Talking To My Young Son About Being Mixed Race Is Never Simple

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 
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“Mommy, I’m not black or white, I’m mixed up!” my son exclaims.

We’re walking down the street and it takes everything I have not to stop dead in my tracks. Now that he’s old enough to understand what being mixed race is, I’ve been trying to explain his background to him. While he’s well aware that his mommy has brown skin and his dad has “peach” skin (his words), he doesn’t really get exactly what that means. I make it a point to tell him that I’m black and his dad is white, therefore he’s both. But what does it really mean to be mixed race? That’s the part that’s so hard to explain.

Even though being mixed race is more common now than it was 50 or 60 years ago, it’s still hard to find tangible examples for children. Mainly because there’s no one way to represent being biracial. When I look for something to help my son understand, it’s hard to find something that speaks to his experience.

One of the hardest parts of explaining being mixed race is that so much of American culture defaults to a black dad and a white mom. In most media — whether it’s television, movies, books, even stock imagery — the white mom is almost always the default in mixed race stories. For kids who have moms who are women of color, representation isn’t quite as easy to come by. It’s not to say that this stuff doesn’t exist, but you have to really search for it.

When my son turns on the television, the odds of him seeing a character who has a black mom and a white dad is practically non-existent. Honestly, the odds of him seeing a mixed race character or actor in general is pretty freaking rare. There is the show mixed-ish, which is a brilliant spin-off from black-ish. However, the show is made for adults and set back in the 1980s. The characters are living in a time before even I was born. For my kiddo, who is six, it’s not really something on his level.

As much as it’s made great strides, I wish there was more mixed race representation for younger kids in their media. Kids need validation from their media and when that doesn’t exist, it’s hard to give them something tangible. A cursory search on Amazon pulls up a few books, but you have to dig.

To make him feel a little less alone, I try to find celebrities he likes who are mixed. His favorite comedian is Trevor Noah, and telling him they have that in common makes him happy.

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“He is?!” his little eyes grew wide.

I explained that just like him, Trevor has a black mom and a white dad. The biggest difference is that when Noah was born, his parents’ relationship was still illegal. It led to a very interesting conversation about the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia and how only a little more than 50 years ago, my relationship with his dad would have been against the law. Though he’s still young, it’s important to me to make sure he understands how he came to be in a larger context. Not just within our family, but how he fits into the world.

Being mixed race in America, especially when you’re black and white, is very complex. It’s hard enough explaining segregation to a kindergartner, but showing him that the two sides of his culture were literally at war with each other? That’s heavy. When I’m explaining to him that there are still white people out there who won’t like me because of my skin color, he can’t believe it. What’s more, I am honest with him that there may be people who don’t like him because of who his parents are. It’s not always easy to say skin color doesn’t matter when it still does to a lot of people.

It’s not easy for mixed race kids, especially young ones. They know they’re different than most kids — that’s a normal part of childhood. But when you realize that you’re different from your own family? It’s more complex. In the last couple years, my son and I have had many conversations about those physical differences. He’s seen pictures of me pregnant and knows that I grew him in my body. He’s incredibly aware that he looks like his father, who is white. How could he have grown in my belly if he has peach skin and I have brown skin? I tell him that mixed people come in all different colors. But I always tell him that no matter his skin color, he’s my son and I’ll always love him.

Being mixed race is a unique experience for young kids. They’re learning to navigate the world around them, which is hard enough. When you add in the fact that they’re balancing two different ethnic identities, it’s a lot for them. Knowing that they live at intersections of these cultures means they can feel like they don’t really fit anywhere. Like my son says, “mixed up.” As a parent, all you can do is try to give them the space to ask questions. Having the conversations, even if you don’t have all the answers, is important. Our kids are looking at us to help them figure out their place in the world.

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