Raising Multiracial Kids In A Racially Divided Country

by Marj Kleinman
Originally Published: 
Marj Kleinman

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Loving vs. Virginia, the 1967 landmark Supreme Court decision that made interracial marriage legal across the United States. But parents face a variety of challenges around raising multiracial kids, particularly in such a racially divided country. At the same time, they have a unique opportunity to create and celebrate the rich diversity inherent in their families.

Marj Kleinman

Before our country was even founded, many states enacted anti-miscegenation laws, forbidding interracial marriage. In 1958 Mildred Jeter, a woman of African American and Native American descent married Richard Loving, a white man with a perfect surname for what would be their legacy. They legally tied the knot in Washington, DC, but were arrested in their home state of Virginia for marrying and cohabiting. After a lengthy battle, the Supreme Court unanimously decided in the Loving’s favor in 1967, making it legal in all states for people to marry whomever they wanted, no matter their race.

Well, not quite whomever.

Nearly 50 years later, LGBT couples battled for the same rights. The Loving decision was cited as precedent leading to a landmark 2015 Supreme Court decisiondeclaring that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples in accordance with the United States Constitution.

Loving Day is an annual celebration held around the world on June 12, the anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling.The mission of Loving Day is to fight racial prejudice through education and to build multi-ethnic community. Founder Ken Tanabe says, “Our vision is to keep its importance fresh in the minds of a generation which has grown up with interracial relationships being legal, as well as explore issues facing couples currently in interracial relationships.”

Marj Kleinman

Ken Tanabe, founder, receives a Proclamation from the Office of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio declaring June 12th “Loving Day” in New York City.

Marj Kleinman

Mattie, age 6 at last year’s Loving Day celebration: “Today is a special day and it doesn’t matter if you’re black, brown or any other color; it’s just about your love.” Her dad, Allen says, “It’s important to be here because we want the future to be brighter, safer and more diverse for them. We want to show them that that exists now and we want to make it more commonplace going forward.”

Marj Kleinman

A week after Loving Day, I visited with the Soller-Mihlek family in their Brooklyn home. Jill and Sarah are an interracial and same-sex couple, who were married on June 24, 2011, the same day that their home state of New York legalized same-sex marriage. They brought their 14-month-old daughter, Louise, into this world after lengthy fertility challenges, including their insurance company denying them coverage because they were gay. On the eve of Pride weekend, we spoke about how they feel about navigating their daughter’s future.

“She will be exposed to both sides of the family and I think she’ll think it’s normal. She spends time with my family, Filipino immigrants. I encourage them to speak to her in Tagalog so she can be bilingual and to try everything–the food, the language, songs, etc. I think it’s really import to be proud of your roots and to have that love and support more than anything,” says Sarah.

After 16 years in highly diverse yet gentrified Crown Heights, Brooklyn, they plan on moving to Western Massachusetts in an area which is a bit more homogenized. “We’re going to end up having to break some barriers there. There are a couple of families we can relate to, but we’re gonna stand out for a while. We will have to talk to people about how to speak to us,” says Sarah.

They field a lot of frustrating questions already, which they often find offensive, not only from strangers, but family too. They frequently get asked “What nationality is she?” or “Who is the dad?” “You wouldn’t ask a straight couple that,” says Sarah, “Ask a different question!, like ‘What things do you like to do with your kid?’ or ‘What’s her favorite food?’”

Marj Kleinman

Sarah, a guitarist and music teacher, teaches Louise Filipino kids songs and clapping games like “Pen Pen De Sarepen,” passed down from her mother and grandmother.

Marj Kleinman

Sarah and Jill read Louise lots of books in Tagalog.

Marj Kleinman

Jill on her wife’s culture: “I’m really good at eating with a spoon and a fork (as they do in the Philippines). It’s something so silly and simple, but it makes me feel like I’m more part of the family. I was so proud of myself when I mastered that. Once she masters holding a utensil, we can work on that with her.”

According to Dr. Cristina Ortiz, sociologist and social worker, multiracial children have a very distinct experience, because they are often seen as “other,” even in their own families. Dr. Ortiz says, “Children may not feel fully included in multiple communities. For example, depending on how light skinned Louise is or what her hair is like, she may be seen as not fully Filipino or not fully white.” It’s important to be sensitive to those needs as she grows older and help her navigate those situations. It’s okay to say, “I can’t understand your journey, but I can support you; you’re not alone in this.”

For parents without a mixed race background, raising multiracial kids is all new territory. They may have different experiences not only from their child, but one another, so open dialogue really helps.

Multiracial children actually have similar experiences as mono-racial kids, according to Ortiz’s research on dual-minority children. “Society is still going to try to place them in a box. If they’ve got a drop of black, they might be treated as a black person–their experience will be very different.” Even in the same household, siblings have drastically different experiences based on how they look.

In terms of identity development, Ortiz says “If you let your children label themselves, they can ownit. Otherwise, you may be imposing an identity on them that they don’t like. Identity is very fluid, which is important to understand early on.” Most kids will reach a greater understanding in college, but by then have had so much trauma trying to be accepted in their communities and by specific family members.

Children as young as two begin to understand their status within the greater community. In early childhood, kids express racial awareness and skin color differences, but racism is usually too abstract. By age 10, children have the ability to classify themselves and others into racial and ethnic categories, and can also express preferences and feelings about ethnic labels.

Multiracial children are often perceived as having a single racial identity, so that affects their friendship selection. With younger children (ages 5-7), it doesn’t have as much of an impact, but older children (ages 8-10) often have to prove and project a single ethnic or racial loyalty to make and keep friends. Multiracial children may oscillate between strong identification with one parent’s cultural background. It may not be until the end of middle childhood or beginning of adolescence that a more equal identity is development that encompasses both cultural backgrounds (Kelley & Root, 2003).

Dr. Kelly Jacksonis a social worker, scholar, and multiracial mom raising a multiracial child. Her research shows that for multiracial children, a strong racial or ethnic identity is crucial to their overall well-being. “Parental support is the most critical component of racial identity development. Yet research consistently finds parents avoid discussing race with their multiracial children, and this has negative consequences on their identity development.”

Dr. Jackson describes a significant responsibility for parents and caregivers raising multiracial children, starting with examining their own values, beliefs, and biases about race and multiracial identity.

“How we think and talk about race is often framed by dominant narratives that can be oppressive to persons and families living multiracially,” she writes. “Additionally, many parents try to teach their children to be colorblind, which is especially harmful for ethnic minority and multiracial children who are racialized as non-white and therefore encounter racism and discrimination in their social environments. Thus parents and caregivers raising multiracial children should start talking with them early and often about race and identity.”

Here are a few tips on how to talk to your child:

– When talking to younger children keep it simple, and remember that your child is less likely to ask you about race, but more likely to pay attention to your behaviors to help them make sense of who they are, racially.

– Point and show them similarities and differences within and outside the family (e.g., hair texture, skin color, facial features, height, weight, etc.). Emphasize how differences are real and normal, but should also be considered equal.

The parents I spoke with at the Loving Day picnic encouraged multiracial families to find an accepting community where they can feel safe to talk about issues that arise and also celebrate their uniqueness. You can find some resources below to start that journey, such as the following:

– Facebook groups, including Mixed & Happy, Swirl Inc. and Mixed Root Stories

– Rich info sources: Embrace Race, Mixed Race Studies and We Are the 15 Percent

Stories and media that feature multiracial and diverse characters

Loving Day documentary

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