Ask Lisa: To Check the White Box

Check the White boxA Biracial mother balks at her husband’s demand for their son to check the White box on demographic questionnaires.

Dear Lisa,

Yesterday I was filling out my one year old son’s dental paperwork for his first exam. As I was going over insurance information and income, the race box came up.

I’m biracial, Native American and Black, my husband is White. My son and I both will be using Indian Health Services, for our medical/dental, so naturally I checked the American Indian/ Native American box for our son.

Before we conceived, I had the discussion with my spouse about what we would put on our offspring’s racial classification. At the time, he agreed with me that on any official paperwork our son would be “Native American,” and on any unofficial documents he would be “other,” or we would check as many that apply. The reasoning behind checking “Native American” is, this is not just a racial classification, but it is a political status and designation. We are afforded different rights as people of the first Nations to this country. It is not to hide or overlook my/our other heritage.

I am visibly Black mixed so this is not a means to pass or hide my blackness. Although I am culturally more Native American, I’m trying to emphasize more books and media that feature Black people for my son particularly because we are around our Native community/family, and hold those traditions, which is how I grew up.

My husband on this occasion was upset I put Native American, rather than White. His reasoning is our son has a fair complexion, (he doesn’t look White though) nor is he assumed to be by strangers although that doesn’t matter. My husband’s other reasoning is he carries his name, and has a higher percentage of European blood since I’m biracial he is only a quarter Native and a quarter Black but is half White, which to him means his side is stronger. For all those reasons he thinks he should be written in as White. I put my foot down, and told him that whiteness is devoid of color, and culture. It is a designation that only serves to perpetuate privilege and a hierarchy created out of colonization. I told him I will not erase the ancestors that survived genocide and the middle passage simply because he thinks our child has more White blood. To me that’s like saying because I’m Biracial that I’m only half his mother. I explained to him that whiteness works differently. It is hard to become White, and in historical cases the designation of White was very hard to become because it’s not just about having a White parent but is about a whole history of oppression. The history of Native and Black erasure is also long and well documented.

My husband ended the conversation by saying our son would choose on his own someday, which I don’t dispute, but in the meantime, he is Native for political and cultural reasons, and mixed race on anything else.

My question is am I being hypocritical? Is there a better way to have this conversation?

Thank you,


Dear N.M.

I want to start by saying how challenging it must be to have this dispute with your husband over your child’s identity. I wonder how your viewpoint could be seen as hypocritical. I am guessing you meant because you are encouraging your son to check “Native” rather than “Black” while challenging your husband for wanting him to check the White box. I do not think this is hypocritical. You explained very well the political, historical and cultural reasons for doing this (though I don’t think your husband is hearing you). It would only be hypocritical if you were asking your child to actively reject being White and Black. Instead, you are encouraging your child to accept and value ALL his races. My emphasis on the word “ALL” brings me to my answer to your larger question: is there a better way to have this conversation? Yes. And the key is inclusiveness.

You and your husband have gotten into an either-or push-and-pull over your multiracial child’s identity. There is no way to win without wounding one another. Your husband is not only on a different page from you regarding your child’s racial identification—he also seems to be on a different page than he thought he’d be on when the two of you were planning your family together.

Everyone preparing to have a child with someone of a different race must practice envisioning the child who does not look like or identify with them racially, and embrace that difference BEFORE THE CHILD IS BORN. Parents-in-waiting should talk together—as you two did—about how they will help their children be proud of all their races, cultures and ethnicities. But sometimes, even a discussion like this doesn’t prepare a monoracial parent for the realities of interracial family-hood.

For a Biracial Mom Like Yourself, The Notion Of a Child Looking/Identifying Differently From a Parent Is Status-quo

You are therefore well-equipped to help your husband alter his thinking, though it may require more patience and empathy than you are feeling right now.

I am concerned that your husband “ended the conversation” by saying your son would choose one day. Did he mean your son would one day pick which race he is? To me that sounds a bit like those pesky medical forms which insist we check one box. Why should a mixed-race child choose? His identity can be both/and—inclusive of all his different backgrounds. To choose one, he would have to reject the others, and no multiracial person should ever be asked to do such a thing.

To Check the White Box, Your Son Would Have to Erase His Black and Native Roots—and Embrace a Group That Would Not Acknowledge His Membership

It seems to me that your husband is anxious that his heritage is not being valued or transmitted to your son. One reason for this may be your focus on “whiteness”—particularly that it is devoid of color and culture. My suggestion is to “deconstruct” your husband’s whiteness by celebrating his cultures of origin. What is the heritage he wants to pass on to your son? Is he Swedish? Italian? Hungarian? Your son may not be White, but he has inherited cultural and national roots from both you and your husband. If your husband has a chance to share his Swedish—or Italian or Hungarian—heritage with your child, he may feel less defensive, less threatened and less anxious for your son to check the White box. Hopefully this will initiate an open dialogue between you and your husband about the beauty of all your heritages. These are gifts which you will pass on to your child, who will one day pass them down to his.

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Published on: May 11, 2017

Filed Under: Advice

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