Raising less-Brown kids and making space for grief and loss
How will my multiracial kids identify and why do I care so much?
by Divya Kumar
During the summer of 2020, I watched a fantastic webinar about raising multiracial children. As a Brown, South Asian-American woman married to a White man and mother of two multiracial children, I had had numerous conversations with my kids, then 11 and 13, about their racial identities. While I felt fairly certain about my kids’ comfort with their multiracial identities, I wondered how my kids would self-identify as they got older and my influence waned.
Riveted, I hunched over the computer screen and listened as the panelists discussed the dynamic process of defining racial identity and asserted that multi-racial children often label their racial/ethnic identity in relation to their context, surroundings, and peers. One viewer asked the question that was at the front of my mind: What if part-White multiracial children are asked to identify with only one ethnicity? What do they typically choose? I nodded my head at my computer screen, clicked the “like” button at the bottom of the Facebook Live window, and turned up the volume of my laptop. The panelists responded that when asked to identify with only one ethnicity, many multiracial children who have a White parent and a parent of color often choose the non-White ethnicity. *
I breathed a sigh of relief. My kids are not White-passing; my son’s skin is brown and my daughter is olive-skinned. While I know that my children will make their own decisions and will define their identity for themselves, I will also feel a deep sense of grief and loss if my children do not identify as Asian-American, South Asian, Indian, or multi-racial-- and instead only identify as White. Choosing to identify only as White would feel like an erasure of my identity in them, a loss of the piece that represents me, my parents, as well as all of the stories, food, and culture that I was raised with.
The pressure on my family, and especially on me as the first generation raised in the U.S., to assimilate into Whiteness and participate in the erasure of our cultural heritage and practices was significant and painful. If my kids chose to identify only as White, it would feel like a further erasure of what cultural and ethnic identity remains with me after my own assimilation. Interestingly, through all of the thought-provoking comments offered by the webinar panelists, no one discussed grief and loss, and as I continued to listen to the webinar, the anticipation of impending loss nagged at me.
As a child of Indian immigrants, I have navigated a non-linear and often fraught road to figure out how to be Brown in a way that feels both true to my own experience and also socially and emotionally safe. When I was my kids’ ages and was a Brown kid in White suburban Connecticut, I desperately wished I could blend in and that I could be rid of the brown skin that marked me as different and other. I would have given anything to have my Brownness erased and to not have to check the Asian box on a form. As a teenager, I had learned that distancing myself from my Indian-ness and assimilating into White cultural norms could provide some social protection. I could not peel off my brown skin (to my dismay), so instead I rejected all aspects of my culture and upbringing. I proudly declared to my White friends that I hated Indian food and that I didn’t know anything about Hinduism and couldn’t speak an Indian language. “I’m not Indian like that,” I would say.
When I became a parent, though, I felt an unprecedented pull to connect with my culture and integrate aspects of Indian-ness into the forefront of my identity. Like many new parents, I underwent an existential crisis during a massive life transition, and as I reflected on that “who am I” question, I gravitated towards the values, food, and stories that I was raised with. As I raised my kids, I realized that I no longer wanted to be “not Indian”; moreover, I wanted my children to not only understand their ethnic and cultural heritage, but also to be comfortable with it—instead of running away from it like I did. I wanted my kids to love chicken biryani and gladly heat up leftover dal for lunch. I wanted my kids to pronounce Indian names correctly and not butcher sounds to make them easier for White folks to say. I wanted my kids to feel safe doing what I could not when I was their age.
For the first time in my life, I consciously sought out friends who identify as people of color. Eager to connect with other first-generation Indian American parents, I approached Brown moms at the playground and smiled and said hello, often introducing myself with the soft D in my name, as opposed to the hard D that my mother hated but that I had adopted because it was what Americans could pronounce. I now have many friends of color, some of whom have formed multiracial families. Those of us with White partners often talk about the privileges and challenges of raising Brown-and-also-White-adjacent kids as the parent of color. We talk about our own respective journeys with our racial identity development. I feel like I am exhaling after years of holding my breath.
As parents, our instinct is to protect our kids, and after suffering through years of race-based bullying and microaggressions, I have had the privilege to make numerous life choices (where we live, where my kids go to school) that support my kids’ identities; they are not the only kids of color or only Brown kids in their peer groups. But I know I can’t fully protect them from racism, and I would do them and their peers a disservice to pretend I could; instead I can prepare them. As a parent, it’s my job to support and affirm my kids’ racial and other identities, building them up and preparing them to be resilient in the face of racism. I can teach them to see and name racism in all its forms and to speak out against it as advocates for themselves and as allies for others. I'm grateful to have a village of like-minded families who are raising their kids similarly and with whom I can process this aspect of parenting.
The author's mother celebrates Diwali
My mother died in May of 2021 after suffering from a neurodegenerative condition that ruined her physical functioning for the last few years of her life. As I navigate a world without her, the loss of connection to culture and traditions I was raised with looms larger and heavier. I spent much of my adolescence and early adulthood putting distance between myself and my Indian identity so that I could feel safe and feel like I belonged in White spaces, and I now see that distance means that much of the rituals and culture that was central to my parents’ childhood homes will be lost when they leave this Earth.
I don’t speak an Indian language; while I can understand some Hindi, I’m nowhere near fluent. What was that Telugu idiom that my mother used to describe an old curmudgeon? Google translate will never be able to tell me. While I can cook some of the dishes I grew up eating, my food never tastes exactly like my mother’s. How much tamarind did she add to her dal to give it just the right amount of tangy sourness? Perhaps I should have paid closer attention while she cooked. While I can put on a sari (with help from YouTube), I know my mother would frown and use yet another untranslatable Telugu idiom to describe my uneven, bunched pleats. I remember being a young child and sitting on my mother’s bed as she put on a sari, her hands quickly folding and draping six yards of cloth while she held two pins in her teeth, ready to secure her seemingly effortlessly folded pleats to her under-skirt. Since I have worn a sari only a handful of times in my life, my hands are uncertain, and what was a beautiful, elegant garment for my mother feels like a precarious dress-up situation for me. The sari doesn’t feel like mine to wear.
For years, I sought safety from racial trauma by rejecting my heritage, and consequently, as an adult, I find myself somewhat disconnected from my parent’s culture. The cooking, celebrations, and traditions remain, but my iterations are more clumsy and uncertain and are far from seamless and effortless. Rejecting my parents’ culture and my Indian identity as a child probably did keep me safer at times, and even though I have landed at a place of security with my Indian identity as an adult, the cost of not holding tight to my Indian culture has resulted in feelings of ongoing grief and loss– feelings which I did not anticipate and are painful to sit with. Consequently, the question of how my kids will self-identify feels fraught.
I wish my process of bushwhacking my racial identity path and holding onto my Indian identity could guarantee that my children would not have to struggle to figure out their own racial identity—but in reality, I know that they, too, will have to navigate a path of their own. As a child, I wished I didn’t have to check the “Asian” box on a form, and as an adult and a parent, I have tried to give my kids the language, tools, resilience, and support so that they can check that box—and embrace their Indian identity-- easily, proudly, and without second-guessing themselves.
But what if they choose not to check the Asian box? Unlike me, my kids can choose to check a White box and only a White box. Again—while they may not pass as White, they can in theory choose to only check that White box. Colorism is common in communities of color, and I know that many folks of color choose to identify with Whiteness when given the opportunity to do so. My kids can choose to erase their Brown-ness, at least on paper, and this by-product of assimilation elicits waves of my anticipatory grief.
But this is parenting, right? Giving our kids tools and space to build their own emotional foundations so they can grow into the people they are and define their identity for themselves, even if this means that they end up making the choices we wouldn’t choose for them—even if this means they end up not making the choices we worked hard to make easy for them, or at least easier than they were for us.
Perhaps my work as a mother is to support my Brown-White multiracial kids as they navigate their identity journeys so that they can hold the pieces of their cultures, histories, families, and stories—and integrate them into their own story in a way that feels authentic and true to them. Perhaps this is how I give them what I didn’t get: I acknowledge the struggle of navigating racial identity development and the process of figuring out how to be Brown, or somewhat Brown, in different social spaces. And of course I wonder—in the process of that integration, will my kids leave my identity behind? Maybe, and perhaps we parents of color of with part-White, multiracial children are always anticipating the loss of what we have crafted, carried, struggled with, and hold as ours, just as my parents knew that pieces of their own culture would be lost.
Even if my multiracial kids choose to identify as White, perhaps they are carrying on my legacy of defining themselves as they want to, knowing that they can figure out what their racial identity means to them, and talk to their parents about it-- that, too, is my legacy. If that happens, I hope that I’ll be able to say to my kids, “I know that you’re not Indian in the way that I am, and that’s OK, and also, it’s sad for me to know that parts of my culture will be lost. And also, I love you and I see you.” I hope that I’ll be able to both name that grief and also make space for my kids to freely define themselves.
A year after I watched that webinar about raising multiracial children, my 14-year-old son was filling out a form for his high school. Faced with checking boxes for his race and ethnicity, he opted to check “Asian American” and “Multiracial”. I asked him, “Do you want to check ‘White’ as well?”
“Not really,” he said. “Do I have to? I’m not White.”
“You can choose how you identify and can check as many boxes as you want,” I replied to him. “And Dad’s White,” I added.
“OK,” he replied. “If I can check as many boxes as I want, I’ll check ‘White’ too, but if I could only pick one, I wouldn’t check that one. I mean, I’m clearly Asian-American, and I’m fine with being multiracial too, but I’m not White.”
I caught my breath and did the quick mental calculation that parents of teenagers often make—how to show interest without applying too much pressure, how to show that you care without seemingly heavily invested, how to approve without “making it a thing”.
“OK,” I replied. “It’s up to you.”
“OK,” he said again, as he pushed his thick wavy hair out of his face, checked the Asian-American and multiracial boxes, and closed the computer. “Thanks, Mom.”
* A point of clarification: the webinar presenters (and folks who study multiracial identities) were clear that however kids choose to identify, it's up to them and that there is no right or wrong answer. While this is hard for parents who are trying to raise strong kids of color to reconcile, it’s important for us to remember that identity is fluid and we as parents should not pathologize our children’s choices.