Becoming a white parent in a mixed race family is a bit like walking by a house for years and years, catching glimpses of the people inside, maybe imagining what their lives are like, and then, suddenly, finding yourself inside the house looking out. It is not your house, not entirely, but you also aren’t an outsider-looking-in anymore. The view has changed, dramatically. You look out at a street you walked down a thousand times, but from this new angle it just looks different. You are on the other side of the glass.
I vividly remember sitting in a mom-and-newborn group at our local hospital after my oldest son was born. As I sat in a circle of twenty or so moms – all white – holding their white babies, I felt acutely aware that my family was “different.” Add the fact that my new baby didn’t necessarily “look” Black or even mixed (much to my own naive surprise), and I felt like I was holding on to some kind of secret. I wondered if knowing my son was biracial and my husband Black would affect how these women saw us, their perceptions and assumptions. I had known well before becoming a mom that race “matters” in society, but now I was experiencing that in a whole new way. I was on the other side of the glass.
I was experiencing what a lot of white parents go through when we become parents to children of color – an awareness that race matters and is now an integral part of our lives, and a struggle with what exactly to do with that awareness, how to make sense of it, and how to respond to it.
White parents in multiracial families find ourselves straddling two worlds – one where we are white and have all of the privileges that entails, and one where racism stares us in the face, affecting the people we love more than anyone else in this world. Being on the other side of the glass (and being emotionally attuned to our kids) means noticing things we may not have noticed before, thinking about things we may not have thought about before, and hopefully educating ourselves about the impact of race on individuals and communities. All of this means being tuned in to how certain comments or behaviors affect people of color, in ways we might not have been before. And once we see it, we can’t un-see it. We just can’t...nor should we want to.
There is a heightened sensitivity to the blatant stuff, out-and-out undeniable racism and prejudice. But perhaps just as signficant is the subtle stuff, the seemingly minor comments and situations that impose assumptions or stereotypes upon our kids or our families, or make them feel like a curiosity or “other,” as though they don’t quite belong. Some examples: being asked by a store cashier, while with your kids, “Are they adopted?”; being asked why your mixed race child is so light or so dark; being told, “Mixed kids are so trendy” (seriously?!), or strangers sneaking a feel of your child’s hair.
I’ve struggled, personally, with how to feel and what to think about these encounters. My personality trends toward benefit-of-the-doubt-giving, peace-making optimist. I generally don’t get too riled up about things. But on the other hand, I don’t want to turn a blind eye or shrug my shoulders at the ways race can shape our family’s interactions with the world. I don’t want to minimize to the point of colluding with the problem. And sometimes, when I read about other parents’ reactions to these types of encounters, I get the sense I “should” be upset – as if by not being adequately enraged, I’m failing to care, in some way.
Is it possible to have a relaxed attitude and be a passionate ally at the same time? To recognize potentially harmful encounters without being hypersensitive? To protect our families while still embracing the curiosity in others that can give rise to dialogue and learning?
I recently read an article that highlighted these two different perspectives and brought it all into focus for me. On the one hand, research is starting to show that these subtle encounters where people of color or multiracial families feel singled out, uncomfortably different, demeaned, or “other”(microaggressions, as they are called in research), do in fact have a negative impact on individuals’ well-being. On the other hand, we’re talking about situations that may be pretty ambiguous and, to quote Dr. Kenneth Sole, “We don’t serve ourselves well in the hundreds of ambiguous situations we experience by latching onto the definition of the experiences that gives us the greatest pain.” (Well said, Dr. Sole.)
It makes me feel a little bit better to know that the experts are having the same debate that is going on in my head.
Acknowledging these two things – the negative impact that microaggressions can have, and the ability to respond from a place of empowerment rather than victimization – is a good starting place. Further, acknowledging that these encounters can be harmful doesn’t prevent us from also raising our kids to embrace and take pride in who they are, including their “other-ness.” It doesn’t mean we can’t teach them to have a sense of humor about difficult experiences, to love the ways they are different, and to be assertive advocates for themselves and their community.
The more I think about this and the more my identity as white-mom-to-biracial-boys evolves, the more I have realized I there is a middle ground, and that is what I am striving for these days.