By Francis Wardle
Issue 96, September/October 1999
It was twenty-two years ago that my first child was born. While the typical anxieties of a first-time father preoccupied me then, I later realized this was also the start of another, parallel adventure. When I walked into a card store after my child’s birth and selected an appropriate announcement card, the store clerk commented, “I think you have the wrong one, sir.”
“Why?” I reflexively responded.
“The baby on the card is brown,” she answered, staring at my pallid, white English skin that had just survived a long Missouri winter.
The birth of my first child was the beginning of a journey to raise four beautiful children; it was also the beginning of a struggle to raise four proudly multiracial children in a society preoccupied with race, racial categories, and specific racial identities. Both of these journeys have, of course, intertwined and overlapped. My four children are now 22, 19, 16, and 14 years old. And, while most of the approaches to raising healthy multiracial children are the same as raising healthy children of any race, unfortunately that is not enough in today’s America.
Since the 1960s–that radical time in US history when the civil rights laws were passed; colleges and universities were integrated; and old ideas on race, prejudice, and social values were challenged (anti-miscegenation laws were struck down in 1967)–there has been a steady growth of interracial relationships and, subsequently, multiracial and multiethnic children. (In this article, “multiracial” and “multiethnic” will be used to describe children whose parents come from different ethnic and/or racial backgrounds.)
How many? We don’t know. We don’t know because the US Census Bureau does not record multiracial children, and because there is no accepted definition of them. Most scholars put the population, birth through 18, at between 2 and 10 million. According to Maria Root, since 1970 the number of biracial babies has grown faster than monoracial babies. More than 1 million first-generation biracial infants (one black parent and one white parent) have been born since then.1
This increase is also true of multiethnic infants. Any casual observation of Head Start programs, schools, and community events substantiates these figures, and most of us have friends who belong to interracial or interethnic families.
In struggling to raise our multiracial children, my wife and I–as good academics–searched the libraries and bookstores, and sought the advice of other professionals. We wanted to know what our children’s identity should be and how we should support it; how to help them respond to insensitive and racist comments; and how we could find positive role models and appropriate visual and educational materials. We found none, other than the occasional advice that “society sees them as black, so you must raise them as black.”
Considering the number of children and the apparent acceptance of these new families by a large part of the American public, there is a surprising dearth of information about them for parents, educators, and psychologists. It would seem that a distinctively new population would generate a variety of self-help books, classes, and educational materials.
Over the past 15 years, there has been a proliferation of classes, books, and conferences on diversity. I teach a graduate class called “Diversity in the Classroom.” The purpose of the class is to help teachers adapt their teaching styles, classroom approaches, and curricula content to effectively meet the needs of students from diverse populations: racial and ethnic diversity, exceptional students (those with special needs and those who are gifted), gender (girls), and children who don’t speak English.
Of the ten books I use as resources for this class, only one even mentions children who are of mixed racial and ethnic backgrounds. But this book still doesn’t provide assistance for teachers in meeting the complex needs of these children and their families. Multiracial and multiethnic children are simply ignored in the current diversity movement.
This absence of information about what a colleague of mine calls the invisible population is a direct result of our country’s preoccupation with and difficulties around the issues of race and ethnicity. Our current scholarly view of racial and ethnic diversity is based on the following popularly accepted models:
1) This country’s population is divided into distinct racial and ethnic groups: African American, Asian/Pacific Island, Native American, Hispanic (Latino/a), and white–what I call census categories;
2) each of these categories constitutes a distinctly different, exclusive, homogeneous, and value-laden cultural group;
3) these groups are themselves neatly divided into two opposing categories: the dominant, oppressive culture (white, European, mostly men), and the oppressed group (people of color and most women); and
4) a minority child’s self-esteem is dependent on positive racial identity, which is based on her reference-group orientation (a black child must feel good about belonging to the black race, for example).
According to this idea, a child who is raised as multiracial has no reference group, and therefore will have low self-esteem. Added to these concepts is the 1-drop rule (a law developed during slavery times to make sure mixed-race children would remain slaves), and the long history of persecution of minority groups in this country (with the resultant sense of inferiority and white guilt).
People who subscribe to these ideas cannot imagine that children who represent both sides of this racial divide are being raised with a multiracial or multiethnic identity. First, they do not believe any adult would marry someone of another race or ethnicity for pure motives (attitudes range from believing that minority men need to marry “the ideal European woman”; that white folks desire racial domination; and that there is an unnatural sexual attraction).
Second, they believe that multiracial and multiethnic children must be raised with their parent of color’s identity to continue the political and social struggles against the oppressor. Finally, because minority communities have historically embraced multiracial children, they have an obligation to remain loyal to their minority parent’s community.
At a national early-childhood conference, I attended a workshop designed to assist teachers working with minority children. In response to a participant’s question about the needs of multiracial children, the presenter (a Department of Education consultant for the state of California), said, matter-of-factly, “Anyone who raises biracial children as anything but black is ignorant.” In a recent Essence magazine article, “How Does a White Man Raise a Black Son?” the author stated, “My own racism operates mostly below the surface…. Until recently, for instance, I always referred to Kai [his son] as mixed-race.”2
My wife and I began to think carefully about the identity and self-esteem of our children after our first daughter came home in tears one day. She was four years old and had just had an argument with a friend. “How come he calls me black and says he isn’t, when he is darker than me?” she wanted to know. To answer this and other questions for ourselves and for our children, we decided to develop our own approach. We based our efforts on our own backgrounds, on our independence, and on our college education.
Some of the concepts that guided our thinking were that society could not tell us how to raise our children; society could not tell us who we could marry (or, since we were already married, could not determine the motivations for our marriage). We both have talents, skills, joys, histories, and values that we want to share with our children, and to us what is most important is to raise mature, healthy, independent children. My wife wanted to instill in our children her love of English literature and writing, her independence as a black woman of the 1960s, her Native American heritage, and a family history of college graduates; I wanted to impart my love of art and music, my history of castles and sheep farms, and my social activism.
While raising four multiracial children, we have developed some basic beliefs and understandings. I also work with interracial families and with college students doing research in the area. However, because this issue is surrounded by such emotion, because we have very little good research (until recently most research was directed at confirming our biases and stereotypes), and because the face of diversity and identity is so dynamic, there is still much we do not know.
Our country is preoccupied with race and ethnicity. This preoccupation is held by members of all racial and ethnic groups. Thus the notion of multiracial and multiethnic identity is difficult for everyone.
Within every traditional American ethnic and racial group, there is racism. This racism centers around skin color, facial features, and hair texture. Children respond to their mixed identity differently, depending on a variety of factors (some of which we don’t know). These issues include the child’s physical features, their gender, their parents’ approach to their identity, the race of their single parent (if they are in a single-parent home), the institutions they attend (such as school, church, and youth groups), the community in which they live, their peers (white and minority), and the kind of professional support they get.
At about age three or four, most children who are multiracial and multiethnic begin to ask questions about their physical features, their racial identity, and why they are different from other children and their parents.
Multiracial and multiethnic children need a label to use when talking to others about their identity. For young children, “brown” works well; as they get older, terms such as biracial, biethnic, multiracial, and multiethnic are used.
Children who are multiracial need to be exposed to all sorts of diversity, including: racial, ethnic, religious, national, regional, linguistic. My children are lucky to have grandparents from another country (England), who also belong to a minority religious group (Bruderhof). My children have attended a French bilingual school and have traveled to Canada, England, Wales, and France; my son played soccer in Brazil. Most interracial parents are raising their children with one of four approaches to their identity: the identity of their parent of color; an identity the child chooses when old enough; the identity of a human being with no specific racial or ethnic designation; and proudly multiracial or multiethnic. But many interracial parents are unsure of the correct approach and, like my wife and I did when our children were young, seek out support and information from professionals.
Limited research suggests that, regardless of the way parents raise their multiracial children or the label they use to identify them, these children need to feel comfortable about their collective heritage and about the racial and ethnic background of both parents.
To develop a healthy self-identity, multiracial and multiethnic children need what all minority children need: positive role models; visual images at home and at school that they can identify with; curricula materials that speak about the history and contributions of multiracial and multiethnic people; affirmation at home, in school, and in society of their racial and ethnic identity and family composition; and lots of opportunities to explore what it means to be multiracial in our society.
Multiracial and multiethnic children receive harassment from all sides. They must put up with racism from some whites who view them as minorities; they must withstand peers of color who feel they are too white, not Hispanic enough, or sellouts; and they also often experience some psychologists and school counselors who insist that they identify only with their parent of color. One white mother of a biracial kindergartner told me that black students in her child’s class continually told her daughter that her mother was a whore. When she complained to the school administration, she was told that this was her problem.
The cultural backgrounds of multiracial children depend on the values and activities of their family and extended family, the community they live in, and the activities they engage in such as soccer, sports teams, school clubs, choir, and church.
The interracial family must be a secure place where all aspects of racism, sexism, bias, and discrimination are discussed openly and often. Parents should not expect professionals–counselors, teachers, psychologists, and social workers–to be helpful and supportive. To a large extent, this is because they have received no education in this area; for some (such as members of the National Association for Black Social Workers, other activists, and most adoption workers), it is because they want these children only to identify with their community of color.
Multiracial and multiethnic children must be exposed to positive members of both groups that represent their heritage. This is fairly easy to do for a two-parent family where both extended families are involved; it is much more difficult for single-parent homes if there is little contact with the missing parent’s family and community.
Multiracial children should never be involved in activities, groups, projects, museums, or any demonstrations where the race or heritage of one parent is put down or dismissed. These children shouldn’t have to defend statements about “white people being uptight, having no feelings, and lacking spontaneity” any more than negative biases and stereotypes about minorities.3
Conflicts between parents at home–especially if the parents are divorced–must not be racially or ethnically inspired. This is very difficult, because we accept, on multiple levels, racial and ethnic put-downs: “It’s a black thing, you won’t understand”; “All black people look alike”; “How would you know, your parents never went to college”; and “Your mother represents the dominant culture, which means she has values I disagree with.”
Parents and teachers of multiracial children (and of all children) should emphasize individual characteristics, values, aspirations, triumphs, and successes, not group membership, group solidarity, group accomplishments, or group successes. Even when exposing children to the heritages of their parents’ respective backgrounds, this must be done through individual experiences, not “learning about the black community” or “this is the way Indians do it.” Self-esteem is more about relationships with important people and meaningful challenges and accomplishments than it is about skin color, group belonging, or ethnic and racial identity.
Despite what many writers and experts say, white parents of biracial children can have a huge influence on their children’s development and self-esteem. Multiracial children have physical features and personalities that come from both parents (the minority heritage is not dominant). My children have my unruly hair, some of my facial features, and my penchant for athletics. My son and I share a love of soccer and enjoy visual arts. With my girls I pursue my interest in intellectual ideas, travel, and learning.
I wrote and published Tomorrow’s Children because there is almost no material available to help parents and professionals raise multiracial and multiethnic children, even though their numbers continue to increase. In a society so preoccupied with race and ethnicity, this lack of advice and support is unacceptable. It is also curious that, at a time when books, workshops, journal articles, conferences, and classes directed at meeting the needs of single-race children and other diverse populations are increasing, multiracial and multiethnic children are almost totally ignored.
We must move forward: do objective research, present developmental models, fund college departments and professors, write books, and organize conferences. Despite the considerable opposition of those who are entrenched in racial politics and Old World social and psychological models, this necessary new direction will come–is coming–from children of these interracial and interethnic families.
1. M. P. P. Root, ed., The Multiracial Experience (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996).
2. S. Van Collie, “How Does a White Man Raise a Black Son?” Essence Magazine 30, no. 1 (1999): 70.
3. Ibid., 72.
Association for Multiethnic Americans, PO Box 19726, San Francisco, CA 94119-1726.
Center for the Study of Biracial Children, 2300 S. Krameria Street, Denver, CO 80222.
Project Race, 1425 Market Boulevard, Suite 1320-E6, Roswell, GA 30076.
Kaeser, Gigi, and Peggy Gillespie. Of Many Colors: Portraits of Multiracial Families. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.
Bender, D., and B. Leone, eds. Interracial America: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego, CA: Greenhouse Press, 1996.
Root, M. P. P., ed. Racially Mixed People in America. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1992.
Root, M. P. P., ed. The Multiracial Experience. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996.
Kendel, B., and C. Halebian. Trevor’s Story: Growing Up Biracial. Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 1997.
Mandelbaum, P. You Be Me, I’ll Be You. New York: Kane/Miller, 1993.
Davol, M. Black, White, Just Right. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whiteman, 1993.
Interrace Magazine, PO Box 17479, Beverly Hills, CA 90209.
Mavin, 1102 8th Avenue, Suite 407, Seattle, WA 98101.
Also see the following articles in past issues of Mothering: “Raising Interracial Children,” no. 58 and “Between You and Me,” no. 45.
Francis Wardle, PhD, is executive director of the Center for the Study of Biracial Children and author of Tomorrow’s Children: Meeting the Needs of Multiracial and Multiethnic Children at Home, in Early Childhood Programs, and at School. To purchase the book, contact CSBC at 2300 S. Krameria St., Denver, CO 80222; 303-692-9008; or see www.csbc.cncfamily.com