“It’s for a talk that some professors are giving about being Black in America,” my husband says, explaining the flyer that our son has picked up from our kitchen table.
“You’re Black, Daddy,” our youngest says with confidence. “I’m Black too.”
“I’m Black,” our 9-year-old adds, hesitantly, and I’m a bit surprised because lately he hasn’t seemed quite sure how to identify himself.
(At this point our little guy covers all the bases and points out, “Mommy is NOT Black,” just in case there was any uncertainty about that.)
When I crusaded for having two children, instead of one, it was because I wanted my kids to have each other, just like I have my siblings. I wanted them to have a lifelong friend, someone who understands their childhood history and our family in a way no one else ever will; a built-in playmate; a partner-in-crime. I also argued that while my husband might understand what it means to be Black, neither of us could fully understand what it means to be biracial – our boys would share that with each other.
In many ways that was a naive assumption, because what I didn’t realize at the time was that there is no universal “biracial experience.” I didn’t understand that a person’s racial identity and experiences are shaped by so much more than who their parents are – the result of the complex picture painted by not just racial make-up but also family environment, the community and racial climate in which they live, and unique personal experiences. Although there are common themes (like the ubiquitous “What are you?”), the “biracial experience” is as varied as the individuals living it. And beyond the factors I just mentioned, a person’s actual physical appearance has an impact as well – it shapes how they are perceived and treated by others, which in turn affects how they see themselves.
When I was pregnant for the first time nine-plus years ago, I didn’t really think about the incredible range of skin tones and hair textures and eye colors that Black/White biracial people can have. Yes, I was ignorant. Or just…inexperienced. Imagine my surprise when our first-born came out looking, to me at least, very much like a White baby.
I have two boys, who are both Black and White, but as a result of their physical appearances – in particular their different skin tones and hair textures – they are experiencing that in different ways. We have talked about what “biracial” means. We have explained that others may perceive them as Black or biracial or even, in my oldest son’s case, assume he is White. And we have given them explicit permission to choose to identify themselves however they wish, including simply as “a person.” But, in part because their physical appearances are so different – one with brown skin and black curls, the other almost as light as his White momma (at least the 9 months of the year he doesn’t have a golden brown tan) – their experiences and how they think about themselves, with respect to race, have varied.
One of my babes stands out – physically – from his mostly-White peers and is sensitive to being “the only brown one.” He notices when there aren’t any brown people in a movie. He was recently asked, “Is that your real mom?” He began identifying as Black when he was just three or four – much to my surprise, because I thought kids that age focused more on literal skin color and typically resisted the notion that they are Black, since black and brown are not, in a Crayola box, the same color.
This is so different from the experience of his brother, who blends right in with his mostly White peers, although I’m sure the other kids notice his dad and brother are brown. He pointed out skin color when he was little (“Daddy is brown like an M&M!”) but didn’t recognize himself as one of “the brown kids” the way his little brother does. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t seem to think much about it now, in spite of being three years older than his brother.
Maybe it is age that causes our youngest to be so attuned to skin color. Looking back, I do remember that his brother noticed color more at five than he seems to do at nine, saying things like “If Mommy was African-American, we’d be an African-American family” or pointing out brown people on tv. But my gut tells me it is more than that. It is how they see themselves.
I worry about them both – as mommas are prone to do – but in different ways and for different reasons. I worry about my brown-skinned love being the target of racism and prejudice, especially since he is such a sensitive kid. I know I will worry more about his safety as he moves into his teenage years. I worry about my light-skinned sweetie struggling, as he gets older, to figure out what being Black means for him or struggling to navigate our race-conscious world, where others pressure him to choose a category, to be one or othe other.
I know now that their experiences of being biracial are not and will not be the same.
Even so, they do have each other. They are both growing up in a home where we preach that color isn’t character, are teaching them to recognize racism where it exists, hold up those who speak out or stand up against racism as heroes, and encourage them to be those heroes too. They’ll share that understanding, just as they share football cards and bedtime stories and road trips to Vermont.
Are you a parent in a mixed race family, looking for a supportive community and a place to learn and grow? Check out the Mixed Race Family Parent Resource Group on Facebook!
You might also like:
- “Is That Your Real Mom?”
- Talking Race & Parenting on the Multiracial Family Man Podcast
- The Beginning: Parenting Biracial Kids