The New York Times is running a series, “Race Remixed: A New Sense Of Identity” about the growing number of mixed-race Americans. It’s great to see news coverage of America’s racial barriers being shattered, as evidenced by the growing number of mixed-race people. My parents were a mixed-race couple before it was common. My late mother was African- American and my dad is white. They married in 1963. Let's not forget, it was 1967 when the Supreme Court struck down the last of the laws preventing interracial marriage in Virginia.
Sometimes, strangers will ask me if my son is mine. I’m always stunned when this happens. It’s painful and makes me question people’s awareness of race. I wonder if they realize how insensitive it is to ask that question in front of my children. Or, they try to be more diplomatic and ask me where my son got his blue eyes. It’s the same question, just phrased differently. I politely explain that my husband is white and has blue eyes. Even if my son wasn’t my biological child and he was adopted, he’d still be mine. I’d prefer they keep questions about my son to themselves because it feels like an intrusion into our privacy. These questions only come from white people. Black people can instantly tell if someone is mixed. White people are often unsure. My kids haven’t said anything about it, probably because they know my son has the exact same eyes as my husband, so they don’t need an explanation.
I was born in 1964. Growing up in Los Angeles had it’s own challenges. It was uncommon to see mixed-race kids during the 60s and 70s. Strangers always stared at our family and ignorance sometimes prevailed in the form of rude and racist comments. The hardest part was that I always felt different. Once I got old enough to get past the middle school years, I began to understand what my parents had always told me: that I was unique and should value both sides of my heritage.
Today, the issues for mixed race individuals are as much about our self-identity as they are about the way we are defined by others. Deciding which boxes to check on the Census form is empowering for me. Knowing that people understand mixed-race individuals are a growing part of our culture is significant. Still, as in the past, we are defined by our skin color. President Obama is mixed-race, but he self-identifies—and is identified by others-- as a black man based on the color of his skin.
My kids are part of a generation of mixed kids who will grow up surrounded by others like them. It’s not always easy to explain race to them. My son has dark skin and blue eyes. My daughter has light skin and hazel eyes. At ages 7 and 10, they know they are mixed, like Halle Berry, President Obama and others. I’m thrilled to have mixed race role models they can look to as examples of people like them. I don’t remember having many high profile public figures to look to as examples of people like me.
As a mother of mixed-race kids, I know I have two important tasks. First I want my kids to understand both sides of their heritage, African American and white (Jewish). Secondly, perhaps my most complicated challenge is to help foster a strong sense of self-esteem in my kids. Yes, they are different than non-mixed kids. But, I want them to know that they are unique and special, in part, because of their mixed heritage, not in spite of it. My hope for them is that they grow up being able to comfortably navigate both of their worlds, embracing who they are as exquisite individuals.
It’s not always easy to explain race to children. I’ve struggled over the right words to use more than a few times. Do I say “black” or “African American?” I tend to use both terms. However, I don’t like the term “bi-racial”. It sounds too clinical. The New York Times reports that “mulatto” is making a comeback among college students. I find the term offensive. Like the “N” word, it won’t be used in my family.
When my kids were younger, they often identified themselves as different races. My daughter would say that my son was African American, but she was white. I’ve explained the concept of being mixed to them in the same way it was explained to me by my parents. I was always told I was an incredibly lucky person to have parents from two different races and cultures. I often tell my kids the same thing.
Talking to kids about race inevitably brings up my own struggles with being mixed, making these conversations more difficult. When I talk to my kids about being mixed, I emphasize the positive attributes that come with belonging to two races. I’m also honest about the fact that some people may not like them because they are mixed. These people, I tell them, are ignorant. It’s always eye-opening to explain racism to a child. I tend to draw on inspiring references from history like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement to tell my kids about African Americans struggles for equality. I smile when my son tells me it doesn’t matter what color somebody is, that what matters is their character. I couldn’t have said it better!
For us, being a mixed-race family isn’t without difficult family drama. My husband’s family doesn’t accept the fact that he married me, both because I’m not Jewish and I’m African American. My dad is Jewish, but not my mom. I’ve never met my husband’s parents and they’ve never met my kids. He is estranged from his parents and siblings, most likely permanently.
For us, with rejection came acceptance. When my husband’s parents stopped speaking to him, his aunt and uncle stepped in and became my kids’ grandparents. They provide us with unconditional love and support. We are extremely close to them.
One of my all-time favorite moments is when my kids draw picture of our family. They always depict each of us with very different skin tones and eye colors. It’s incredibly sweet and endearing to see our mixed-race family through their eyes. I hope they will always be proud of who they are, as I am incredibly proud to be their mom.
I recently asked my kids if they could name any famous people who are mixed, African American and white. “President Obama and Lenny Kravitz,” said my daughter without hesitation. Not bad, I thought. Not bad!