What are you: Engaging Parents of Multiracial Children in Preschool

“If you can go shopping and be assured that you will not be followed or harassed, step forward.”

There was no more space left.  I rushed to the door and opened it so that a white father could continue the Power Shuffle exercise.  The parents started on the midline of the room and once a statement was read, either stepped up or back depending on their level of privilege in these circumstances.  After two more statements, the parents looked around the room to see who was standing where.  Then I asked “Were there any statements that your child would be able to step forward or back for that you did not? How does that make you feel?”  The question resonated with the families and their responses prompted lively discussion.  Race is difficult to talk about in the United States, a country built on white supremacy and systemic oppression.

I’m trying to change that dynamic one preschooler at a time.

I am a woman of mixed heritage, and as a teacher, I want interracial families to be prepared for the challenges their children will face.  A growing number of multiracial families are joining my preschool and influence how we teach our children about multiculturalism.  Parents are a key partner in this effort.  By facilitating meetings for parents of multiracial children, I hope to broaden their thinking. I hope this community of parents will lean on each other as resources as they learn to be mindful of the belonging their children will seek throughout their lives.

Their children’s experience may mirror my own.  I remember instances in my childhood that forced me into uncomfortable positions because of my identity.  Checking the box for race in third grade during a standardized test, no one believing me when I identified myself and even dealing with the microaggressions from my own family members, left me in a state of constant confusion. 

Anyone who is mixed race or appears racially ambiguous is familiar with the dreaded question “What are you?”  Growing up, I was always told “what” I was.  My mother was born in Afghanistan and my father is a white Bostonian.  A twist of fate brought my father, a Peace Corps volunteer, to teach English in Kabul and walk through the door of the office where my mother worked.  After he left Afghanistan, they continued a cautious correspondence for almost eight years.  Eventually my mother fled the country, narrowly escaping after a stressful interrogation by intelligence agents at the airport for carrying books in her suitcase.  My parents eloped in India and later moved to the United States where my sister, brother, and I were born.

I was raised in Southwest, DC, in a predominantly Black neighborhood and attended schools in the area until 8th grade.  Throughout my childhood, I was identified as white.  In my household, though, my family spoke Farsi, prepared Afghan food, and observed Muslim holidays.  We didn’t have close ties with my father’s family and culture, so I identified as Afghan American but my father used to write “halfghan” on all my forms under race.  Friends were aware of my culture, but they still labeled me white as if my mother’s side didn’t exist. My parents never explicitly spoke to me about race nor did I come to them inquiring or sharing my struggles with identity.  Instead I created my own understanding of my identity based on personal observations, experiences and the media.

I attended a prestigious, predominantly white high school. When presented with the opportunity to join an affinity group, I attended a meeting for the Asian Student Association but was rejected because one member felt that Afghanistan was not “Oriental” enough to be considered Asian.

I remember my freshman year there on September 11th, 2001 when the principal announced the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  I, along with members of my family, feared that Afghanistan would be blown off the map by the U.S. military.  At the same time, I felt the increasing Islamophobia and growing hatred of anyone even close to resembling someone of Arab descent.  Americans lumped us all in together.  It didn’t matter that Afghanistan is not an Arab country.  I joined the Arab Student Union figuring everyone thinks we’re the same any way.  The group became a haven for us to share the racism, fear, and insensitivity we experienced each day.  Even though I was not Arab, the group welcomed me and I will forever be grateful. 

In my current role as a preschool teacher, discussing race, oppression and privilege with families is challenging, moving, and uncomfortable.  I attended the White Privilege Conference, a yearly gathering of professionals and students to discuss the role of race in our daily lives and ways to dismantle privilege.  The conference built my confidence in communicating to parents about these issues.   

The Bi/Multi-racial/Mixed Heritage group at the conference in particular served as inspiration.  As an icebreaker, the facilitator Vanessa Roberts, a teacher, student, actor, asked “How do you respond to the question ‘what are you?’”  Our answers varied, but as each person spoke, heads nodded in agreement, representing the struggles in my search for identity. I could see I was not alone. I never felt the need to explain myself or bad for expressing my feelings. I belonged to a community.

After the conference, we were encouraged to come up with a plan to bring meaningful change to our community. I proposed creating a safe space where parents of multiracial children at my school could discuss their children and their experiences with race, privilege, and oppression.  I crafted an e-mail to the families describing my experience at the White Privilege Conference and my plan for a Parents of Multiracial Children group.  Clicking the send button was terrifying.  I wasn’t sure what they’d think.

Since the first meeting of four parents two years ago, the group has grown to more than thirteen families.  Initially, I dove right in asking the parents about difficult situations their children may face. I quickly realized that expecting parents to be able to discuss race, racism, privilege, and oppression just because they have multiracial children was unreasonable.  I needed to start with their experiences with race and privilege while asking questions that led them to reflect on their children. Activities such as the Power Shuffle provide the families with an opportunity to examine themselves. As equity trainer Darlene Flynn says, “You have to put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else with theirs.”

The best moments in this group happen organically when parents speak openly and in response to another parent.

“How will the Black community perceive my biracial son?”

 “What does preschool age privilege look like?”

“Is there a natural entry point to have these conversations on race?” 

Most of these questions don’t have answers but we’re talking it out.  By engaging families in these discussions early, I intend for the parents of multiracial children to be conscious of how their children’s racial experiences will be different from their own. When conversations and incidents arise in the future, they will approach their children as allies.

I want to ensure that the children of mixed heritage are provided with the opportunity to be heard and understood by their parents so when they are eventually asked “What are you?” an attempt to objectify can be transformed into a teachable moment.


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