Black or Multiracial?
The other day I came across a post from a fellow multiracial mama about how she refuses to call her kids black but always refers to them as multiracial or mixed.
It generated an interesting discussion about why, why not, and whether that is truly the message we should be giving our children.
What is their true identity? And, what, if any, is the message we as parents should be giving our children about their identity?
My own experience as mixed Iranian/British growing up in Canada was that my parents just didn't talk about identity. It left me confused, in denial and ashamed at times when teasing at school pointed out the differences in me. It was only at University when I was old enough to embrace my multiple identities that I began to understand the absolute need to talk about it.
Because of that, I have always made it a priority to talk to my mixed kids about the multiple cultures and identities that make up who they are. When faced with the potential backlash that perhaps we talk about race and identity too much, I know that to ignore it and hope that it doesn't become an issue is absolutely the wrong message we need to be giving our children.
So what message do we give our children when their identity permeates the boundaries between black, brown, multiracial, mixed race, biracial, multicultural and all things in between. And does it mean they're not just 'black'?
Can they be both?
For me, the two are not mutually exclusive though many mixed race celebrities in the US are conflicted. While Taye Diggs refused to call his mixed son Black, Hally Berry only refers to herself as a Black woman. And most famously of all, we didn't often hear the former President Barack Obama referred to as mixed but instead the first black President of the United States.
So do I refer to my daughters as mixed or black and does it vary with each one depending on how much outward features they've inherited as black girls?
I've come to see my daughters' identities as evolving. Evolving with age, and with their own experiences. And, like me, I know that at different times, they will identify accordingly. When I was immersed in Iranian festivals and food and culture, I felt wholly and truly Iranian. Other times, I knew I could only partially lay claim to this identity and mixed Iranian and English felt a more appropriate term for how I felt. Other times, like when I moved to England from Canada, I felt my Canadian upbringing come out strongly.
Identity is More than just a feeling... it's an experience
My daughters will likely want to identify with the political solidarity that comes with black identity. They will, at times, feel very strongly about who they are as black women when they are faced with the injustices of discrimination and racism.
They may, on the other hand, also be aware of their white privilege. And know that their experiences as part of a multicultural, multiracial family lent them different experiences than that of their Nigerian cousins.
And so, it is not our job as parents of mixed, multiracial children to teach our children that they are mixed and not one or the other. But rather, to help them to embrace and be comfortable with all the parts that make up their identity. Acknowledging all the while that this will change and identities will shift as they explore what that means for themselves.Read more
"My Curly Hair is Different"
I have three girls. Three types of curls. Oldest has long flowing curls that are admired and replicated in some of the most beautiful of mixed girl celebs such as Nathalie Emmanuel (Game of Thrones) or Thandie Newton.
My youngest has wild, looser curls that have already passed her shoulders. Her hair will pass as ethnically ambiguous allowing her to pass as Indian, Latino, Middle Eastern or even Mediterranean.
My middle daughter has amazingly thick, short curly auburn hair. Her curls are tight and when it grows, it grows up and out. And although hers is unique because it is light in colour, her 4 year old self is already becoming aware that somehow her curls are 'different'.
I was always aware of the straight hair girl envy but within the confines of the curly hair spectrum I thought it was all the same.
I was wrong. Each morning now she insists that I brush her hair straight and braid it so it touches her shoulders, like DD1. When I oblige, she is frustrated at the outcome, pulling at her hair in all directions, unable to articulate her feelings of frustration.
It is different....
It's only recently that she's become more 'aware' of her hair, comparing frantically with her sister to have the same hair dos and frustrated that her's don't turn out the same.
I have to admit, the 'politics' that has engulfed my home over hair has surprised me. Perhaps I was naive, raising 3 girls, looks are bound to be important. But it's taken hold of my 6 year old and now 4 year old with a vengeance.
I'm done emphasising how beautiful my DD1's hair is. She understands it now as it's constantly reiterated by her cousins, her Aunties and even women in the street who stop and comment on how beautiful her hair is. She's grown to love her curls- perhaps because her hair is longer, perhaps because of all the outside admiration or maybe just because she's grown up.
But my middle daughter sees and hears all the comments intended for DD1 with long, loose curls. Just the other day, I met two Mums in the playground whom I knew from school. All of my daughters had their hair out that day and both ladies commented. "Oh I never knew DD2's hair was so ... different. Hers is definitely more Afro-like." That, in itself is not bad but always, I feel these comments are loaded with meaning.
What Can you do?
My struggle has been to acknowledge that her hair is thicker, it is more Afro-like and, it's beautiful. Each day, when we have battles over her hair as she pulls at it and screams in despair, I try to surprise my little one with new hairstyles, showing her the uniqueness and variety her 4a curls can offer. Puffballs, braids, cornrows are among some of these and helpfully, she's usually happy with the outcome.
Just the other day, I was amazed, after showing my girls a Youtube video of a natural curly hair vlogger sharing some hair tips, I could see the positive impact it had in showing my girls that their hair is beautiful. (Check out my fb post here...)
My partner and I both agree that straightening their hair is always on the table. So if they ask, we say they can- but why? And because it's never a 'no', the realisation that actually, they could have straight hair anytime, is liberating.
Truthfully, though what has had the most impact is a book called, 'Penny and the Magic Puffballs' by Alonda Williams whose experience wearing her hair up in puffballs gave her magical powers. For DD2, because her sisters can't wear their hair up in these puffballs, it offers her something unique and special that's just hers- putting a positive spin on the fact that her hair is different.
Books can be magical in so many ways but particularly in reflecting the image or experience of a child when it comes to hair or appearance. The list below is not exhaustive but it's a start to getting your biracial kids on the right track to embracing their curls. From children who just plain don't want curly hair to others who are embarrassed to leave it natural and still others who wondered why it was so... different.
These books have been liberating for my girls. I would encourage you to grab yourself a few to have handy when your kids need reassurance that different is good.
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Questions Asked of Parents of Mixed Race Kids
After realising her staring was bordering on uncomfortable, the stranger sitting at the bus stop beside us smiled and asked, "Are they all yours?"
Out of insecurity I answered quickly, without hesitation. "Yes!, they're all mine." I often feel the stares and see the eyes that (sometimes openly) question whether me and my kids are related.
I can't say it doesn't bother me. It makes me insecure. Particularly because I've been asked it 4 times in one week. I wonder, do parents of non-mixed kids get asked this? What makes this woman doubt our relationship?
Is it not the fact that two of them are climbing all over me; the fact that they all have similar features if you take away the skin colour; the fact that they call me Mama?!!
My patience and understanding of this question has started to wear thin as I've tried not to react to it and give those asking the benefit of the doubt. I get the curiosity, I get that perhaps it's just because they're a cute bunch of kids and people like to make conversation.
But while my children are oblivious to it now, there will come a time when they will start asking me, 'why does everyone ask whether we are yours? Aren't we??'
Whether they are my biological children or not, (and they are, nobody can take that away from me- the nine months of carrying each one and the 1 year of feeding, changing and growing a newborn baby, plus the next 2, 4 and 6 years of cuddling, soothing, protecting and playing with my child) that one question, loaded with ignorance is tremendously powerful in its power to reduce our relationship to carer/ nanny or whatever else is implied.
I wonder, why, in this day and age, people feel that it's ok to ask this question or, even worse, that they assume based solely on the fact that a family has different skin colour? There are so many diverse families out there and so many new shows, books and programmes depicting diverse families, I wonder how people can be presumptuous about what is 'normal'.
It bothers me because it's about me and my family. The relationships I hold dearest to my soul. I know I'll need to have some conversations with my daughters about why and how people might ask this and I'll need to rehearse my own response because my patience is wearing thin. When the world stops asking the questions, I'll stop writing about it.
For more from Mixed.Up.Mama, read Is Interracial Marriage Unfair for Our Children?
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The other day my husband of 7 years asked me 'do you identify as black?' His question was in response to an moment me and my girls had experienced earlier that day. I'd felt defensive and self-conscious while walking through the English countryside and being asked (multiple times) whether we 'belonged' there or... "are you lost????" definitely made me feel 'other'. I knew it was too subtle to call it racism but it definitely felt uncomfortable and something I knew I wouldn't have experienced if I was on my own.
The topic of racial fluidity has been raised several times in the last couple of years. Recently, Paris Jackson called herself black through her relationship with her tenuously 'biological' Dad Michael. And of course the controversial Rachel Dolezal, who has called for black identity to be 'fluid' and non-binary in the same way gender is. With more questions being raised about how identity is formed and racial constructs that lie behind it, the question whether it is possible to identify as black through one's relationships has intrigued me.
I am part of a multiracial family, the majority of whom are black, or who will be viewed as black by society. Apart from my daughters and my husband, I am the only white face you see in my family. So, not to feel any sense of identity by virtue of osmosis or relationship would be impossible. Or, at least for me.
I have heard of other spouses who have non-white partners who become sensitive to the subtle racism that their partners feel on a daily basis. The wake-up to white bias is shocking and infuriating when it comes to the ones you love.
The first time it happened was upon entering a jewellery shop early on in our relationship. Soon enough I noticed a security guard as well as the shop floor assistant following hubby closely while he perused the rings. I, on the other hand, was not even noticed. Or, shall I say, after a few minutes, they did offer to help me but completely ignored hubby-to-be apart from the stares. I felt defensive and angered as though it were happening to me.
The experience rocked my understanding of our world. Yes I knew racism existed. I wasn't that naive but when you experience it and you become the object of it through your partnership (that was later on), you start to identify with it.
Since then, my children and I have felt the oh-so-subtle effects of middle class racism. The stares, the indignant looks that you may not belong in 'this' park- nothing major but enough to waken me up to the some of the realities of being non-white.
So yes, I guess in some ways I do identify as black. I still have white privilege and I'm not naive as to think I know exactly what it is to walk in the shoes of a black person. But by virtue of my relationship. Because my family is black. Because I am part of a black family. And because my identity is multi- layered, my identity as a mother of mixed race kids and as the wife of a Nigerian man is intertwined.Read more
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