Appearing on the radio last week to talk about mixed race issues, I realised the most topical question people wanted to discuss is actually the intersection of culture in an interracial relationship. (And just to clarify, being mixed race and multicultural do not necessarily go hand in hand).
In my case, they do. My husband is from Nigeria. I am half-English, half Iranian and I grew up in Canada. So cultural differences play a big part. As does race.
Jenny, the host of BBC's Women's Hour host last week asked a number of questions about how my husband and I work out cultural clashes and how our multiple backgrounds may cause confusion in our children.
A minority of internet trolls caught onto this and criticised our choice to 'interbreed' as they put it and put our children unhelpfully into a perpetual state of confusion.
It made me think. Is this true? While I didn't want to give any troll the value of my consideration, I did wonder:
Are we doing a disservice to our children by marrying outside of our culture or race?
Indeed, there were definitely times growing up where I was confused being half Persian and half English. The question, "where are you from?" often caught me off guard. And other times where, appearing at an Iranian gathering, I longed to speak the language better, to 'look' more Persian and to legitimately say, yes I am Iranian. But I always felt unsure or not 'legit' enough- whatever that meant.
On the other hand, laying claim to solely my Canadian identity also felt an uneasy relationship, as if I was ignoring the parts of me that were Iranian and mixed and which I knew made me 'different' somehow.
How is it Different Today than When We Were Growing Up?
Today being mixed represents a plethora of experiences. When Tiger Woods spoke out in the late 90's calling himself "Cablinasian", the world took notice. Referring to his "mix of half Asian (Chinese and Thai), one-quarter African American, one-eighth Native American and one-eighth Dutch, he’d adopted the term as a way of honouring his mother Kultida (of Thai, Chinese and Dutch ancestry) as well as respecting all aspects of his cultural and racial heritage."
Since then, dozens of celebrities have spoken out about their experiences being mixed including actress Meghan Markle, recently featured in ElleUk talking about her identity as a biracial woman and currently dating Prince Harry. Although her mixed race background has, even in this day and age, caused ripples in the aristocratic 'white' circles that define the British class system, it's not made enough headlines to deter Prince Harry from his new romance.
Today, being mixed race or multicultural represents so much more than it did back in my day. Back in the 80's, people didn't talk about being mixed. You were either black or white, Canadian or 'other'. Today, while being mixed can also still be confusing, it also means one person's own experience can embody the essence of globalisation- diversity, diplomacy, multiculturalism, immigration, tolerance and equity.
My husband and I teach our children about all of their experiences, backgrounds and histories. We celebrate a multitude of festivals- including ones that are not our own- and practice traditions that draw from the best of our childhoods. It means our children are confident about who they are and where they come from. When they perform a traditional greeting for their grandparents just before tucking into Iranian rice and stew, I know we've done ok. They are not 'confused' but instead proud that they can call many different countries 'home'.
We've Come a Long Way from the Old School Way of Thinking
So, 'interbreeding'- as my friends the internet trolls accused my husband and I- yes, admittedly may not be as easy as marrying the next Dick who grew up next door. But today it represents so much more. We've come a long way from the old school thinking that one must marry within their race. Experience and exposure has done a lot to help that along. Sure, there are challenges but I'm happy in the knowledge that my children are not confused, but 'enriched'.
Have we done them a disservice? No, rather I would think they will grow up confident and openminded. And perhaps by the time they do, this question will not even be worth considering.Read more
If you’re planning to have children and you’re in an interracial relationship, consider these most common complications every parent of mixed heritage children has faced at one point or another.
There are so many amazing things that being part of a mixed family can bring to your life but of course like anything, beauty is complex. These are simple reminders to make you aware of what is coming and what you may need to discuss with your partner beforehand. As your children get older, try understanding each issue with as much openness and understanding as you would any other.
- Your child may have a different accent/ culture to you
“Mama, say ‘water’”, my oldest daughter pleaded. She laughed as I repeated the word with my heavy-Canadian accent, “waaaderrr”. I never thought my kids would be making fun of my accent. I just assumed we’d all speak the same, we’re a family, after all. Growing up first generation British and the daughter of mixed parents, (Nigerian and Canadian/Iranian/British), my three daughters are bound to have different accents, cultural experiences and different identities. As parents, it’s something you know that will happen when you have mixed race kids, but it’s tough when you realise they’re having completely different cultural experiences than you did growing up- even opting to adopt one culture or identity over another. As mixed kids, it’s their prerogative. Their language, accent, home, even their look is different to yours and though that may be the case with all kids, being of mixed parentage, it’s even more pronounced. Hey, some may even switch between accents depending on who they’re with. Accents, like any other part of their identity, can become fluid for mixed kids.
- Consider that this is new territory for both you and your partner
Let’s face it, most parents of mixed children are of one heritage themselves and so finding themselves in this unknown world of mixed parenting is a minefield. It's the constant arguments over whose childhood was better versus what is best for the child all the while both you being able to pass on your cultural identity in the process… It’s hard and neither of you is experienced in this area. You’re both so different and coming from such different backgrounds, you’ve never had to compromise on culture before. And inevitably you’ll both probably feel quite strongly about passing on your traditions and values.
Like anything, keeping the lines of communication open is the best way to deal with these discussions. I remember the discussion my hubby and I had about piercing our firstborn’s ears. In Nigerian culture, it was commonplace, even expected- so much so that despite our little one decked out in frilly dresses, relatives and friends would often insist they couldn’t tell she was a girl or not because she didn’t have pierced ears. We kept that conversation going for a long time, raising it at various times until we both came to an understanding about why it was important (or not) and what she (our daughter) would miss out on without it. It may seem trivial now but it took on more significance because we were so new to the interracial parenting scene.
- Your child may adopt one identity over another
Being biracial black and white, identity is and will be fluid. Associating different aspects to each cultural background, our kids are likely to adopt one over the other at different points in their lives. If they can pass as white, they might only identify as white. As they get older and they start to understand skin colour and race on a deeper level, they may identify more with their black parent, even going so far as to say they are not white (at all). Another thing to consider is that siblings may identify differently from each other because of how different they look and their experiences as a result. My oldest daughter is darker skinned, looks much less ‘mixed’ than my other two and the only one with an identifiable Nigerian name. She will, inevitably have a different experience than the younger two- even opting to identify as black ‘like Daddy’ instead of being mixed. Be ready for it all and accept your children for who they are and where they're at.
- You’ll feel pressure from family about how to raise her/him
After the joy of having a new grandchild wears off, pressure will set in from family about how to raise your child. Starting from discussions about circumcision, ear piercing, the list goes on. Be prepared. Parents are likely to get involved in any family but when it comes to identity and culture, families can come from a place of fear of losing their cultural traditions when it comes to your children. Older relatives may even be stuck in a different generation where things were done for hygienic, economic or practical reasons. Those reasons might not exist today and may not apply to your home country so decide whether these traditions are still right for you and your children.
By the same token, don’t just discount it just because it’s not practically relevant; it might still be important to your partner because of its cultural implications. The first bath in Nigerian culture for our little ones was a great example of this. It was important back in the day because midwives performed many procedures that we replicate in today’s Western hospitals. Hence, its significance is not practical anymore but the cultural value I could recognise, was still relevant and important to my husband.
- You’ll need to go with the times
Your kids are going to take on some aspects of your culture, but not all. Just as you probably did growing up and then going on to have your own family. Even as they grow, they might not think that going to mosque is that cool or they may turn a cool eye to the traditional stews you slave over every night, preferring instead fish fingers and fries because that’s what their friends are eating. I remember that feeling well, wincing in shame when one of my friends commented that my house always smelled like exotic food. I hated being different. I now try to make a fusion of food so my little ones can experience it all. As they get older though, trust that your children will be proud of who they are. Maturity brings with it pride in being able to be different and feeling comfortable. Keep that in mind when you’re having that argument with your little one over whether they can wear their superman outfit over their agbada (Nigerian traditional garb).
- Adapt to the country you’re living in
Kids just want to fit in with their friends-especially when they get to the teenage years. Evaluate very carefully how important it is for your child to miss out on the biggest high school event of the year for a cultural event or insisting on traditional or cultural wear. Our children just want to be themselves, and I agree there is a fine line between wanting to imbibe important values, morals and ethics onto our children and imposing our own ideas. Finding the balance, through talking it out, explaining your reasons and not dogmatically insisting without allowing for dialogue is easier said than done but necessary if you want to pull them along. Explain the reasons behind such practices, and don’t just assume they’re going to do them because you said so.
- Encourage bilingualism but don’t make it torturous for them
If your child is resisting speaking his/her mother tongue – don’t get upset. Keep up with it, encourage it in gentle ways. You don’t really want your child to hate your language, do you? In reality, there WILL be a time when the need will arise to learn and to speak it. And your child WILL show more interest. Saturday schools are just as common as they were when we were growing up and I don’t know how I feel about them yet. I’ve read about grown-up children who hated it and still today don’t speak a lick of their language despite the torturous 3-4 hour lessons they were forced to go to every Saturday. I’ve also read about people who hated it growing up and now really value that they can speak, read and write their native language. Make decisions based on what you and your partner believe is right but keep your minds open as they get older.
- The ‘homecoming’ you had in mind for when you bring your kids back to where you grew up may not be what you were expecting
It’s not just that they might not be feeling it but your expectations of bringing your kids, your offspring, your legacy back to where their roots are might be too much given the fact that your kids are mixed. They’re likely to have different accents, dress differently and even may be perceived as completely foreign. All of this will make them feel unable to relate to how you grew up and may make them feel like a tourist in your home country. Don’t take it hard or feel like they’re nothing like you.
- Expect that your child will question, even doubt or be ashamed of certain cultural practices
Be open minded- if your child comes home questioning something that you take for granted is cultural, allow him/her to explore it with you. Don’t just shut it down because you think it’s disrespectful. It may not be the right time at that moment when you’re at a traditional burial or wedding but remember these events and milestones are important markers of your culture and great ways for you to explain certain things. Many old traditions are built around births, deaths, weddings and milestones such as coming of age.
My husband recently took my daughter to one of his family naming ceremonies for a new baby. Naming ceremonies are important in Nigerian culture and depending on the families’ circumstances when the child was born, they can be quite emotional, marking the families’ joy after years of trying for another child or after losing a parent recently. The ceremony became quite emotional and the scene brought up many questions for our little one. My husband was able to explain what was happening and why- giving her context and insight into the emotions of the night.
- Having children of your own will force you to confront your own childhood issues
Don’t assume that because they’re yours, they’re an extension of you. They’re going to have different experiences and therefore different issues, if any. So don’t make the bullying about racism if it’s not for them. If they do experience racism, take it in your stride and explain it to them, talk about it and don’t assume that this is going to be a major issue just because it was for you. I know plenty of mixed or lighter skin black people who say they never had to experience racist bullying.
- Your children have the chance to embody the best of both of you
Finally, remember that growing up in a mixed family is one of the most enriching and fulfilling experiences your child could ever have. Without even trying, your children will grow up with a healthy sense of diversity, tolerance, open mindedness, awareness and the potential for multiple languages. Being mixed allows your child to bridge gaps and embody diplomacy, with the ability to switch between multiple spheres and cultures.
So good luck raising your global citizen and go forth and reproduce!Read more
Take two parents, two entirely different cultures, traditions and perspectives and you get a family with some pretty tough discussions, strong opinions and choices ahead. We can’t do it all and we certainly won’t do it perfectly when it comes to our mixed heritage kids but there are some things we as parents need to make priority when raising kids of dual or multiple cultures.
- Speak your language- If one of you speaks another language or originates from another country where English isn’t the first language, that means your son or daughter could and should be bilingual. Even if you don’t speak it well, passing down any culture often goes hand in hand with language. Your son or daughter may resent having to attend language school every Saturday now but they’ll thank you for it later on when they’re able to converse with friends and family from your native country.
- Talk about your history- History can tell a thousand stories and telling your own history as well as that of your homeland will do wonders in opening up all sorts of discussions with your children. The Iranian Revolution marked a major historical upheaval and explains a lot about modern day Iran, its people, its diaspora and its politics. Pre-Revolutionary Iran and the ancient civilisations and dynasties also shed light on who and why Iranians are such a proud people. I don’t know if I would understand my Dad’s culture and origins if I didn’t have this perspective.
- Emphasise both Cultures- Make sure you talk about both parent's cultures to your children. So easy is it for parents to get caught in the trap of emphasising only the culture that is ‘exotic’ or foreign that the partner who hails from the country in which you reside or one that is more common, gets forgotten. Make sure both of your cultures and traditions are valued and explained and talk about it with each other to ensure you’re both on the same page.
- Talk about racism- Even if you’ve never fell victim to racism, this is a must must discussion parents need to have with their children. Your children will have different experiences from you and they may have darker or lighter skin but either way they need to be able to talk about it and understand it even if you’re uncomfortable talking about it.
- Pass on your traditions- Traditions are so important in passing down one’s culture. You don’t need to do everything your parents did but highlighting the important ones, in discussion with your partner, will help your children again to understand where you come from and the parts of their culture which are important. In our family, we have chosen to continue the traditional Nigerian greeting but have chosen not to pierce our newborn daughters’ ears. We have made these choices consciously and with intention about what we wish our children to take from Nigerian culture.
- Mark your cultural festivals- With so many cultures to choose from, we’re never at a loss to have a reason to celebrate. From Canadian Halloween, to Nigerian Independence Day to Nowrooz (Iranian New Year) Festival, we seem to have it all covered. Each one gets as much attention as the next and we even try to ensure we can attend a community gathering to make it is as authentic as it was for us growing up with the real thing.
- Demonstrate the importance of traditional greetings- Greetings are so important in today’s globalised world where countries, people and cultures emphasise different things in their greetings. In Nigeria, greeting an elder is a very formal affair involving a bow or a curtsy along with lowered eyes to show respect. In Persian culture, men and women typically kiss each other on the cheek three times to show affection and respect. It’s important that our kids understand how and why we greet each other in each setting so they can navigate their way around each cultural setting when they’re older.
- Visit your home country with your children- Even if you’ve never been and you’re a third culture kid yourself, at least you had the benefit of being raised by parents who grew up there. Your children will need to see the real thing before they can understand your culture (and you) completely. The people, the cultural norms, complexities and weirdisms that make it up. Don’t let it become just a vacation spot either. Let your children spend their summers there to know just how you grew up and how you actually lived.
- Foster close relationships with your children's Grandparents- Grandparents are so important to imbibing your culture in your kids. They carry with them all of the above- history, traditions, language. Developing that relationship and ensuring your children get to know their grandparents will have a huge impact on them in years to come.
- Give your children the freedom to adapt culture to who they are as third culture kids- Your kids are not you and their experience is going to be different from yours as children of an intercultural family. When they're old enough, allow them to explore their culture for themselves and decide which parts they can identify with and which parts they don't. This may change again when they have families of their own but it's important that you let them be who they are and not decide for them even when they're old enough to decide for themselves.
As featured in the Huffington PostRead more
Ten years ago I would have bet my left lung that we would never move to Nigeria. Sure my husband is Nigerian but we met in England and his whole family was here at the time. 'Home' was here and the idea of settling anywhere else just a nebulous reality.
Perhaps that's the clincher though. When you marry someone who originates from somewhere else, the concept of 'home' represents different things to you and your partner and moving back always remains a possibility.
Three years and two kids into our marriage, my husband started to get those itchy feet that many of his friends and siblings had already succumbed to. The desire to return home again, to embrace his identity and show his own children where they come from. The economic opportunities were nothing to turn your nose down to either. So off we went. Sure, it wasn't my home but I was all for an adventure. I just didn't have a clue what I was in for.
We moved to Nigeria in 2013, full of hopes of better opportunities in what was (at the time) a growing economy and a supportive extended family waiting for us.
The latter proved more than I could have asked for. The former, much less promising and harder work than we'd anticipated.
With two young children, it was tough. I had been used to being quite independent over here. Although England isn't my home country, it was similar enough to Canada that I'd been able to find what I needed, had formed a community around me and could function, for the most part, independently.
In Nigeria however, I felt very out of my league. It's not that I hadn't travelled before. In fact, I'd lived in Ghana for six months, years earlier following my undergraduate degree. But this seemed different. It wasn't just me anymore, I had kids to take care of, a husband to consider and in-laws living in close proximity. None of this was a problem in itself, but the context was so different, I remember feeling so alone.
My husband was busy jump starting his business and although he was supportive, he did need to be at work- that was the whole point of us being there. As I contemplated each day's activities for the children, I was struck by how helpless I actually felt. You couldn't just look up the local playgroup on the internet, there were few parks and open spaces where you could hang out (and even if you did, the height of the afternoon was too hot and the malaria carrying mosquitoes were often a concern). In any case, much of what I wanted to do I couldn't because it either wasn't safe (Nigeria is plagued with many security issues and going out as a foreigner with little knowledge of where I was going and by myself would have been a recipe for disaster), too far or it was too hot to go there at that time of day.
I began to get swallowed up into that hole of despair, uniquely identified as stage 3 of the culture shock pendulum. I blamed my husband for everything that went wrong. When the temperature hiked to plus 40 degrees, when the rain flooded our compound so we'd have to drive through water that came up to our side mirrors, when my girls got mosquito bites and we thought it could be malaria carrying, when they got a runny tummy, when the driver left and started sending us threatening texts asking for more money, when we couldn't recruit another so I took to driving myself (which, if anyone knows anything about Lagos driving, is tough), when we found rats had somehow found a way into the car and had chewed holes in the girls' car seats, when I couldn't find a school for my daughter that wasn't insisting that two year olds should be able to count to 100... the list went on...
I was frustrated, angry and 'stuck', feeling as if I'd never find happiness over there and it would never feel like home. I knew something had to change or I'd lose it and for the sake of my relationship with my husband and for my kids, I had to make a change.
I realised that in moving to a different country and one as different as Nigeria, I was still comparing it to England. And for that, I was paying the price. It wasn't my home but it could be. Slowly, with this realisation, I stopped trying to compare my life in Nigeria to my life in England. I began to appreciate what Nigeria could offer me instead of what it couldn't. Instead of crying over a £12 punnet of strawberries, I began to buy local fruit and relished the sweet organic taste of fresh watermelon, pineapple, papaya, mangoes and oranges. 'Home' began to take on a new meaning.
Crucially, I met a group of women who became my lifeline. They called themselves Nigerwives: foreign women married to Nigerian men who'd found in each other a sense of sisterhood for the very reasons I'd described. They recognised that they weren't expats and they were far from local, even though some could have traced their roots back to Nigeria at some point in their gene pool. Instead, all these women had in common was the fact that we all identified with being foreign and were married to Nigerians. But that was all we needed.
In them, I found an outlet for all that I had been feeling towards the country and its differences. They not only understood my feelings but most of all, they were able to offer me community. Eventually, I found a couple of local parks which we frequented almost everyday and playdates became our daily dose of fun. I learned that to find something, it was really through word of mouth so I had tapped into a local community of knowledge. I was now, never lonely.
Eventually, I found a part time job at my daughter's school. This too, gave me great solace and a community which was my own. When you move to one or the other's country of origin, it's hard for the foreign partner not to feel at a disadvantage because nothing is 'theirs' so to speak. In my job, I had my own friends, community and even a little extra money in my pocket so that I could buy those strawberries and not feel guilty. I had made my new 'home' a reality.
Eventually I settled into life and discovered that Nigeria's people and its social life were its main attractions. Not its tourism industry or the cuisine you might find at the local market. It was the people. Our social lives were crammed with invitations to birthday party
after birthday party, each one topping the other for the outlandish display of fun for children of all ages. Invitations to weddings, baptisms, engagements and birthdays flew in. It didn't matter if you knew the bride and groom or not; so long as you knew someone close to the family, you were free to come, bring as many as you like, eat a good meal and dance the night away. Our family was happy.
The experience has brought my hubby and I closer, not just because he knows that I can live in his country and survive but because I got an insight into who he is, his family and a lot of understanding into his 'isms'. I know exactly what he means when he talks about home.
When you meet your partner abroad, it's easy to think you know him/her because of who they are when they're in that country. But inevitably, when your partner returns home, another part of them emerges. It's not to say that my hubby became entirely Nigerian, his experience was fraught with frustrations as well, having lived abroad for almost 20 years and this being his only experience living in his home country as an adult. But it is and remains where he calls 'home'.
We have no regrets, only broader minds, lifelong friends and a deeper desire to ensure our daughters know their Nigerian home. For me, it highlighted the fact that we are a family of many cultures and no matter where we live, Nigeria is definitely one more place we can authentically call home.Read more
"Clear!", he shouted as I clutched the wheel heading into more oncoming traffic. "What are you saying?! What does that mean?", I shouted back. In desperation, the two of us just looked at each other, dumbfounded that the other seemed to be talking a different language.
"Pull over!", my-then-boyfriend-now-husband said in exasperation as he realised I had no idea what he was on about.
Dutifully, I pulled over. Why didn't he just say that? I remember thinking.
That was 10 years ago, our first realisation that although both of us spoke the same first language, lived in the same country and had many things in common, our upbringings were hugely different. And despite all of our commonalities, our differences were a much bigger challenge than we'd thought. "Clear", I soon discovered, was a Nigerianism meaning pull over or pull to the side.
My husband and I herald from four parts of the globe as far apart from each other as you can get. My father is from Iran, my mother from England and I grew up in Canada. My husband is born and raised in Nigeria, with exposure to British colonial and cultural norms.
In any relationship, the challenges of 'getting serious', considering where is 'home', family, finances, gender roles, religion and raising children are all big questions. Throw cultural differences into the heap and you can almost feel as if you're speaking different languages.
For us I think those big questions were obvious and we did tend to talk about them a lot before we said the big I do. But it was the little things that we didn't consider and that we're still discovering about each other. Things that research on this subject just doesn't seem to explore.
It's how we both think, the inherent 'street wise' instinct hubby has just from living in a country where 'hustling' is the norm. I lived the stereotypical suburban life in small town Alberta where locking our door during the day was unheard of. As a result, my husband is much more observant of people and things and subtleties than I am. Whether that's just our personalities I hasten to guess. But after travelling to Lagos and being chastised for handing over my passport to a customs officer in uniform and not keeping my eye on what he was doing with it, I realised I have much to learn about being streetwise.
I am also much more verbal than my husband. Again, this could just be down to personality because I know I am definitely more into chatting than he is. But again, after spending some time in Nigeria, I realised people are expected to learn by observing rather than by explanation or asking questions. In my early twenties, I lived in Ghana and was so curious about everything I was experiencing. So I asked. It was my friend who was showing me the ropes who finally explained, 'stop talking and just watch'. I often think back to that moment when my hubby and I are arguing over something I don't understand.
Raising children in the way we were both brought up can become another battleground. Questioning what one partner might take for granted as normal becomes an accepted part of your everyday. Simply because 'that's how I was brought up' and 'how can you question it?' just doesn't cut it.
Take our debate about piercing our daughter's ears when our eldest was born. I knew it was a cultural tradition and pretty much every Nigerian girl has their ears pierced when they're born- including all my nieces. But cultural tradition wasn't enough for me. He wasn't able to give an answer as to why it was important and in the end, he conceded it might be better to wait. We now face the often unpleasant comments from other Nigerians questioning why aren't her ears pierced and how can we tell if she's a girl or not? Never mind that she's wearing a flowery jumper or has on a frilly top.
More than 10 years later, our lives have taken us to Nigeria and back, to Edmonton, Canada for long extended stays and now back to London, England. It's been good for us to spend time in each other's 'homes'- learning more about each other than we ever could have just through communication. But England offers us something neither of these countries can. A neutral ground for us as a couple where we're both just as lost as the other trying to decipher things like 'what is the real pronunciation of 'neither'?
We're making choices as we go and sometimes the simplest of tasks or events can lead to debate. It's often exhausting and I have to admit I do sometimes envy marriages between people who've grown up together in the same town and who can relate on so many levels. But as time goes on, I think my husband and I are both beginning to grow having been confronted with the question why. Consciously unravelling and exploring exactly who we are and why we believe in certain things can be uncomfortable. But isn't all growth? And with more consciousness comes understanding, empathy and compromise. Characteristics that hopefully our children will learn to value.