pick it up via brainwave, depending on the situtation. As she always did when I proclaimed she was embarrassing me, she would shoo away my protests and plow onward with whatever she was talking about–race or otherwise.

Apparently, my mom had the right idea.

Around the time my precious Li’l D was born, I read an article about the importance of discussing race openly and calmly with children. One of the points touched on in the article was how minority families typically begin discussing race much earlier than do white families. A blog entry by Rebecca Bigler touches on the discomfort likely at the root of the white families’ silence:

I thought about that. “Honestly, despite everything I’ve read on this issue, it just seems so taboo─almost cruel─to call her attention to it. Isn’t it sort of confusing to a child to mention race, and then say race doesn’t matter? If it doesn’t matter, then why am I mentioning it? — Is Discussing Race With a 3-Year-Old Too Young? – Newsweek

This neatly sums up how I felt the first time I had to check off Li’l D’s “ethnicity” on a medical history sheet. I stared at the page and went, “Holy cow, there are other boxes, aren’t there?” Immediately following that, I thought: “But that’s so irrelevant!” (Yes, this was despite the fact my anthropology background informs me that certain illnesses are more prevalent depending on ancestry. I wasn’t thinking about that then, though!) I checked off a box for me and a box for Ba.D., then moved right along. My discomfort continued, as if by checking those boxes I was highlighting the fact that my son was (a) different than me and (b) something other than the most beautiful thing in the entire world.

Here’s a shocker:
My son isn’t me!

I know, I know. I should’ve asked you to sit down for that one.

In the year and a half since I first grappled with those checkboxes, it’s gotten easier for me to see the matter through my mother’s eyes. Sure, my son’s got darker skin than I do. He’s different from me in a lot of ways that don’t make me love him any more or less.

My little “mocha cub” has curly hair to my mildly wavy hair. It looks like he’s going to take after my very tall mom’s side of the family in the height department. It also looks like he’s got my ginormous forehead, but he’s got a gorgeous enough smile I’m hopeful most people will overlook the (potential) Frankenforehead. My son loves to climb, dance, and announce “HUG!” with each hug he gives. Describing each of those things that he is so far–tall, mischievous, mocha-colored–doesn’t change who he is. (In my totally unbiased opinion, this is summed up by the word “perfect.”)

Talk to your kids. Talk to them about these different colors, shapes and sizes people come in. Tell them all about how much more awesome the world is when it’s full of this magnificent variety. Help them see, as you do, that color is descriptive, not determinative, guiding them not to be “color blind”–impossible for the categories kids sort the world into–but instead to be color impervious. Look here for some good guidance for getting started down that road.

The first couple of conversations you have with your child(ren) might feel a little uncomfortable. Fear not, that’s an excellent reason to keep having them! Practice makes easier, so bear in mind that it’ll become a little less awkward each time. With patience and practice, you might find the discomfort fades so much that you’re as impervious to race–which should not be confused with culture or heritage!–as you’ve equipped your children to be.

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  1. Liz Wusterbarth
    April 13, 2011 at 6:27 am

    From the time I was small child I always “felt” like race didn’t matter. This was not necessarily the belief of my family, though. They were from the old school south where in each race stuck to itself. Not really that you could call them racists, they didn’t hate other races, just didn’t interact much. Growing up I had friends of all races at school and some would come home with me, although I never really realized the difference in how people look at different races until Jim and I got together. Jim has two black daughters that he and his ex adopted when they were babies. I find it interesting how other people react when they see us with the girls. The looks range from mild curiosity to sometimes outright horror. How is it that we are in the year 2011 and yet some people are still so backwoodsy?

    But speaking as to the necessity for race boxes….I never even once considered it being about different races being prone to different diseases. NOT ONCE! I always felt uncomfortable checking race boxes because I felt like it was just another way to label people. I am happy to be able to look at it another way thanks to you, my friend!

    • April 13, 2011 at 8:21 pm

      “Jim has two black daughters that he and his ex adopted when they were babies. I find it interesting how other people react when they see us with the girls. The looks range from mild curiosity to sometimes outright horror. How is it that we are in the year 2011 and yet some people are still so backwoodsy?”

      This is really interesting for me to read, partially on an intellectual level and partially as a reminder that it’s really not a neutral matter for everyone yet. I mean, I understand that intellectually, but I haven’t really experienced it.

      There’s such a range of experiencing depending on so many factors. In Eugene, I always thought it was funny that we had banners about celebrating diversity. I was like, “Um, do they mean–as long as it’s somewhere else?”

      “I am happy to be able to look at it another way thanks to you, my friend!”

      I’m just glad something useful came of my anthropology degree! 😉

  2. April 13, 2011 at 10:05 am

    Such an important conversation to have with children of all backgrounds. Thank you for writing this beautiful post!

    • April 13, 2011 at 8:22 pm

      Thank you so much for this comment, which came at a time when–as you know–I was still feeling a little anxious about this post!

  3. April 13, 2011 at 1:10 pm

    I agree. This is good, thoughtful work. I don’t believe there’s any such thing as race, except human, but I know you are really writing about culture. I’m glad to have discovered your blog.

    • April 13, 2011 at 8:30 pm

      Thank you! As for the race matter, I really was referring to race in the ethnicity (versus cultural) sense. It’s not a scientifically useful designation, but it’s definitely–regardless of how useful I find it–a social construct to which many subscribe or have subscribed, hence its inclusion (rightly or wrongly) in dictionaries.

      My feeling is that “race” doesn’t tell us anything about a person. Unlike race, culture, which is acts and artifacts bringing together people with like history and/or experience, might tell you something about a person. Still, that’s not the kind of thing you can generally tell by looking at someone. There’s not a lot you can tell by looking at someone, generally.

      For me, discussions about race–or skin color—with little kids are about helping kids override native categorization tendencies by pointing out that there is a visible difference . . . but that it’s not a useful or significant one at all!

  4. April 13, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    Such a beautiful post–and family!

  5. April 13, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    Really thought provoking post!I have yet to talk to my girls about race, I guess I’m not sure how to go about it. It’s funny how children, in their innocence, don’t see the physical as we do. One time my 4 (then 3) year old daughter was discussing a conflict w/ a girl at school. New to the class, I had no idea who this child was. i asked her to describe her, and she used words that were more emotional than physical like “mean” and “nasty” . I asked her what she looked like, and she just shrugged her shoulders and said, “she is a girl, and went on to describe her clothes. i pressed on, and asked about her hair and eyes and she told me they were both brown. Then she added, as an after thought “so is her skin” . I found this so interesting, because this child was the only child of color in the class, and had she said that first, i would have immediately known which child she spoke of. Yet that was the very last thing my daughter used to describe her. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone thought like that?

    • April 13, 2011 at 8:40 pm

      Thank you for sharing this! Your anecdote made me smile; it reflects such a sweet, simple way of looking at the world. It really would be wonderful if (all) older people ascribed so little significance to the color of skin!

      I believe we’re making progress, but general progress probably doesn’t mean much to a third-grader somewhere who’s still taunted for the color of his skin. It feels like a punch in the gut to imagine that that still happens, but it’s my distinct hope fewer and fewer kids will ever hear those hurtful words. The thought of my son hearing them–of someone seeing him exclusively for one meaningless external characteristic–causes my fists to clench reflexively, though of course I know using my fists wouldn’t be a constructive thing!

      The Newsweek article I quoted from had some great thoughts on how to introduce the subject nonchalantly. It also has a comment about the “I saw a unicorn!” effect that makes me giggle. Like your anecdote, there’s such innocence and sweetness behind the response at that age. 🙂

  6. April 13, 2011 at 8:45 pm

    My mom would just say that it’s hard on the child, but she wouldn’t be angry at me. Not true with other members of my family. Since I have little contact with them, it would be no big loss, but they would disown me. But shoot they’d disown us if word got out we were Democrats. Glad we don’t live near them. Decent lot of folks, but too disowny, intoleranty for my liking.

  7. April 13, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    The word “disowny” made me laugh. When my mom’s mental illness was at its peak, she disowned me and my siblings a handful of times. The word “disowny” captures the bemused, amused acceptance of that, for as long as it lasted!

    My mom was definitely more open-minded about matters like this than was her family historically. I’m grateful for that. I’m also grateful that the worst encounter I’ve experienced here in LA so far was more humorous than traumatic.

    Thank you for your thoughts!

  8. April 15, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    Beautiful post! Beautiful child! 🙂

  9. May 7, 2011 at 7:23 am

    I think that this is a very important subject to touch upon. I think all parents should openly and honestly discuss racial/cultural differences with their children. It’s important for children to be aware of their heritage(s) and have that support to lean upon as they grow up. As someone who comes from a racially/culturally mixed background myself (you can read my story on my own blog)…my parents, unfortunately, tried to skirt around the topic.
    I wish they had been more open and honest with me because I can tell you from experience, that I was in for what my parents didn’t prepare me for…a lot of bullying and teasing. Look at it this way, if you don’t teach your children about race/culture – your children will experience it and be taught it through other people’s children. And you don’t know what goes on in those households. I wish all parents were as open-minded as you guys are but unfortunately, even in this day and age there exists a lot of bigotry.
    The important thing to remember when talking to kids about race, and this is just my humble opinion, is that it is a beautiful things that makes everyone different. It’s about our varied appearances, our music, our food, our language, and our families. And nowadays, a lot of people have mixes that make their homelives even more unique. In mentioning that, I plan to tell my daughter that although she has many different cultures, heritages, and races in her…a lot of people will see her as ‘un-white’ or they may ask her “what are you”. Which even though it can be unsettling/embarassing, is just their curiousity because of her uniqueness and beauty. Even though race is merely a social construct that is hard to define, it unfortunately is still of major importance to a lot of people in the world. It is imperative that we prepare our children for the world that faces them. Even children that may be perceived as 100% caucasian…I believe that it’s important for them to understand to appreciate other cultures and realize, parents, there is a such thing as reverse discrimination.
    I hope this doesn’t sound too pessimistic but it’s hard growing up as a minority/multiracial person in America. Because unfortunately America is a country that stresses a lot on race and racial issues. We have to prepare our children, make them strong, and let them take pride in their own heritage while still being open to experiencing and enjoying other peoples’ cultures as well.

  10. May 18, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    I wish I had a little more of my own heritage to pass on. I know I’m part Danish, and part French, and that I’ve got some Scottish a few generations back, but it’s all very abstract. Dagnabit.

    Look at it this way, if you don’t teach your children about race/culture – your children will experience it and be taught it through other people’s children.

    Exactly so! This was one of the key points that was stressed in the literature I found: If you don’t do it, and do so with sensitivity, someone else is going to do it for you, and you won’t have any guarantee about their level of sensitivity.

    I agree it’s our differences that make us beautiful, and that it’s important to stress this beauty early. I actually really love watching Yo Gabba Gabba with my son for this reason. They’ve got such sweet, accurate, apt lessons for little kids.

    I plan to tell my daughter that although she has many different cultures, heritages, and races in her…a lot of people will see her as ‘un-white’ or they may ask her “what are you”. Which even though it can be unsettling/embarassing, is just their curiousity because of her uniqueness and beauty.

    This is such a beautiful tack to take.

    None of what you’ve written sounds pessimistic to me. It all sounds very realistic, and in many ways, even encouraging. By having these discussions with our children, we equip them to understand (a) different people might feel differently about these matters, but that (b) any intolerance isn’t a reflection of them as people, but of misinformation on behalf of the speaker.

  11. May 28, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    I was just cruising around your blog and found this post. Thanks for sharing your story and those links. My son is white and Hispanic (which, according to the 2010 census, is now an “ethnicity” and not a “race”, though my son’s dad refuses to check the “white” box under any circumstances), and already I am noticing a lot of things that I had never thought of before.

    I wonder if, when my son is older, it will bother him that his skin looks dark compared to my family and light compared to his dad’s. It’s hard enough being a kid without feeling alienated from your own family. It does seem to make a lot of sense to talk about these things early. I’m bookmarking this!

    • June 4, 2011 at 9:54 pm

      I wonder if, when my son is older, it will bother him that his skin looks dark compared to my family and light compared to his dad’s.

      I wonder about these things with Li’l D, too. The reading I’ve done in the last couple of years makes me think there will be questions and identity issues, but it’s my hope that by discussing these openly and up front, we’ll be helping him to understand we can all look for answers together . . . no matter how each of us looks to the rest of the world. That’s my hope, but we’ll see how it all plays out as Li’l D gets bigger. I’ll be curious to hear about your experiences in the years to come–whichever ones you document, of course!

  12. Kim
    July 20, 2011 at 12:28 am

    I’ve tried to have conversations w/ my kids like this from the beginning, but the one thing I never know how to respond to is when they comment on how another child looks like Gracie or David, just b/c Gracie and David have dark skin. Then I’m all, “uhm . . . well. Gracie has longer hair, don’t you think?” I think that’s the right way to go. But it’s uncomfortable. So far my oldest doesn’t care about any of it — but I have to keep a keen ear out when my parents and grandmother is around, that’s for sure. They’ll be no passing on prejudices here.

    • July 26, 2011 at 9:51 pm

      It’s so hard to imagine how I’ll respond to similar conversations in the future! It’s easy to envision one answer, but equally easy to understand how much different it will be to actually have it versus just imagining it. I’m curious if you preface comments like the hair one with, “It’s true that’s similar, but what about her hair? What about her eyes? Her height?” That’s how I envision the dialogue starting, when it’s my time to have it, but . . . time will tell!

      Re: your last sentence? Rock on. I don’t think there’s a perfect way to handle any given situation, but this determination will serve as a great guide along the way!

  13. August 10, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    This is beautifully felt and beautifully written, Deb. Thanks.

    • August 11, 2011 at 9:58 pm

      Thank you so much for commenting. It warms my heart to see these older entries–my foray into getting into the beautiful, painful details (which has proven both enormously rewarding and healing)–not lost totally to newer, shinier ones. Comments also give me a chance to revisit these sweet moments, and parts of the journey that might otherwise be misremembered as things I’ve “always” known, or “always” felt.

  14. October 12, 2011 at 10:05 am

    You know, this is so dorky of me, but I’ve always thought that children who are born from parents of different races are SO beautiful. I’ve never said this out loud (or typed it out loud, rather), but I’ve always thought it’s God’s/The Universe’s way of thanking us for loving each other just as we are.

    • October 12, 2011 at 10:09 am

      That doesn’t sound dorky to me. It sounds lovely! I’m enchanted by this perspective, which to me is a further reflection of the poetry in your soul. ♥

      Your comment also made me think of something my NP through pregnancy said when she got to see Li’l D: “Aw, multiracial kids are always the cutest!” (She was super excited when she found out Ba.D. had Li’l D out in the living room, since she said she next to never gets to see the children she’s helped see through to birth.) She turned to Ba.D. and asked, “Do you think I could have a multiracial kid with my also-white boyfriend?”

      We all laughed then, and I’m giggling again remembering the moment now.

      Is it weird to say I love you? I totally love your beautiful spirit.

  15. G
    October 12, 2011 at 10:16 am

    this is something we’re currently struggling with. we are a white family, with friends of many different ethnicityies, yet my 4 yr old twins say things like “i don’t play w/ so-&-so @ school because they’re brown.” we’ve talked to them about this and explained that a person’s skin color should have no bearing on whether or not they’re friends, pointed out all the people of different colors they interact w/ as part of our family, etc… but this continues to occur. my older daughter never did this, and i’m @ a loss. i hope the link you provided can help us.

  16. October 12, 2011 at 10:53 am

    Thanks for re-sharing this post. I suspect you wrote this before I knew of your blog. Or maybe I just missed it. At any rate, I’m glad I got the chance to read it.

    Help them see, as you do, that color is descriptive, not determinative, guiding them not to be “color blind”–impossible for the categories kids sort the world into–but instead to be color impervious.

    I totally agree with this. When I ask my son about kids in his class, skin color is rarely even brought up. If it is, it’s usually either the last thing mentioned or after having been prompted. It could be partially due to his attending an IB school, but he also has a mixed-race stepbrother. Still, he’s only 6, and I’m thankful he sees others for their personalities.

  17. December 1, 2011 at 9:43 am

    I somehow missed this post when it was first published. Boo.
    At least I’ve read it this time around. 🙂
    My father is racist. When I was dating Lucas’s father and I told my dad about him, he flipped out on me. His actual response was, “Jesus christ, Karin! What the f*** is wrong with you?!” Followed by a few other colorful comments and a reminder that he didn’t ever want any black grandbabies.
    Imagine how he reacted when I told him I was pregnant. That was when our relationship dissolved and we barely spoke until 2 years ago when Lucas was 3.
    Luckily, he has seen the error of his ways, and realizes what he missed the first 3 years of Lucas’s life, and now my parents are both trying to make up for it. 🙂

    I thank goodness that Lucas is being raised by many people who treasure him for who he is, and who aren’t afraid of talking about race in a positive way. And like Chris said in his comment, our wee ones go to an IB school, and their first unit in Kdg is called “All About Me”, and it teaches them to recognize and love and accept the differences between us and our families, and it emphasizes the way we are all still very much the same. ❤

  18. March 16, 2012 at 5:37 am

    I am so grateful my parents were the “hippie” type, they were always so open with everyone. I was born blind to certain discriminatory behaviors. For quick extreme example, my mom is the type to pick up AnY stranger if they were walking in cold. Man, woman, child, psycho killer…you name it, she doesn’t care(these days I keep a better eye on her stranger danger, lol). After having my first son I talk to him about absolutely everything! My children will always be aware of the closed people and open people(normal human natural beings). When you are “closed” you are uninformed on the FACTS and you make wild assumptions because you’re insecure or scared. The “open” people get to thoroughly enjoy their existence and are fully enlightened on human nature…..”open” people are much happier than the others… Our goal is to enlighten EvErYoNe and open up some metaphorical doors!
    To add: I was blissful. Just beaming after X was born. One of my closest and oldest friend came to see the new baby…she never ever comes to see me…ever! She walks in the bedroom and bellows “it’s a Mexican baby!” she giggles with her two little girls then says she has to run and she just wanted to see newborn…. Knowing her, knowing her well, I haven’t hung out with her since. She just reminds me how happy I am and how I MUST be more tolerant towards those who are hurtful and/or insecure. Im a happy loving person and no one will ever take my joy! 🙂 I love love love this post! So much love to ya’s!!!!!!!

  19. March 29, 2012 at 1:55 am

    I remember my little daughter at 1+ who would point to white and black ladies in magazines and who’d say ‘Mom’. All she knew was they were women like me, it never occurred to her to think in terms of colour. Isn’t it the adults who really teach kids about ‘them’ and ‘us’ instead of letting children speak of colour in a descriptive way as opposed to a determinative way like you say. I remember my daughter at 3 described blonde hair as yellow and described her skin colour as brown not black (whereas the world calls us black!). I mean if we act and talk natural about colour, it shouldn’t define people only describe them where necessary. Thought provoking post. Children are beautiful to me whether black, white, or whatever shade of colour and if we remind them of that fact they will be fine. Enjoy your parenting journey!

  20. minisculegiants
    December 31, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    I truly appreciate this post. Thank you.

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