Generation Mixed Goes to School: Radically Listening to Multiracial Kids
"Generation Mixed" refers to kids born after the 2000 Census, which for the first time allowed respondents to “Mark One or More” options to describe their racial identity. Join this conversation about the experiences of Generation Mixed at school - from the perspectives of the kids themselves and the caregivers and teachers trying to support them.
Professors and social justice movers Drs. Ralina Joseph and Allison Briscoe-Smith have been in community with many mixed-race kids and the adults in their lives, personally and professionally. They've collected their observations and insights in their book, Generation Mixed Goes to School: Radically Listening to Multiracial Kids. They delve into "how the silencing and invisibility of their experiences often create a barrier for mixed-race kids to engage in nuanced conversations about race and identity in the classroom," and also talk to caregivers and teachers who have found effective ways to connect with and support their mixed-race children or students. They joined us to share what they've learned. As always, we take questions and comments from the EmbraceRace community - that's you! Check out the related resources below the transcript.
EmbraceRace: You all probably know Allison Briscoe-Smith, who has been on with us many times since 2016, ever since the beginning when we didn't have that many folks tuning in. She, along with Ralina Joseph, wrote this great book called Generation Mixed Goes to School: Radically Listening to Multiracial Kids.
And what's great about this book and about what you'll hear tonight is that these doctors, we'll call them doctors because they are doctors, have really listened to kids and they'll bring us some of that tape, the voices of multiracial kids, them speaking to their experience.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a clinical child psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She combines her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care. An adjunct professor at the Wright Institute, much of Allison's work is with Bay Area schools and nonprofits as a clinician, consultant, and trainer. Most importantly, most impressively, she is a multi-time guest on Talking Race and Kids. Five times, people, more than anyone else! Really great to have you back, Allison. Welcome.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: Thanks for having me.
EmbraceRace: Introducing Dr. Ralina Joseph. Dr. Joseph is a scholar, a teacher, and a facilitator of race and communication. She's Presidential Term Professor of Communication, founding an acting Director of Center for Communication, Difference, and Equity and Associate Dean of Equity and Justice and Graduate programs at the University of Washington, Seattle. Ralina is the author of numerous articles and three books. Most recently, with Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith, Generation Mixed Goes to School, which just came out this year. She's currently writing, Interrupting Privilege, a book of essays based on her public scholarship. Glad to have here as a first time guest. Welcome.
And let me start with the question we typically start with, which is, in this case Generation Mixed Goes to School: Radically Listening to Multiracial Kids. Professionally or personally with us, what brought you to that topic?
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: I mean, I think that the simplest answer was that this was a braiding in of our experiences of our research, our service, and our personal lives. Ralina and I, in addition to being, colleagues and co-authors, are beloved friends and sister friends. We love each other's families, take care of each other's families, are godparents for each other's families. And what brought us to this book was an opportunity to actually center the experiences of our children and to think about our kids who are experiencing and living through the world as multiracial folks.
So it was, again, we used this analogy of like a braid of moving things together. And so there was a professional space with Ralina as a scholar in this kind of space around Critical Mixed Race Studies, understanding and thinking about the scholarship. There was my opportunity in thinking about things like implicit bias and clinical skills, but most importantly, we wanted an opportunity to spend more time with each other and to listen to our kids and kids like them. And these were the places that we were curious. What are kids going through? What do they want from their education? How are we armed and equipped to serve them? So that's how I would think about it, but a big, big excuse is spend more time with each other, which was also much needed.
EmbraceRace: That's awesome. Ralina, I'm sure you would agree with much of that. Ralina, what would you like to add about what drew you to the work that you do?
Dr. Ralina Joseph: No, absolutely. And before COVID, we did write much of this on writing retreats together. So it was just absolutely the best excuse to have to see each other. And yeah, my first book was on mixed race. I went to graduate school to study mixed race. My first identity is as a Critical Mixed Race Study scholar and Dr. James Banks, who is the father of multicultural education, and the one who started this wonderful Multicultural Education Series where we published in, had approached me about writing this book. And I initially said no, because I couldn't imagine doing it by myself.
And when I thought about the opportunity that it could be about our conversations, that actually we had legitimacy as scholars in this space, as well as mothers. And I think some of what makes this book really so special is that we have this really personal voice in there. The children's voice is personal. Our voice is personal. And, as Allison said, we're braiding in these literatures that don't often talk to each other.
EmbraceRace: Can you explain the title a bit, of why Generation Mixed At School, and what you mean by radically listening?
Dr. Ralina Joseph: Sure, yeah. So I mean the first part of this is we're looking at this post-“mark one or more” generation, right? This new 2000 census [in which people could first the first time choose to check multiple races]. This different moment of racialization. We can think about a post loving moment, right? And then kind of post mark one or more moments. So this felt this was really kind of a sea change in understanding how race and mixed race was articulated by a different group and then the radical listening piece. So the center that I direct, the Center for Communication, Difference and Equity, we've been engaged for a number of years in these radical listening projects, where we bring different communities in to share their stories around any number of topics. So we started off with the first time you've experienced discrimination. We have stories of Black Seattleites.
This last year, we did things around Black folks in quarantine, for example, that was called Quarantining while Black. And so it felt like this was a methodology. So it's about how we reciprocally bring people in. They get to choose who they'd like to speak with so we don't dictate who is in conversation with each other. They get to actually choose that. There's also choice around the questions, so they receive the questions in advance and they were able to script the questions as well. There's also choice then in that they receive the entire script of the interview and they're able to say, "I want this highlighted. I don't like this highlighted." And then finally, we come together as a community to listen to the pieces and the participants actually get to invite in family, friends, and other people who they really want to hear their stories. So it's a different way of really furthering listening, and engagement for people whose stories don't always get told.
EmbraceRace: I love that. And so we're going to listen to a piece of tape from your project, and I wonder if you want to set it up at all.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: So I mean, the thing that we want to highlight is what we did is we brought, as Ralina was talking about, but in practicality, we brought in kids with their siblings and their families to talk to each other. And so what you're going to hear here are two kids getting a chance to talk to each other. I kind of want to leave it so that you can kind of hear it, but you'll hear that these are young children who are asking each other questions about how they understand these concepts and we feel it's a beautiful window into understanding what's going on for kids. So I'll key it up in that way and we can talk a little bit about it after.
"Grace vs. Race" audio clip (whole clip followed by transcription)
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: So we were asking a lot of different questions about race. Do you guys understand what race is?
Older Sibling: Yeah.
Younger Sibling: Race. Yes.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: What is it?
Younger Sibling: It's something when you do on dinner or something, and then when you are at church.
Older Sibling: No, that's grace, not race! Race is color, skin color-
Younger Sibling: Race. Oh, race! So it's a skin color that people have.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: Yeah. And what kind of skin color do you guys have?
Younger Sibling: I have Asian skin color, kind of Black. I don't know what I have.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: Yeah. And what about you? What do you have?
Older Sibling: I have a yellowish White.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: Yeah.
Older Sibling: Kind of a dark tan.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: So is that a question that you've ever gotten before? Where someone asks what's your race?
Older Sibling: Yeah.
Younger Sibling: No. Never before.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: Never before. So what do you say when people ask a question about you?
Older Sibling: I usually tell them about my parents.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: And what do you say?
Older Sibling: I tell them that my dad is mixed. My mom is Korean.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: Mhm. And your dad is mixed, what?
Older Sibling: I don't... I think... I can't remember everything.
Younger Sibling: His dad's mixed. He's White. He's American. He-
Older Sibling: I can't remember everything, so you're going to need to help me.
Younger Sibling: He's Filipino. He's Native American. And then he's Asian.
Older Sibling: Yeah, he's Asian.
Younger Sibling: And then he has a lot of relatives.
Older Sibling: Yeah. He has a really lot of them.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: Yeah. So that's a great understanding of what your parents are, but what-
Older Sibling: I think I'm just Asian.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: Just Asian? And how do you think about yourself when you think about race?
Younger Sibling: Well, I think I am Asian, American. And then different kinds because I have a long, long line of family.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: Yeah, definitely.
Audio Clip Ends
EmbraceRace: Yeah, that was great. And so much to say about that. How is this audio clip typical or not typical of sort of what you've been hearing broadly or what of themes that you've been hearing from mixed race kids?
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: I mean, I love this clip so much. We had an opportunity to hear so many different kids kind of talk and think together of it. I can't help, but smile just because they were ridiculously cute kids. You can actually see something that we heard a lot, which is how siblings are co-constructing their identities together. And so that's actually something that I don't think we thought we would find or thought we would hear, but we got to see that siblings are teaching each other about it. It's also funny, right? And it also gives us a window into little kids are making sense of the world around them. Yes, in terms of race, but also it's confusing. Right? It's moving. It's these different kinds of pieces.
I love the way he talks about nationality and race and history. So I think what it gives us a window into is the kind of complexity that's there, but also how family is co-constructing. It wasn't as if these kids didn't have a sense of, as he says, "the long history, the lots of people." Also, they had a claimed sense of identity. They had multi multiracial, and there was still a claimed sense of an Asian identity, an Asian skin color. So I could go on and on, but I think the thing that this shows is, I'll speak about the research, is it's pretty consistent with the research.
Dr. Ralina Joseph: They're nine and 10 years old. I actually had just looked in the back of the book in our index. It was in December, yeah.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: So they're little in some ways, but this is consistent. The kids are trying to make sense of race, that they are looking at it, they're being impacted by it. But also the new kind of piece in terms of the literature is actually speaking about the ways that kids are co-constructing their identity. And what you see here is the opportunity for the older child to scaffold and to help. And the key part is to do this in the context of joy and connection. There's laughter, and what you can kind of hear in the background is they're coloring. They're coloring in the midst of all this. They're doing all of this kind of piece in the background. So I think it's a great window to hear that these conversations are happening in family. There is joy as much as there's been, within the research, a sense of kind of over pathologizing the experiences of multiracial kids. There are places of joy and resilience and support for each other. So that's one of the reasons why I love this piece so much.
The literature is actually speaking about the ways that kids are co-constructing their identity. And what you see here is the opportunity for the older child to scaffold and to help. And the key part is to do this in the context of joy and connection... These conversations are happening in family. There is joy as much as there's been, within the research, a sense of kind of over pathologizing the experiences of multiracial kids. There are places of joy and resilience and support for each other.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith
EmbraceRace: Yeah. I can really relate to it as a multiracial person, just the question you get, "What are you?" when people have those curiosities, just going right to your parents and going to nationality and, "Well, my mom... Well, my..." And, Allison, I think that with you asking, "But what about you?" And I think so often with mixed race kids, it's really challenging, or they're not supported in the "what about you" part, right?
Dr. Ralina Joseph: I just wanted to give a quick shout out to our Research Assistant who was doing the recording there. We actually just happened to have two multiracial research assistants as well. This was Anjuli Brekke, who's now a Professor at University of Wisconsin Parkside, and the other Research Assistant, Michelle Sturgis, who did a tremendous job here with this work and really carefully clipped out, as you heard, the clip and the music, that was Anjuli. But they really did a wonderful job with this caring work.
One of the unexpected things that we came into this book having a very clear picture of, we want to write it this way. We kind of narrate that in the beginning. And of course, we end up letting our data speak to us, and it told us a very different story than what we wanted to write. And one of the stories was about siblings. And we didn't realize there was going to be so much here about siblings and how multiracial siblings were really teaching each other in a lot of ways more than what their parents were teaching them or even the schools were teaching them.
And it was particularly interesting in moments when the kids were racialized differently because there were a number of conversations that we heard where one child was talking about, "Well, you're racialized this way. I'm racialized this way. This happens to me. This doesn't happen to you. People ask you what you are. People assume that you're Black. They don't assume this." And they were figuring it out together. And so we've felt really honored to have that view into the sibling lives in ways that really aren't reflected by the literature. So we felt like this was a really interesting piece that we're bringing. And these are the littles here, but we hear it kind of more exposed in some of the teen pieces, and I think we're going to hear another piece that shows us kind of an older sibling pair as well in a little bit.
EmbraceRace: So these two, you said, Ralina, were nine and 10 years old, right? So they're pretty close in age. And you mentioned that, of course, there could be many differences across siblings, between their age, differently racialized or not.
Did you find that the younger had as much to do, had much power in the co-creation as the older child generally?
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: I mean, we heard about this in kind of different ways. What I was really impacted by was actually how much weight the older had, how much of a burden the older had, often. So it wasn't in that there was a lot of kind of responsiveness to what the younger was bringing, but there was a kind of tendency that I saw and actually heard about narrated both by younger children or the younger sibling, which is, "I learned a lot faster," or, "I had had to do this much quicker," or "I had the opportunity to learn because there was someone ahead of me." The other piece to add to the complexity is that these children are racialized differently. We have, as was kind of mentioned, and this was the part that they were talking to each other about. How do you understand your race? How do identify?
So I want to be clear. We weren't asking them, "What are you?" I saw that within the chat. That's not what the question was. The question is, "How do you understand this? And what does this mean for you?" So the sibling kind of piece, and actually we also had other people and family members, "My auntie, my cousin." There was this kind of familial socialization, this familial holding. But I'd say in general, I did find that there was both a burden and expectation on the olders and also this kind of general narration that the younger ones were kind of coming up quicker in part because they seeing what was happening for their older sibling. And then again, holding onto the big variation that we have, which is that kids and their families got racialized differently according to how they looked, how they presented in their own identity.
EmbraceRace: Right. And I know from reading the book as well that not only did you not ask, "What are you," they got to choose their different prompts and you chose people to talk to based on their having parentage that was varied, as opposed to kids who themselves identified as multiracial. Is that right?
Did you find that the kids were more accepting of having different racial identities as siblings than sort of parents were or families?
Dr. Ralina Joseph: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. I think that our kids were really attuned to how they were racialized, and so it really went alongside, "I'm racialized as Black, and so this is a part of the way in which I go about the world." We also want to be clear that racialization shifts, so for some kids, it was a different type of racialization at school and a different type at home. And this fluidity, while it might seem confusing to adults and perhaps to monoracial adults, was not confusing to the kids. They understood how they were navigating this space. And we had some older teens who talked about, "As an elementary school kid, I identified particularly multiple minority kids, so kids who were Filipino and Black, for example. As an elementary school kid, I identified as Filipino, and then I identified as Black and now I identify as Blasian, and all of these identities make sense to me. But then sometimes I'll go into a space, and I'll say that I'm actually back what I used to identify as."
And this was kind of a singular and a continuous type of a space. But with monoracial parents, it was a bit harder. And we saw this in particular with some White mothers who in particular did not want their multiracial African American son identifying as Black. And we spent a lot of time grappling with what we were trying not to simply read as anti-Blackness, but to understand as a desire for protection of their child that was ultimately futile but that ended up feeling a lot like anti-Blackness.
EmbraceRace: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So that's a generous interpretation. Yeah. I mean, right?
Dr. Ralina Joseph: We try. We try.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: We worked hard on that, but it did really come up. And you asked a question about what the radical listening is really about, and that was it, which is both that the radical listening, as Ralina mentioned, was that we had a plan for the book. We had an outline. Then we really listened, and then the kids blew up our book, right? We had to reorganize and reshift. That was also the kind of piece too that what we're encouraging here is the radical listening of our children and to multiracial children, which is that many times the children were voicing things that were distant to what the parents wanted including their identity, and that a radical listening means slowing down, listening deeply to what is being said, paying attention to the power, and staying uncomfortable.
And so in this context of the framed kind of generous interpretation, it's in part because those were folks that, for whatever reasons, weren't able to lean into the discomfort. The discomfort meant that their children had a proximity to Blackness, were identified and saw themselves as Black, and were also therefore subject to oppression and racism. And there was a desire, implicitly or explicitly, that their Whiteness would protect them. So that's what we mean, this is uncomfortable and can be challenging, but if we really need to center the voices of what kids are saying, they're telling us, "I felt like I was this in third grade and this in fifth grade, and I'm this now." Okay.
What we're encouraging here is the radical listening of our children and to multiracial children, which is that many times the children were voicing things that were distant to what the parents wanted including their identity, and that a radical listening means slowing down, listening deeply to what is being said, paying attention to the power, and staying uncomfortable.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith
EmbraceRace: You have another great clip that we'd like to get to. And of course, people have lots of questions, so I'm not asking you to respond to this now, but that last point about moms of multiracial children with a Black parent raises this question of the differences, right? The many differences within the category of multiracial identity. So often it shows up as want and as if, and we know that all racially defined groups have lots of variation within them. Sometimes it feels like that is lost with respect to multiracial and that the experiences can be quite different. So I just want to put a pin in that and make sure we get back to least a couple pieces within it.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: We are about to hear a clip. This is a teenage participant. She is, I think, 16 here. And she's sharing a story about what happened at school with her 10 year old sister and with us.
"Singling Out Mixed Kids" Audio Clip (from 3:00 to 6:47, followed by transcription)
Older Sister: I remember in eighth grade there was a teacher. It was at lunch, and I was the only Black kid in the classroom that I was in with a class full of White kids. And of course, out of all the people, he asked me a question, saying, "Do you know how Richard Sherman's dreadlocks work?" And I said, "Well, they're braids that are left in for a long time." And he was like, "Oh-"
Younger Sister: They don't really come out.
Older Sister: Yeah. And he was like, "Oh, cool." And just basically saying a bunch of stuff about dreads and Richard Sherman and how one of his dreads fell out. And I was just like, "Okay." And I just remember feeling very pointed out in that moment because everyone looked at me when he asked me that question. And I just felt really on the spot, and I was a little bit embarrassed to be... Not embarrassed, but the fact that he pointed me out in front of everybody just wasn't the best experience.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: How do you understand why he did what he did?
Older Sister: Well, because I'm Black, and so I must know what dreads are. None of the kids in the class know what it is even though Richard Sherman is a famous football player. Everyone knows who he is, but let me just ask the one Black person in this room who would know.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: That also makes me think about this kind of question about how is it that your teachers see you. So in that moment, do you think he saw you as Black, as mixed?
Older Sister: I definitely think he saw me as Black in that moment and that basically I know everything about Black hair and all Black people. I must know what Richard Sherman's hair is. I must know what dreadlocks are. Because of the way my skin color is, I have to know. He didn't even know my name. So he was just like, "You..."
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: What do you want to communicate with teachers and schools about what Black kids, what mixed kids need?
Older Sister: Not pointing out kids, not putting them on the spot, not judging them, not-
Younger Sister: Not like, "Hey, you, tell me what this person does. Teach the class about this person because I don't know, and I'm supposed to teach you about this because you're Black."
Older Sister: What she said.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: That's it?
Older Sister: I mean, people get taught to teach. They should also be taught how to teach certain lessons and say certain things. And not everybody knows that, even teachers. Teachers make mistakes. Teachers point kids out. Teachers-
Younger Sister: Can I say something?
Older Sister: ... say things they aren't supposed to. And I think that's a boundary that they shouldn't be passing and that they should learn about.
Younger Sister: And maybe sometimes teachers will put people on the spot because maybe they'll pick someone over you even if you're smart. They'll probably think, "Oh, Black people aren't smart because they're dumb, and White people are smart, so I should call on this person." And then they never get your opinions about something that you might actually have a really good opinion on something.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: Has that happened to you in class before?
Younger Sister: No. I usually get picked a lot because I just raise my hand all the time. So yeah, I've been in games a lot of times because I raise my hands all the time, and they'll be like, "Oh, you've already been it." I'm like, "Oh, sorry. Yeah, I have."
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: For you to put that hand up, sounds like you make your voice heard.
Audio Clip Ends
EmbraceRace: Wow. That was great. Ralina, I'm sure that multiracial kids who are identified, racialized as Black, and a lot of Black kids couldn't relate to parts of that. What's special about the experience of the multiracial kid in this conversation?
Dr. Ralina Joseph: Yeah. I think that you really see the sibling dynamic that Alison was talking about earlier there, that the younger sibling who's six years younger is really learning how to protect herself against racism by hearing her older siblings' stories. Right. We love this so much that we use this in the book. She just always raises her hand. We're like, that's what we want.
Yes, absolutely. And that this prediction of understanding racism and even this prediction moment is not going to be a negative, but rather it's going to help stoke her confidence. And this is also a family, and we talked a bit about this, that's very clear in talking about race. They've talked about how the older daughter casually used the N word and dad was like, "Stop. We're going to do some reading together. We're going to have a big conversation." This was their weekend spent on what does it mean for our family to use the N word? When the whole family is engaged in conversations around race and racism, how it can really be this protective factor for children.
EmbraceRace: I know you want to add, Allison, so I'm giving you space.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: You know me very well. There's so much that stands out. Again, the ways that siblings are doing this together. Again, I think just to lean in a bit to the pain in the moment. We had a whole framing around a chapter about what it means to be singled out. Right. What it means to be called in that kind of way. And then, what it means to be a spotlight and the basic thing we need to listen to is, it doesn't feel good. This young woman, in addition to a number of the kids that we talked with said things like, "I wish our teachers were trained better. I wish they were supported better." And so that's a very explicit call, right? For supporting teachers, what kids are asking for is, "Hey, you're supposed to be able to take this on and help me with this. And what's ending up happening is that I, as a kid, I'm getting tasked with handling all of this." There's that piece.
And the other part is, again, that we highlight throughout the book, but I think that the younger sibling so wonderfully illustrates is the agency that kids have, the resistance that the kids have, but also to just hold on for a moment and think about, and this needs to be marshaled every day, right. It's to show up and to keep on raising the hand. Right. I think there's just a lot that shows up within these kinds of pieces. This is why actually listening was so rich. And so you can hear us. We're laughing. There are times we're crying. We have the graduate assistants who were helping us also had their own lived experience. Want to say that this was not some sort of controlled, scientific. This was scientific in terms of the centering of voices and really being able to listen. I could go on, but I always feel really impacted by hearing about these kids' experiences and what they're doing about it.
EmbraceRace: One question I have is about surprises, right? Clearly there were some already for you, right, as two mixed race people who have mixed race children and have done a lot of work in the space, but there were surprises. What were some of those surprises as you were researching and writing this book? And what are some of the big takeaways for the folks who haven't picked up your book yet?
Dr. Ralina Joseph: I think that for me, one of the huge, not huge surprises. I don't know if this is a surprise, but I was dismayed by it. But every one of our kids who was part Black, talked about implicit bias. Without a doubt. And talked about being punished in schools, talked about differential... Recesses taken away, being given detentions, not given explanations for math problems and watching this happen in various ways. And so to see this with all of our kids who are racialized as Black was... We knew this, but to hear it over and over again, and to hear eerily similar stories was disturbing.
EmbraceRace: There was another interview you all did with two, I think, brothers who are half Asian and half White who talked about being singled out as well. And then said, "Well, we're luckier than most kids." They were very aware of a racial hierarchy "because we mostly pass for White, but kids from other groups," again, who get racialized differently, "they get singled out a lot more." That was really interesting. This is happening and all the kids are seeing it. And a lot of times adults don't think the kids are seeing it or want to believe that, or don't think the kids saying, "My teachers need training in this. It's pretty clear that this is happening at school." That this is important, but not in the training. Right. Really interesting stuff.
Dr. Ralina Joseph: No, I was just going to say that actually speaks the true dangers. I know this is probably not the audience to say this in front of, but I am not a proponent of a multiracial category. I think that it actually is a truly flattening device. I think that there's a way for us to do multiple levels of data collection, so that people can be multiracial and. And we've known this from plenty of other scholars, but the multi-racial Asian, and particularly Asian American and White experience, is fundamentally different, right, in terms of voting patterns, in terms of life chances across a variety of things.
And so we talk about with those brothers, for example, this experience of White adjacency, right. And how they're very conscious of it and are not trying to use it in a way that that is evil, but they understand how power is operating. Right. And then how to insert themselves in a way in which the kids who are part African-American are not provided with that luxury. Right. And so for us thinking about an upper middle class kid who is Japanese American and White versus a working class kid who might be Samoan and Black, and for those two children to be categorized by a school system as the same, is troubling to me. Is actually troubling to me. And when we hear the stories telling our experiences are incredibly different here.
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: It's troubling to the kids as well. It's troubling to the kids. They're actually saying that their experiences are different and different is okay. This flattens categorization. It's also embedded in this idea as if multi-raciality is some sort of way out of experiencing bias. And so that's in part why what we learned from listening and what we also found within the research is that it's not. It's not some sort of way out. The increasing proximity to Whiteness is not some sort of way out of this, especially when kids, and this is what we also heard, so many kids make agentic choices about when they would claim and use Whiteness. And also when they wouldn't and how many times we heard kids... We have another story of a multiracial Asian kid who chooses an Asian identity, despite everybody else saying, "No, maybe he should..." chooses and reaffirms and sticks to that. There are these opportunities, but he's actually very clear that that choice comes with particular baggage. It's not as if kids don't know, but this flattening categorization is not some sort of way out.
EmbraceRace: Allison, here's one more question I want to stay with you. It's another very blunt question. What's clear, you've mentioned from the very beginning of this conversation that the kids of course know that they're being racialized. They know their racialized very early. At a very early age, they know that. They can talk about that. Now, obviously they don't use that language, but they recognize the nuances of their racialization and that there are a lot of sources, right? A lot of sources of input for that.
And I'm wondering about if we distinguish between, and I'm thinking about the distinction between their peers and how their peers racialize, what that input looks like and feels like versus the adults in their minds, whether at home, at school. Did you come away with a sense of the distinction that the kids themselves see and how they are racialized by the others, especially by generation?
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: Yeah. I think if I were to jump in on the shorthanded answer and, Ralina, definitely help me out with here, one of which is that grown folks got to catch up. There wasn't any space that I heard a ton of folks saying, "Wow, I was incredibly helped by folks who had a different generational piece." In fact, when we asked kids to tell us about the grownups on campus that were really helpful, we got nothing. We really had to go back, right, and to ask again. I think that's one. The second piece that we found is that the parents and the adults who really, really did connect were uncomfortable and tried really hard. And so that was another lesson. We also heard that kids were really relying upon other peers. And in fact, asked pretty strategically for affinity spaces to be with others.
There's a number of places where we hear kids say something about, "Oh yeah. As I think about it, it turns out all my friends are mixed kids. All my friends." There was this sense that what they were being drawn to and what they were really being supported by were children who were having similar experiences. What we asked in particular is, "What schools could do?" What kids said is train your teachers as to how to have conversations and how to see me. Give us spaces to be together. And allow us to be who we are. I think one of the quotes that stands out to me and Melissa, I remember, you and I talked about this a while back is kids saying, "It's not as if I don't know who I am. It's that other people won't let me be." That I would say that those are the pieces that kept coming up again and again.
EmbraceRace: There are a lot of questions like this, "How does one respond to a teen classifying herself as White when she's half Latino and half White? Do kids unconsciously know from observing society that identifying as White brings certain privileges and higher social status?" I'm going to say yes to the last part, but the question of how to take it? I think a lot of parents struggle with that for different reasons. Some struggle if White isn't identified. Others struggle if you're not identifying as Black and for example, instead of Black/White, if that's your racial identity because of the politics of it. Right.
How do you all think about the best response to mixed race kids who are choosing their identities. Ralina, what do you think?
Dr. Ralina Joseph: Yeah. And we've gotten this question quite a bit from troubled parents. And it's interesting, it's often the parent who does not want the child to identify as White. Right. And is really upset about their child identifying as White. And I think that for one is that we're talking about listening to kids. You want to hear about what that experience is like. One of the things that Allison and I are trying to talk about is the importance, and that you all are doing here so well, is the importance of talking about race early and often and all the time, right? So that you're not in the position of what... I was just talking to my hairdresser today about awkward conversations about race that happened with White folks, which she called "White people-ing." You're not in the moments where it's so awkward to talk about race that you're stumbling over your language, right. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva talks about this is you don't go into this space a rhetorical incoherence.
And I don't know if this is his mom, but if you're not having race as a part of a conversation all the time... For Alison and myself, we're godmothers to each other's kids, race is something that we are able to joke about. Race is something that we're able to make transparent in all the different ways. Race is never off the table. Race is never something bad to identify. And so I think that to have conversations then about Whiteness as well, and Whiteness as being erased. And what does that mean? And what does it mean to choose Whiteness in this space, is to listen and to let the kid work that out and to see where that goes. And then I think for the parent also to talk about, "This is my racialized identity, and this is how I came here. And was I always here? I don't know." And that's one of the things that we do actually in the book is that we provide different exercises for people to go through and to practice. And this is something that you could do with your kids as well.
It's often the parent [of a multiracial child] who does not want the child to identify as White. Right. And is really upset about their child identifying as White. And I think that, for one, is that we're talking about listening to kids. You want to hear about what that experience is like... And what does it mean to choose Whiteness in this space, is to listen and to let the kid work that out and to see where that goes.
Dr. Ralina Joseph
EmbraceRace: Thank you for that. We have, not surprisingly, a bunch of questions too about how to support mixed race kids in the school context. And we have questions essentially both around, "What do I do?" There's one person who is a teacher who says that she manages the affinity groups for the school and wants to create a mixed race affinity group, both for students and for parents, wondering what to do. And then someone else, also a teacher, saying, "What do I not do? What do I make sure not to do that teachers who mean well often do with respect to mixed race kids?" Allison, any thoughts on either side of that?
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: Yeah. I think we hope and encourage folks will get a chance to connect up with the clips in the book, in part because this is the focus. And part of it is we encourage these exercises, these practices that are very consistent with practices that teachers are really good at doing, which is I think teachers are uniquely equipped to help kids feel like they belong. And they need practice at talking about race and thinking about race in complex manners. And so I think it's about getting a chance to practice that. I'm really glad to hear that someone is saying that they're supporting affinity groups. That was very consistent about what kids wanted. Not only that, it was also very, very consistent that schools were saying no. Like, "No, we can't have affinity group. No, that would make White people feel bad." So I actually think sharing the resources about how to create affinity groups. And we bring some of those resources to bear by listening to teachers who do it. What kids are hungry for is a sense of belonging and a sense of connection.
In terms of what not to do, the kids actually speak to that as well. Don't just be silent about it. And don't presume that your silence is actually helping out. The kids are very, very specific that we need teachers who feel supported and equipped to talk about race and race difference and difference, period. This idea that if I don't talk about it, it'll go away is actually very painful.
I think last, a growth mindset around making mistakes and staying in connection is very important. We hear from so many folks, "I'm so scared to do the wrong thing. I'm so scared to say something." So then people end up silent. Or, "I'm so scared that my children are going to be impacted by race, so my hope is that Whiteness will protect them." The kids are very, very loud that it's not helping them, it's not protecting them. So that was a whole lot, but I think it's in part because the conversations we had with kids were really nuanced and complex, and their requests were very clear. We asked every kid, "What do you want teachers to know? And what do you want schools to do?"
EmbraceRace: Right. So there are some teachers in your book that were really exceptional in creating that belonging for kids.
How do you curate a classroom with mixed children to explore their identity safely?
Sort of along the same lines there. And it does make me think about... maybe was there someone named Mr. Daley or Mr. Day, Mr. Daley? Yeah. And he reminded me of, we had some people who were book folks, like reader folks talking about race in picture books and how to talk to kids. And always when we have anything about books, everyone wants a book list. Book list about these kids, these kids. And the folks who were on, and Megan Dowd Lambert was one of them, and Hannah Gomez said, "We hate book lists. If you really want to get something that your kid attaches to, go to the librarian and talk about your kid's interest, this, this, this." And I think that that's kind of a nice analogy.
When you're curating your classroom, is it that you get out the book list that everyone's going to have in their classroom and put those on the shelves, or you really talk to the kids about who they are? And that was something. I mean, what was special about Mr. Daley? Maybe one of you can talk about him a little bit.
Dr. Ralina Joseph: Yeah, he was really fantastic. If it's okay actually, I pulled up... because I wanted to share some of his words. And this is how we start this chapter. I would say the chapter four is really on these really special teachers. And who, as Allison points out, we ended our interview saying, well, who are the teachers that are really impactful and what we wanted to ask this question of belonging? "Who makes you feel like you belong at school?" And we got this, "Nothing, nobody." And so we had to return back, and Mr. Day was one of the ones who came back and the students really identified with. And so he teaches at a large, racially diverse public high school.
And so he started off for us, he said that for him, relationship is key. He quotes Maya Angelou and says, "People will forget what you say, but they'll always remember how you made them feel." He notes, "All the content that I do is important and it'll be beneficial for students in their educational career, and maybe their professional career." But what makes them actually, "consider myself the most successful is if my students come to my space and they feel like they feel seen, they feel validated and they feel like they were treated as more than just a person who was supposed to be graded." He says that, "Especially for a lot of students of color, if you have that established relationship, you can be talking about how paint dries and students are more likely to roll with you. They may not roll with the content, naturally because they're not interested in it. But if you're talking to them about it, they're going to follow you and they're going to work with you because they appreciate you."
So just in terms of context, when I was interviewing him, our interview kept on getting disrupted because students kept on opening up the door and being like, "Hi, Mr. Day. Hi, Mr. Day." They wanted to see him. They wanted to get acknowledged by him. He was a mixed race, African American teacher. And he started off by talking about his own journey. And that meant such a tremendous amount to all of the students who really formed kind of an unofficial affinity group around him, including a couple of our participants.
EmbraceRace: Did gender or other sort of personal group identities shape racial socialization and kids' attitudes towards all of this?
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: Yep, yep. So yeah, gender did, skin color did, hair color did, neighborhood, school composition. There were all of these roads into identity. We, in the beginning, in part paid attention, lifted up the stories around Black boys, in part because of the ways in which their risk is particular, right? And it's not as if other kids don't have risk too. There's a risk for Black girls as well. But it is an intersectional experience. So gender definitely played a lot, as did all these other factors, right? So many parents talked about where are we going to choose to send our kids to school? Where will they be seen? Where could they possibly be seen? So many parents talked about the issues of feeling the need that they had to choose between either diversity or a "good school." Kids knew that these were the decisions that were being made, too. So yeah, it's all of those factors, gender, neighborhood, school, class were very impactful for their experiences.
EmbraceRace: We're getting, by the way, in the questions, and we did earlier as well, sort of live and earlier, a lot of people saying, "Oh my gosh." A mixed race adult saying, "I've been waiting for this conversation forever, and it's great to hear experiences like mine." So there's really a lack of research around this, right? There's more and more conversation, but it does feel like, yeah, people are hungry for more. So we're glad that you created this book.
What are the question that racially ambiguous kids get? And I was fascinated in the book that you brought some of the science behind people's responses to mixed race kids, or particularly those that they see as racially ambiguous. And I wonder if you could talk about that. And Ralina, could you tell the story about that class evaluation you got as well?
Dr. Ralina Joseph: Yeah. This is kind of a typical experience for me. So one of the stories that I tell in the book, as we're talking about, in particular, racial ambiguity and this what are you question, is that when I was an Assistant Professor, so many years ago, and I was at... probably this was maybe about 14 years ago, teaching a large lecture class. And I got the, we call them the dreaded yellow sheets. So that's when people could do their long hand comments. And I got one that said, "If you just told me what you were, I could focus better in class." Which I thought was just really, really interesting that this student, we're in the quarter system, over the course of 10 weeks, 20 lectures was just somehow so focused on trying to figure out my racial background, as opposed to all of the brilliance that I was speaking on those days. And we know that there is actual science. I did not know this at all until I started working with Dr. Briscoe-Smith here. So Allison, I don't know if you want to just share some of the science behind this?
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith: Yeah. So what we were able to do is to bring it together. That's a painful and salient quote that was actually really a moment of truth telling. There is brain science that actually shows that people become kind of tapped out if they can't figure out the category of the person in front of them. Now I say brain science gets tapped out, but I also want to say we can overcome that. It's not necessary to place another person. It's really about a person's discomfort at not being able to tell who the person is across from them. And I think anyone that is multiracial or is read as multiracial or has the experience has felt that, that desire of the person across from them to try to categorize, to test, to figure it out, and to place them.
So again, I'm operating as much as I can with generosity about what that is, because it manifests very painfully and it manifests, as we detail within the book, with some pretty significant consequences. Things like, "You should probably pay more attention to basketball, because clearly, that's who you are." Or the research that indicates that when you place multiracial folks who are multiracial Black and White in particular dress, that there's an association of class and intelligence because, "Oh, now I can finally read you." So these things do show up, but it's people's inability to kind of manage their brain a bit that moves them to the place of needing to categorize. And what we're actually really hoping for is that people pause a moment, listen a moment, and pay attention to the other things that might help you figure out whether or not you can connect, as opposed to... If that person missed out on the brilliance that Dr. Joseph has to offer, right? Because it's uncomfortable. Be uncomfortable and figure it out. These kids are figuring it out, we can do this as well.
EmbraceRace: I mean, the flip side of many people's unease with the racial ambiguity, or not being able to figure it out is that as you think about... we also have lots of research on this, how readily, how quickly we assess racial identity, gender identity, and age with a split second of meeting someone, no matter how fleeting, right? So when I think of, sometimes I check myself or I ask others, that person that you checked out when you checked out, you bought the candy bar or whatever, you encountered someone you don't know, it was fleeting. People can virtually always say, "Well, this is what I thought." Right? "I thought it was a man, I thought he was roughly this age, and I thought he was that racial category." And if I don't know, yes, that sense of wait, I wasn't able to place. I mean, if that doesn't speak to the investment we have in those categories, I don't know what does.
Right. And imagine as you have, and as you've listened, kids experiencing that when they know who they are, but they still get this confusion and this pain that you see.
Thank you. Yeah, this has been a great conversation. Amazing work. Yeah, really lovely to be with you both and with everyone here.
Resources (return to the top)
Generation Mixed Goes to School: Radically Listening to Multiracial Kids by Ralina Joseph and Allison Briscoe-Smith
Growing Up Mixed Race audio interviews - check out these audio interviews from the Generation Mixed Goes to School project, featured on the Center for Communication, Difference and Equity's Interrupting Privilege, Radical Listening website:
Things to Know if You Love a Multiracial Child - A collection of EmbraceRace resources about raising multiracial kids