Raising Multiracial Children, Part 1: Examining Multiracial Identity
Roughly one in seven U.S. infants (14%) are multiracial or multiethnic (Pew, 2017), but what does it mean to be multiracial? It’s complicated!
In Part 1 in this conversation about raising multiracial kids we speak with our guests - Drs. Victoria Malaney Brown, Marcella Runell Hall and Kelly Faye Jackson - about some of the complexities of identifying with more than one race, and about the pivotal role families play in shaping how multiracial children come to understand themselves and the world around them. This dynamic is especially complex in this historical moment as the United States comes to terms with its own White supremacist roots.
Our guests describe the challenges and strengths of identifying with more than one racial group, highlighting examples from recent research, and draw from their own personal experiences as multiracial individuals and parents of multiracial children. As always we end with your questions and comments.
For the second in this series, go to Raising Multiracial Children, Part 2: Anti-Blackness in Multiracial Families.
EmbraceRace: Welcome, folks.
We're glad you're with us tonight. This is one of a series of Talking Race and Kids conversations. It's actually a two-parter, but it's part of a larger series. We do this regularly. Joining, whether you're familiar with the topic or not, is a great way to learn and continually grow in your capacity and understanding about how race works.
So welcome. Tonight the topic is Raising Multiracial Children, Part 1. There's a two-parter for the first time. Examining the Complexity of Multiracial Identity. A lot of you have signed up for part two as well, which is called Raising Multiracial Children, Part 2: Dismantling Anti-Blackness in Multiracial Families. It's a really nice pair, so we really encourage you if you haven't signed up for the second one to join us for that.
We have three scholars with us, the first, Dr. Victoria Malaney Brown, is a multiracial scholar, practitioner, and soon-to-be mom of a multiracial son. Victoria works in the higher education administration at Columbia University and researches how multiracial college students experience racism and engage with racial justice as a research affiliate at the Center for Student Success Research at University of Massachusetts Amherst, which is where we're located, here in Amherst. Great to have you, Victoria. Thanks for joining.
And then our good friend Dr. Marcella Runell Hall is a Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students and Lecturer in Religion at Mount Holyoke College. She's an affiliated member for the Center of Racial Justice and Youth Engaged Research (CRJ) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and serves on the board for the Holyoke Children's Museum. She is a white mom committed to anti-racist, pro-liberation parenting, raising two amazing young daughters who identify as Black and mixed in Western Mass with her partner. Welcome, Marcella. Great to see you.
And Dr. Kelly Faye Jackson, an Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University. Kelly is a social worker and a multiracial person who examines the identity, development, and overall wellbeing of persons of mixed racial and ethnic heritage. Dr. Jackson is co-author of the book Multiracial Cultural Attunement (NASW, 2019), which introduces a critical and anti-racist model of practice for helping professionals serving multiracial individuals and families. She self-identifies as mixed Black and white and resides in Phoenix with her partner, young daughter, and a puppy.
EmbraceRace, Melissa: I want to just point out that this book has meant a lot to me. This is Kelly's book, and she wrote it along with Gina Samuels, who has been on EmbraceRace before, who's a transracial adoptee, talking about transracial adoptees and adoptions. You guys should definitely check that out. We'll send you the resource.
We're always interested in knowing how our guests came to do the work that they do.
So let me start with you, Marcella. How did you come to this work?
Marcella Runell Hall: Thank you, Andrew and Melissa. Thank you for having me here. I'm so grateful to be in this company and this panel right now. This is really such an honor.
I think for me, really childhood, growing up, trying to figure out as I moved around different places how to understand race and why so many grownups couldn't talk about race. Even though I identified as white, I moved in and out of different social groups and settings and had lots of opportunity to think about race and racism and not a lot of ways to do that with the grownups in my life. For me, it's been a lifelong journey, and I am particularly drawn to this conversation because of my family, because of my children, because I am always in process, trying to learn more, do more. But, for me, writing, thinking, talking about issues of race is really a passion for me, so it's really important to me to show up and keep learning and unlearning. So that's how I got here today.
EmbraceRace: Thank you. Thank you, Marcella. Kelly?
Kelly Faye Jackson: Thanks again. So happy to be able to be here and just be able to talk to your guests about multiracial identity development. I was texting with my brother before I got on here, telling him how nervous I was, and he mentioned, "We've lived this." So when I think about your question about what brought you to this work, in many ways it's my life. Also being a social worker and recognizing that there wasn't a lot of information out there about multiracial identity, multiracial families, that was something that really challenged me to go into research and to really try to contribute to expanding our literature in that area.
And then I think, more recently, what really brings me to this work is being a mom, raising my daughter, who's seven years old. She's very white passing. I guess not in many ways, even though I do this work, really being prepared for how do I work with that? How do I prepare her and interrupt her from doing some of the things that we see now that white people do? Really not wanting her to be an oppressor and how to socialize her around that. That's where I'm at.
EmbraceRace: Yeah. Thanks, Kelly. And, Victoria, last not least, the scholar and mom-to-be now within two weeks possibly.
Victoria Malaney Brown: Fast approaching. Thanks for having me today. Becoming a parent is a new title to be for me, but I was grateful to join in the conversation because I come to this work because, similar to Kelly, this has been my lived experience for 30-plus years of my life. I grew up in South Florida originally and I'm calling in today from New York City metro area, but more specifically I think so much of the experiences that I've had as a young person and now as an adult have ranged from really my family experiences.
I didn't identify myself, I guess, when I look back at my bio, but I would like to share that just to give some context. My mother grew up in Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, and the island itself is very mixed and multiethnic. She, herself, is multiracial and multiethnic. I have a very mixed Indo-Caribbean, African, and Spanish roots from that family heritage, but my father is a white American and Irish is his background, hence Melaney of one of my surnames. So growing up in South Florida with a really ambiguous experience, most times people wouldn't be able to place me. As a child, I had a lot of experiences growing up where I would be called different backgrounds or racial sometimes slurs. People would be confused about my parents, my hair, or what I looked like, and that was something that was a struggle for me, and I didn't quite have the language to really talk about it. We're going to mention that in the conversation today.
But, as I moved towards college and as an adult, what got me to this work now and doing my recent dissertation work on racism and college students and thinking about racial justice, it all evolved from my experiences growing as a young person into an adult and wanting to investigate this question more. Because all of us want to see our students and our children succeed and become healthy, positive adults, and the identity development conversation we're going to have today all intersects in that. There's so much your parents can do. My hope is that just sharing a little bit about my background and having us all talk a little bit more about our experiences in researching this and living this experience will give us more context to hopefully help you all share in how you're thinking about this for your kids and your families.
EmbraceRace: Thank you so much. We're so grateful that you're sharing all this with us. I'm going to follow up on what you said, Victoria, about not having the language to talk about your experience.
What does it mean really to be multiracial? What are the terms we should be using with kids?
Marcella Runell Hall: I think it's important to start with the premise that we believe race is a social construction. Obviously, that's a premise that we're coming from, but, because it impacts all of our systems, laws, policies, practices, the way that we interact in the world, it's important that we use these terms knowing that context.
So really the term that we're using here is multiracial, and the Pew Research Center in 2015 defined multiracial as someone who selects two or more races for themselves. So that's a preferred term, as opposed to biracial, which really ends up reinforcing this biological reality of race that we're really rejecting. Multiracial is the term that we're talking about here.
And then monoracial is another term that you might hear we're defining. It's a single racial category. Victoria's going to talk a little bit more about monoracism and where that fits in.
Victoria Malaney Brown: Sure. Monoracism is a relatively new term that's come out in scholarship, but it really defines everyday lived experiences. It was coined by two researchers, Marc Johnston and Kevin Nadal in 2010, both friends and colleagues I'm happy to also say. But the definition of that is monoracism is a social system of psychological inequality where individuals who do not fit monoracial categories may be oppressed on systemic and interpersonal levels because of these underlying assumptions and beliefs in singular, discrete racial categories. I know that was a lot. What does that exactly mean? That individuals who are multiracial and identify as such don't fit the monoracial categories that the US has constructed for us to live in and work around.
What's problematic about that is monoracism is really a systematic privileging of things, people, and practices that are racialized as single race or racially pure. So this idea that you have to be racially pure or single raced or monoracial in order to then fit the norm of our racialized society, meaning that you have to be one race only.
Imagine, for a lot of you here, that your children's experiences or your family's, you have someone who's multiracial. It's a subtle form of racism that occurs in American society and really deeply affects multiracial people to the point where they don't realize that it's happening until you get the language and education to understand what is monoracism and how does it impact me or how am I affected by it.
Monoracism is a social system of psychological inequality where individuals who do not fit monoracial categories may be oppressed on systemic and interpersonal levels because of these underlying assumptions and beliefs in singular, discrete racial categories... So this idea that you have to be racially pure or single raced or monoracial in order to then fit the norm of our racialized society, and that meaning that you have to be one race only.
Dr. Victoria Malaney Brown
EmbraceRace: There's a strong cluster speaking exactly to this, saying, essential, multiracial people, multiracial children, not being made comfortable within monoracial organizing frameworks. "Not X enough for this or Y enough for that to be in that group."
Thank you so much, both of you. Kelly, I want to come to you with this really fundamental question.
How do multiracial people and multiracial children come to understand their racial identity?
Kelly Faye Jackson: I tried to simplify it a little bit by creating a Prezi, a model to walk us through. There's been a lot of work that has been done over the years and a lot of people who have been involved in this, and I see Dr. Gina Samuels is one of the participants. And Amanda Erickson from Maven. A lot of people have contributed to this work, so I want to make sure that I do it some justice but also to break it down a little bit for folks.
(Kelly presents slides via a Prezi)
Examining Multiracial Identity
Kelly Faye Jackson: When we think about multiracial identity, when we go in and check it out, I would say that there are four factors that really contribute to our understanding of how multiracial kids come to understand themselves, and it's complicated. I think identity in general is really complicated, as it should be, so we need to think a little bit more complexly when we look at racial identity, beyond just what somebody looks like.
Kelly Faye Jackson: The first factor that influences multiracial identity development, and this is a big one, is context. Context really matters. Who multiracial children interact with, the various systems surrounding them, inform how they understand themselves racially. This could mean the racial composition of the neighborhoods we live in. This could mean the schools that we attend and the racial composition within the schools. If our communities are inclusive of persons who represent the various racial groups of our kids. This all informs how a multiracial child comes to understand who they are.
The other big piece is interpersonal relationships. Our relationships help us understand about race, about who we are racially, and how we interact with others who may be different from us. The biggest influencer for multiracial children are their parents and caregivers. I think to stress that, they're the ones that really do inform the ideas about race, what it is, what am I. These messages come from not only talking with our parents about race but also watching their behavior, so what they do when it comes to race or don't do. I've seen that in my research where children will ask their parents about race or something will happen, say some discrimination had happened to them and they'll ask their parent, and the parent will be very silent about it. That does inform how the multiracial kid comes to understand race. "This isn't a topic that I should be bringing up."
Developmental- Age and Place
Kelly Faye Jackson: Moving on, another factor that contributes to multiracial identity development is age, age and time. Sometimes people get confused. In compared to monoracial people, multiracial people have this plethora of different ways to identify themselves. Multiracial people can identify with one racial group. They can identify with multiple racial groups: "I'm American Indian. I'm Mexican. I'm Black." They can identify as multiracial. "I'm mixed. That's who I am," Or not with a race at all, so "I'm human," or any combination of the above. And to complicate things more, multiracial people can also change how they identify over time and in different contexts.
I was thinking a little bit about my own identity and how I've come to label myself, which is often different from how people perceive you. Something that I've been struggling with as an adult as I've gotten older is people perceiving me as white and making that assumption. When I was younger, I didn't really get that. Now it's adjusting to recognizing my environment and the people that I'm surrounding with and how they're reading me. But, again, also being able to emphasize that that might not be how I see myself. So realizing all of that I think is really important when we think about multiracial people.
Intersectional and Multidimensional
Kelly Faye Jackson: Yes. Moving onto another factor, and thanks for sticking with me. I know sometimes models can be really boring. Multiracial identity development is intersectional. It is informed by our various social identities, our gender, ethnicity, cultural beliefs and practices, our abilities, social class, political affiliations, or spirituality. Our social identities shape how each of us experiences oppression and privilege within this country.
I was thinking about examples, because multiracial people and families are very diverse. So the ways that one multiracial person experiences oppression and has privilege will be very different from another multiracial person, and that could be because of their skin complexion, their hair texture. It could be because they're from a lower socioeconomic status. It could be because they identify as queer or LGBT. It could be for a whole number of reasons. So recognizing that social identities definitely inform who we are as multiracial people.
And I wanted to keep on this topic in looking at the current context and thinking through what we're going through in terms of the different pandemics, particularly the one, systemic racism and White supremacy, is recognizing that this also informs how multiracial people, particularly multiracial Black people, are experiencing and coming to understand themselves and their identities. That's another thing that I think is really important.
Risk and Resilience
Kelly Faye Jackson: Finally, last one is multiracial identity development is resilient. We brought up the concept of monoracism. We're going to talk a little bit more about that. But needing to recognize that our society is very mono-centric. This was a term coined by my colleague Dr. Samuels in thinking about how our society in many ways, because of White supremacy, because of beliefs in essentialism and that race is biologically real, we are consumed with putting people in single, static categories. But this doesn't always represent everybody. I think the problem that we see and that we run into with multiracial people is there are a lot of risks in trying to navigate through a society that really wants you to pick and choose and be one.
I think, with the risks, and I think this is something that we should recognize for all children, all children of color in particular, are their strengths. There's inherent strengths with having a strong racial identity. The emphasis is usually on risks and disparities, but also there's strengths that come when you have a strong racial identity and you feel pride and a sense of connection to your different racial heritages. I think that was one piece that I think it's important that we stress and emphasize as well.
EmbraceRace: Thank you, Kelly. I was telling you all that I learned the term monoracism pretty recently in reading your book. I'd been trying to say it in other ways. To your point about resilience as well, is one of the analogies I made is, with so many trans brothers and sisters speaking about their dilemma, their identities, and countering the binary, I understand that so easily.
I'd had friends who'd say, "But isn't he a boy?" And I'd say, "Oh, they have to be a boy or a girl?" And that's exactly the "Aren't you white? What are you?" is exactly that question that you get repeatedly, that multiracial people get. They look into other people and there's a question and what your identity in that moment. If you're not telling your kids that you get to self-identify, other people will identify you in multiple ways. If you don't know that as a child, it's a big question mark in everybody's faces that you meet.
And that insistence, that insistence on knowing, being able to identify you, just feels so telling and so instructive. Clearly, there's something really at stake for a great many people in being able to say, "This is what you are," because there's something associated with that. There's something that follows from that that a lot of people find profoundly uncomfortable not to know, not to be able to do.
One of you said earlier that one of the reasons monoracism can be so pernicious is that people, I think, Victoria said, don't recognize it, and that, even within our families, it's not recognized.
Can you talk about how monoracism shows up in families? What are you seeing in families and the experience of multiracial kids?
Marcella Runell Hall: I think one of the things for my daughters that has become very clear is that they certainly understand that they have multiple identities and that they identify, as you said in my bio, as Black and mixed, but there's a lot behind that. Their dad is from the Caribbean, two different places in the Caribbean, Barbados and St. Kitts. My ancestors are Irish, almost entirely Irish. And they slowly understand that that's their cultural background, but that's not necessarily the way people read them.
So what happens is there is this erasure, this monoracism, that happens where the Irish part, for example, gets completely taken out. This is a big deal in a place like Massachusetts. St. Patrick's Day's kind of a big thing. It's a holiday. As young as kindergarten, my oldest daughter came home upset and frustrated as she was telling her peers that she was Irish, and they were like, "Well, everybody's Irish on St. Patrick's Day," and she was like, "That might be true, but I am literally Irish." I had to write a note to the teacher and say, "Look, I don't know what your framework is, but I just want you to understand that this is actually an important part of her identity." That's actually been something. We've gone to Ireland. We've talked about it. We've learned about ancestry.
But it's been something that's become both a place of resilience, an example of being able to advocate for yourself, of being able to see yourself in different places, but also of knowing that adults don't always have all the language or the framework and they use monoracism often as their lens. "You look Brown. You must be this." And often it's not even correct. It's also putting her in a box that is not her box. This idea then that maybe she's Latinx or something because they can't identify her.
I think those are the ways in can show up with children, and I think that that's really important and it needs to be undone. That's the unlearning part. That's the part of question the assumptions and apologize, take responsibility, and then do it better next time.
EmbraceRace: Let me ask a follow-up there that comes from a question that was submitted to us. It was someone who said, "Gosh, isn't it true that mixed-race kids, let's say white and something else, tend to identify with the other thing?" As she put it, the group that's discriminated against. So, Marcella, you've given an example in which that's not the case, that your daughters want to identify with both their parents, the various heritages from which they come. I wonder what your take is, all of you, on whether or not that's changed over time?
Victoria Malaney Brown: Yeah. Absolutely. As I went through my background, my father is White and I'm a mixed person of color is how I see myself, but I would also identify with what Marcella's daughter has had, over my lifetime, particularly with the Irish piece, because that's happened to me many times, the constant denial of how you actually self-identify and how you are related ancestry wise to your heritage. It's not for other people to say, "Well, you're not this." In doing so, and when that happens in that moment, it's actually a denial of your multiracial self.
But, to go back to your question about whether the person identifies more with the other background, I think it depends. It's all on context and time and place. For me, a big part of my way in which I perceive myself and navigate the world is really tied, ingrained and deeply, to my Trinidadian heritage. Even though most times, even if I've travel to Trinidad and I've grown up many times going there, as a young baby, my mom brought us and my siblings there. We spent many trips and times with our family. Culturally, understanding what it means to be Trini and what does it mean to connect to our culture and our roots and the food and the heritage and understanding all of that is super important. I think it really just depends on the context and the place and how you connect with people in different spaces. That's connected to resilience, and it's also connected to how people perceive you too.
[Multiracial people face] constant denial of how you actually self-identify and how you are related ancestry wise to your heritage. It's not for other people to say, "Well, you're not this." In doing so, and when that happens in that moment, it's actually a denial of your multiracial self.
Victoria Malaney Brown
Victoria Malaney Brown: But what I find fascinating is the minute you can have connection with folks and tell them... I met another Caribbean American who then understands "Oh, she's Trini. Her mother's Trini. She knows and understands thing." It opens up space and conversation for you too at the same time.
So it is contextual, absolutely, and it is over time that you develop the comfortability even to be able to say and be a part of those conversations, but it's all about exposure and how your family members are being thoughtful in introducing their multiracial child to these experiences. These are such rich experiences that have to happen in my opinion.
Kelly Faye Jackson: Thank you, Victoria. That was right on point. I just wanted to add that that also comes from history in our country when we think of the one-drop rule. We have to recognize that often these beliefs, these decisions that we make to identify with anything but white comes from this country that's rooted in white supremacy and the idea that you can never be white, and that rule was put in place in order to keep the children, which were the product of rape between African women and white enslavers, to continue to enslave their children, the product of that rape. I think that's also important. It's not just context but it's historical context.
We also know that the census, in tracking people of two or more race, also do some manipulation with the numbers and they do never count mixed-race people as white. These are all things that inform that continual practice.
EmbraceRace: Thank you for that, Kelly.
What are the benefits of being multiracial? How does being multiracial foster resilience?
Marcella Runell Hall: I can talk a little bit more. I'm always happy to talk about my children as an example of a thing that is common in other families I know. When you're talking about people making choices about their own identities, a lot is about safety and belonging. There's a lot there about where do you feel like you belong and where do you feel safe, and that is the context. That does shift and change in different moments in your life at different times.
But I think for my girls in particular there's this emphasis, as young children, around this matching. "Who am I going to match with?" Even when I was pregnant with my second daughter, my older daughter said, "Who's the baby going to match with? Is the baby going to be pink like you or dark Brown like Daddy or light Brown like me or some other color?" And she was two and a half. I think that that's an example or really sophisticated thinking and trying to figure out "Where do I fit in the world, where does my family fit in the world, and what does that mean?"
I think those conversations, for us as parents, particularly if you're a White parent in a family where people aren't necessarily matching, their hair, their skin, phenotype, that it's important to validate that.
There's a way you could shame a kid in a question like that. "Don't ask those questions. It doesn't matter who the baby's going to match with." But, to her, it did matter. She did want to understand, and not that I could predict, of course I couldn't, but that I could validate her inquiry and her desire to try to understand herself in the world. I think that is an example of resilience that happens all the time in families where people are having those conversations and noticing those differences and normalizing those conversations and questions.
EmbraceRace: Right, yeah. I find that too. We have tons and tons of amazing questions, and what we tend to do is try to identify the cluster of questions so we can speak to what comes up again and again for folks.
One such cluster is around, and Kelly you mentioned this, that as you came into adulthood, as you got older, that more people were identifying you as white. And we have quite a few questions around multiracial kids who are identified as white regardless of whether or not they do. I think in most contexts you either have parents who are concerned about something being imposed on children and, in some cases, are mentioning that the children are resisting this, are troubled by this.
What wisdom can you offer to parents and caregivers of multiracial kids who are being identified as white, regardless of whether or not they themselves identify as white?
Kelly Faye Jackson: I think first just honesty. It's difficult. It's really hard to be able to wrap your brain around strengthening your child's sense of self in a society that will rigidly only see her as one thing. I think, for me as an adult coming to terms with that myself, is making myself more aware of my environment. In my book with Dr. Samuels, we talk about decentering, and that's one of the things I think, when I'm in all-Black spaces or spaces with people of color, is really trying to feel affirmed within that space but not take up so much space knowing the privileges that I have because of my light skin, because of my light eyes, because of my straight - it used to be curly but straighter hair. I think, when I look at my daughter, it's almost like we're going through something similar where I'm trying to learn about it myself and be able to pass that down to her.
In my research, some of the things that we've noticed is that these children really want to see connections with their parents. It's not just about skin complexion, hair texture, if that doesn't align with the parent, often the child feels like "I'm not connected to you. There's this disconnect." I think, for myself, knowing that that was a real barrier for multiracial people as I got older, is always trying to make those connections with my daughter. It isn't always about skin color. It isn't always about hair texture. It could be about personality. It could be about some of the things that she likes to do. She loves art. That's something that I love. Making those connections so she feels connected to me. She knows she's mine and I'm hers, and the family, as a unit, has this multiracial identity that we're trying to nurture with her.
But it's difficult and it's challenging. Sometimes I find myself looking at her when I'm brushing her straight hair going, "I'm ready for curls. I've finally figured that out." And now this is where we're at, but also teaching her to love that part of herself. It's a struggle, but I think the more connected our children are to us and other people of color, particularly people that they love, the less likely they will enact some of the things that we're seeing in society, some of the racism that a lot of us experience day to day. I think that's my personal advice and also I think based on what we've seen so far in the research.
EmbraceRace: Thank you for that. We have a question from someone who says, "I'd love to hear about the multiracial makeup that goes beyond Black and white American mix. Some of us are Asian, Arab, South Asian, part Latin American. In my case, I am Brazilian and also Indigenous, Black, and Portuguese. My son's father's African American and also Cherokee. It feels like these other non-Black-and-white mixed identities get erased."
I wonder if that's coming up in your research or in talking to families and how you would advise parents to deal with that.
Victoria Malaney Brown: Definitely when you think about the body of scholarship and research on mixed-race people, families, children, a lot of it only emerged about 20 to 25 years ago, just broadly. You think about what Kelly was talking about with the US Census. Even in 2000, that was the only year that this country started deciding to categorize mixed and multiracial people in the US. But your question is totally valid around removing whiteness from the mix, then you look at Indigenous folks and other ethnic mixes.
There are some other scholars that you could look at. One in particular, he's a sociologist at the University of California Santa Barbara. His name is G. Reginald Daniel. He's done a lot of work on looking at Brazilian and mixed people and other intersections of Indigenous work. Another person you could check out is Andrew Jolivétte, who's at the San Francisco State University, who looks at Indigenous, multiethnic people and also connected the LGBTQ experience as well. Which is what Kelly had talked about at the beginning around, when we're thinking about multiracial identity, there's so many social identities that connect into a person. It's not just about your racial context, but it's also about how you identify with your gender identity, your sexual orientation, all of those things and more, your religious affiliation. Interfaith, multiracial families is a whole another topic and a whole another subject matter as well. That's why this conversation is so complex.
But there is more research out there but less so that I've seen on children and families, and that's a definite area that needs to grow more. And our hope is that, even by having these conversations and broadening our ability to look at these different combinations of families and diverse multiracial families, they'll be more work. And we'll talk a little bit about representation and why that matters too as we get towards the end of our conversation.
EmbraceRace: Thank you. Kelly, you mentioned your brother and saying that this is the life you lived. This is your experience we're talking about. There's a cluster of questions around biological siblings, sharing the same biological parents. We know that doesn't mean, Marcella, you mentioned, that they have the same color, etc. They have shared parentage, and we know it's not so unusual for them to make different identity choices.
And the tenor of the questions we have around this is "Boy, that's troubling," as in it can literally trouble relations within the family, because, for the last 20 years, Victoria, you mentioned mark all that apply. I think that was in 2000. Am I right about that, on the census?
Victoria Malaney Brown: Yeah. That's right.
EmbraceRace: Certainly at least over those 20 years and perhaps even more intensely now, these identity decisions are seen as political ones. And that happens within the family, such as you have siblings making different choices.
What advice do you have for parents whose biologically related children are are making different identity choices and they are thinking, "Yikes. What do I do with this?"
Kelly Faye Jackson: I can take this on. There has been some research. I'm thinking of Dr. Maria Root's work in the late '90s. Also, Miri Song has done some work on siblings. They are very different. For parents, they have to adjust and recognize that their children have varying degrees of understanding their race and may identify racially differently, and then that might change over time. I think, like with any children, children have different personalities. Different siblings can have different personalities. You really have to cater to support where that child is at in terms of how they see themselves and their identity.
Now, at the same time, something we talk about is really wanting to put out counternarratives to some of these more harmful beliefs about people in terms of race. For multiracial children, you really want to push back against this idea that you can only identify with one thing or you have to identify with the thing that you most look like. These are things that parents can constantly reinforce with their children who might be questioning themselves and questioning their siblings around that.
Something we talk about is really wanting to put out counternarratives to some of these more harmful beliefs about people in terms of race. For multiracial children, you really want to push back against this idea that you can only identify with one thing or you have to identify with the thing that you most look like.
Dr. Kelly Faye Jackson
EmbraceRace: There was a very helpful piece that Sara-Momii Roberts wrote for EmbraceRace based on Dr. Maria Root's Declaration of Rights of Mixed-Race People. It's called Five Things to Know when you Love a Mixed-Race Kid or something. It's really, really helpful.
One of the really lovely things about it is it's something she had done with her own son, a mixed-race son, which is they took Maria Root's declaration and actively rewrote it together in a way that made sense to her son and to her, which is really lovely.
We have a lot of questions from folks who are childcare providers or teachers or otherwise uncles, aunts who are not directly raising kids but are concerned about how they should be operating knowing that there are mixed-race kids and they might have different needs than monoracial kids.
What advice do you have for caregivers or teachers about how they can meet the possibly unique needs of mixed-race kids in their classrooms or their curricula?
Marcella Runell Hall: I can take a stab at that, sure. I think that one of the big things that we were hoping to convey in this is that there's a lot of work that we need to do as the grownups here, as the adults, on our own thinking. That's why people are here. I started by talking about unlearning, and that's actually a really important concept. Some of our apprehension coming into this space when we're working with kids who don't identify the same as us, whatever that means, is that we have a lot we know we need to unlearn and then we need to relearn other positive strategies.
What I would say to that is that this is where representation matters, of course. We have a resource list that we'll share that has some really good links to books and popular culture, and not that the popular culture is perfect. It's just good conversation starters. It's good to see representation and then complicate it. How does that feel similar or different to you? I've been talking about the Baby-Sitters Club. There's a lot there in the Netflix Baby-Sitters Club right now to unpack and start these conversations, but it's going to be a process. There isn't a way that we can say, "If you just do this thing, it will all be okay." It's much more complex than that.
I guess I would say take it on as your own work to do in terms of the learning and unlearning and be really committed to that. Look for representation. There's a lot written about windows and mirrors and using children's literature. You can see yourself. You can see other people's experiences. I think that that's all really, really important.
I guess I would just end this by saying that I think, when it comes to children, to listen. Ask children how they want to be identified, how do they see themselves, and then listen to that. I think that's really powerful and important and particularly in these conversations as kids are trying to figure it out.
When it comes to children, listen. Ask children how they want to be identified, how do they see themselves, and then listen to that.
Dr. Marcella Runell Hall
EmbraceRace: To that end, as is often true, we got quite a few questions regarding the youngest children. Here's one that I like. "My white Asian son is almost two. We have tons of baby books celebrating his Chinese heritage and his Jewish heritage, but I'm looking for ways to start talking to him specifically about race. I've read a lot about how babies recognize racial differences, but what does that mean? Race is a social construct."
Marcella, a point you underlined at the beginning. "He isn't seeing race. He's seeing physical differences, right? He recognizes that people in our neighborhood have different skin tones, that his dad and I have differently shaped eyes. What's he seeing and where do I start with him? "
Kelly Faye Jackson: I can say that children see differences very early, but they also start to assign qualities to those differences based on what they see in their environment, what they learn from their parents, what they watch on TV. So often those qualities are also associated with stereotypes. I think we have to actively make sure when our children are watching different things or getting the message that certain people are different than other people ... And, again, a lot of this comes from those roots in white supremacy and the idea that there is a hierarchy of different racial groups. You've seen this with the doll studies that are historic in talking about how children will assign bad labels to Black and Brown dolls versus white dolls. Those children were very young.
I think, knowing that, it's important to find literature that also talks about multiracial children. Now, and I agree with that question that came up. The focus is always on Black and white. There's not a lot of children books out there that aren't about people other than Black and white. You can try to find some. There are some out there. But it is difficult to find that representation sometimes when you're a mix other than that.
Yeah. That would be my first stab, is your child is recognizing differences and then they're also, I'm guessing, assigning qualities to those differences which often are rooted in racism and systemic oppression, so making sure that you're challenging that through other literature, other conversations, surrounding them with different people. And it might be time for us to put that slide up because these are a lot of those questions that we're getting.
Victoria Malaney Brown: I'd also add, too, just as far as other resources and people in your community. For me, I learned a lot from my grandparents. If your children have the ability to either be near to their grandparents or now, with technology, the ability to FaceTime or to see them, your child's grandparent has a lot to share, too, about their cultural roots, identity, food, custom, culture in ways that can be shared and create those bonds amongst your family. When I think back on my childhood in particular, I think so much on my grandmothers, who were able to answer some of those cultural questions I had about myself or to share in a family tradition of cooking curried chicken and different Caribbean dishes or Irish dishes when it came to celebrating St. Patrick's Day and other things.
I think that there's ways that, even if your children are really young, to incorporate that heritage piece and the cultural pieces to then show that the connection isn't just about recognizing racially skin color, skin tone but there's actually the historical and ancestral connection to your family and here's why we do those things and here's why the love and the bonding and the bigger family memories can be brought together in that way.
I know there was another question that was asked earlier, "What if my child's adopted?" or "What if they don't have those connections?" Then there's still ways as parents that you have to think outside the box, which is often a phrase connected to the multiracial community about how can you then make those connections to people in your area or who can you then connect to to be able to provide that information.
There's lots of ways that you can continue to do that, but those are just some other thoughts. I think grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins are really great resources when they can be positive, but we also know there can be senses of negative as well, which we will talk more about I think in part two of this conversation as well.
Kelly Faye Jackson: Just wanted to show the start, because I think a lot of the questions that we saw had to do with "So what do we do? How do we start?" I think that was something that we wanted to just give people three main points that can help them in beginning on their journey.
"It's all about you"
Marcella Runell Hall: I think this first one, as I alluded to, the "It's all about you" is really, really important. I think that, as you start to think about what it means in this moment in time historically to be a parent or caregiver in a multiracial family or to multiracial children, this is a particular historic moment where the "It's all about you" takes on a whole new meaning. What work have you done? What are you committed to? What are you reading? But more importantly, or perhaps as importantly, depending, is who are you in relationship with.
Expand your Networks
Marcella Runell Hall: I know there was a question that came in about "What if I'm not in correspondence with my former partner my child's other parent who identifies as a person of color and I'm white, for example?" I have to say. Those are really two different things.
The absence of a parent is one emotional issue and is one thing that we certainly need to deal with in families and that there's a loss there, whatever the circumstances are. But the part about their identity being representation and that being the only lifeline or connection I think is what we have to complicate. That's where it is all about you, and it does get into this piece about expanding your networks. If it doesn't happen organically that you have access to cousins and grandparents and others, how are you going to create that community that is reflective of your child's background and identities and what do your friendships look like?
That is part of my research about friendship. Many of us don't accurately report our friendships. We think our friendship circles are much more diverse than they actually are. There's some really good research out there to suggest that we have a lot of work to do as adults and that, as we get older, that that actually decreases our proximity to people who don't share the same racial background as us. I would add those two pieces.
EmbraceRace: Marcella, "It's all about you," are we to understand not only you have to do your work but also, in a way, you think it's all about you but actually you have to extend your network and it's other people as well, yeah?
Marcella Runell Hall: Yes. It's a play on words. We're trying to say that you do need to extend your network, but you do need to do your own work. And to really challenge the assumptions that there's anything that needs to be fixed or that is broken about your child, that you actually have the ability, from your privileged perspective, if that's your identity, assuming that that's what we're talking about, in relationship to your child, to do the work, to really educate yourself and to participate and to show up, even when it's uncomfortable and you feel vulnerable, like you're the only one or you're in a situation you wouldn't choose to be in, because you're doing something that is expanding your network and you are trying to create that structure and that container for your child to grow and see themselves, which, of course, leads to representation matters. We covered that quite a bit here, but it can't be said enough how important that is.
Marcella Runell Hall: Beverly Tatum talks about a photograph. Any time one of us gets a photograph and we know we were in the photograph, where do we go? We immediately go to look for ourselves, your own face. It's a powerful human behavior to immediately look for ourselves. If you yourself actually aren't in it, you're going to look for representation of yourself.
EmbraceRace: Clearly, the context, and Kelly mentioned context among other things, the context for sort of multiracial identity and multiracialism has changed so much and is changing so quickly, from of course the identity choices that are available to multiracial people, the burden I think often placed on multiracial people. Like, "Multiracial people are going to save the world, are going to resolve US race relations. They embody the change we want to see," that kind of nonsense and imposition.
As scholars of multiracialism, multiracial identity, and people invested in it personally, through your children or through your own identities, what are you seeing? What's the trend? How are you feeling? I know that's a very broad, general question, but where are we headed with this thing? Big, big, big closing question, I know.
Kelly Faye Jackson: I think that this speaks to part two. How we all came together was because we're seeing a lot of anti-Blackness even within the multiracial community, and that was something that was really personal to us and really struck us and was terrifying in many ways. I think what brought us together and what we continue to try to push our individual fields to do is to look deeper, more critically, at how we're even perpetuating some of the things that we're seeing and how we are complicit in these systems, even by so strongly identifying as multiracial, that we really need to challenge ourselves. I think that's where it's headed in my opinion. It leads right into part two.
Victoria Malaney Brown: Just to cap off, I think so much of this has to do with the self-reflection, which is what we really mean by that first bullet point. Every single one of us has to self-reflect on what we know and what we don't know and then make those important decisions as a parent, as a partner, as an aunt and uncle, a caregiver to then understand how that then translates to your person that you're caring for.
Doing that self-work is so key, and that's what we're going to discuss more in part two, because, once we actually know the pieces that we can understand and actually act on, then we can look at working to disrupt some of those systems of oppression that Kelly was mentioning. You have to have a clear sense of both and it has to be done over time. It's a lifelong process. As your children grow, as you become more confident in talking about race, the biggest thing you have to do is to speak up and to share your voice, because your multiracial children will follow your lead.
I will also say that, as I look at college students and researching their experience, they themselves also struggle with that even at the college level. So if you can do everything that you can as a young parent and growing with your children, then by the time they reach that emerging adulthood where they're defining and looking at themselves and doing all that self-reflection, because college makes that happen for a lot of young people, they'll be in a better place to challenge these pieces around racial justice and move us forward and advance us as a global, mixed-race community.
Marcella Runell Hall: Thank you.
Kelly Faye Jackson: Bye.
Victoria Malaney Brown: Thank you.
Resources (return to top)
- “What Are You?” Navigating Mixed-ish Challenges and Opportunities in Social Work” (Jackson, 2020) in The New Social Worker
- What it feels to be biracial and arguing with your White family right now by Brittany Wong
- 5 Things to Know if You Love a Mixed-Race Kid by Sara-Momii Roberts for EmbraceRace
- Multiracial Cultural Attunement by Kelly F. Jackson and Gina Miranda Samuels. Read the intro chapter here! Also related writings on Kelly's website
- Raising Mixed Race: Multiracial Asian Children in a Post-Racial World by Sharon H. Chang
- Raising Multiracial Children: Tools for nurturing identity in a racialized world by Farzana Nayani
- Raising Biracial Children by Kerry Ann Rockquemore & Tracey Laszloffy
- Parenting Biracial Children (PDF of chapter) by Fabienne Doucet, Marcella Runell Hall, and Melissa Giraud in Biracial Families: Crossing Boundaries, Blending Cultures, and Challenging Racial Ideologies (Eds. Roy & Rollins, 2018)
- The Awakened Family: How to Raise Empowered, Resilient, and Conscious Children by Shefali Tsabary, Ph.D.
- How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
- White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
- UnCommon Bonds: Women Reflect on Race & Friendship by Kersha Smith & Marcella Runell Hall
- Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Tatum
Where to find multiracial specific literature:
- Mixed Race Studies - scholarly perspectives on the mixed race experience
Recommended Multiracial Organizations:
- Critical Mixed Race Studies (CMRS) - CMRS is a biennial conference, field of study, and scholarly and activist community in partnership with Mixed Roots Stories, a non-profit organization that advocates for mixed race storytelling and brings art and cultural programming to the conference. Check out their Statement in Solidarity with Black Lives. On social follow @criticalmixedracestudies (FB, Instagram).
- Multiracial Network - MRN seeks to bring together faculty, staff, and students interested in the promotion and recognition of multiracial issues in higher education. @ACPAMRN (FB, Instagram)
- Multiracial Americans of Southern California - MASC creates activities and designs programs to serve the community and increase awareness and understanding amongst the public about multiracial / multiethnic issues.
- The Adopted Life by Angela Tucker
- Doing Race, Family and Culture Through Transracial Adoption, EmbraceRace webinar with Dr. Gina Miranda Samuels
Book List: Multiracial Families, Diverse BookFinder
Pop Culture (mixed characters and families):
- Mixedish (ABC)
- Blackish (ABC)
- Andi Mack (Disney)
- Sydney to the Max (Disney)
- Babysitters Club (Netflix)
- Jesse (Disney)
- Nella the Princess Knight (Nick Jr.)
- Deep (Netflix)
- Kipo (Netflix)
- Spirit: Riding Free (Netflix)
- Sid the Science Kid (PBS Kids)
- Word Girl (PBS Kids)
For the second webinar in this series and more resources, go to Raising Multiracial Children, Part 2: Anti-Blackness in Multiracial Families.