It is becoming more common for white couples to adopt black children, and for people of different races to fall in love and get married. I applaud both trends because in both cases, love triumphs. Also in both cases, children grow up in racially mixed families and face unique challenges.
I am biracial and growing up in the 70’s, black kids called me Oreo and rejected me because I wasn’t black enough. So I gravitated to my white peers, who were more kind and accepting, but around whom I felt inferior. They were generally wealthier and had nicer homes and more traditional families where mom stayed home and dad worked. They had petite, boyish bodies. Mine had curves from the time I can remember. Their hair turned sleek in the pool and mine went wild. When adolescence hit and we all went boy crazy, they soon found boyfriends while most guys lacked the courage to bring me home to meet mom and dad.
I belonged in neither world.
Things improved during my college and post college years. Black people accepted me even with all my “whiteness,” and I started to like the way I looked and appreciate all the complex, tangled up parts that make me me. I grew up embracing white culture and as my world widened, I fell in love with black culture and relished the fact that I get to enjoy the best of both.
Perhaps because of my adolescent angst, I tend to notice mixed race families and wonder how the kids are fairing, and if I had the chance, I would communicate five things to the parents.
1. If they’re adopted, the time will come when your children realize that they look different from the rest of the family. Let them know early on that their uniqueness is beautiful and it gives them a rare perspective. Part of the beauty of growing up in a mixed race home is that you can relate to different kinds of people, but you first have to be comfortable in your own skin.
2. If you live in an all white community, the only black people your children may see are negative or stereotypical examples in the media, and it is your job to expose them to more powerful, positive ones. Don’t rely on schools to teach your kids black history; you teach them! Teach about the dark days of slavery, but don’t stop there. Show them examples of men and women who overcame in the midst of great despair. Teach them about black scientist and thinkers, as well as black athletes and performers. Make sure they know that black people contributed amazing things to this nation, in every area of life. White kids know this by default. Textbooks are filled with thousands of examples of white heroes. Intentionally expose your children to great black people.
3. In their teens, if your children go to a predominately white school, they will stand out because they are different and different is exotic and exotic is in. Boys will want to get close to your daughters because they want someone different, or because they believe that black women are sexually charged; Girls will be very into your sons because of alleged black male sexual prowess. Your children will need extraordinary self-respect and self-control so that they won’t allow themselves to be used for selfish reasons. It’s your job to teach them what this kind of attention looks like and how to deal with it when it comes.
4. If your children are never around black people, they won’t be comfortable around black people, and that is tragic because they are at least half black! This is where biracial children may have an advantage over adopted black children. Presumably in a biracial home, there is a black parent and a set of black grandparents. Even though my world was largely white in my younger years, I have memories of rich times with my paternal grandparents. I heard their stories of growing up desperately poor, and felt my grandmother’s large, strong hands, made rough by years of serving as a maid. And I saw their relative financial prosperity in their later years, from finally having good jobs with good pensions. My grandmother greased our hair, and parted our hair and braided our hair while greens simmered in the kitchen. I flipped through the Jet magazines on the coffee table and listened as they discussed the politics of the day. My black grandparents helped me to appreciate some intangible things of black culture. Whether you have black family or not, build genuine friendships with black people. Your child should not be the only black person in your world.
5. Your children will be judged by the color or their skin AND by the content of their character. In light of all recent police shootings, black parents all over the nation are mourning the fact that they still have to have “the talk” with their children. Here’s what you do if a policeman wants to stop and frisk you. Don’t put your hands in your pockets. Don’t talk back. Don’t run… The myth that black men are dangerous has been around a long time and like it or not, white people may think your son is dangerous. Though my sons are little, I am already teaching them that they have to look and act better than other kids so that they won’t be pre-judged. A white kid can have long hair and tattoos on every extremity and swagger defiantly. He’s just “going through a stage.” A slovenly, rebellious black kid is considered a threat. So don’t be naïve but beware that your children’s appearance and attitude matters.
Most of these points also hold true if you’ve adopted internationally or married cross-culturally.
Your children need to be comfortable in their own skin and then they can enjoy the unique opportunity of moving in and out of different circles and relating to diverse people.