Ask Lisa Advice for the Multiracial Community #4: Ambiguous Looks and Identity Concerns

Ask Lisa Advice Question 1: Ambiguous Looks Could Be a Safety Concern

Ambiguous Looks

Dear Lisa,

I am white, but my husband and children are mixed ethnicity and have ambiguous looks and could be mistaken as middle eastern. Any tips on how to talk to our 12, 14, and 16 year olds about how to respond if they get hassled based on how they look?


Dear P.K.,

As infuriating as it is to be victimized for your race or ethnicity, it’s even more frustrating to be attacked for a mistaken identity. Either way, the best thing to do for kids this age is to help them be aware of and prepared for the kind of harassment their appearance may invite. When you say they “have ambiguous looks and could be mistaken as Middle Eastern,” it sounds like you fear that they may face anti-Muslim xenophobia.

Talk to your kids about where prejudice comes from: fear and ignorance of the unknown. Especially in today’s climate, this fear leads to assumptions which lead to bullying. Each time an Islamic name appears in the paper or on the news associated with a terrorist act, this reinforces the false assumption that all Muslims are terrorists.

There are two ways of handling xenophobic bullies: avoid or confront. Which method you choose depends on the bully and nature of the bullying.


We all want our children to be strong, confident and to stand up for themselves, but safety must come first. To tell your twelve-year-old to confront an aggressive adult would be foolhardy. I would only recommend confronting a bully if—and only if—an individual peer verbally hassles your child. In this case, your child can verbally stand her ground, calmly counter the stereotype and, if she chooses, correct the mistake.


Peer: You’re a Muslim aren’t you? I bet your dad is a terrorist.

Child: Actually, I’m Italian, Filipina and Catholic. And Muslims aren’t terrorists.


As noted, safety comes first. Some tips to teach your kids:

  • Keep a “third eye” open for strangers who might be staring at them in a hostile way.
  • Keep a distance from that person or group of people.
  • Size up a given tormentor and note whether he/she seems truly hostile or not.
  • Find a safe adult, possibly a known teacher or another parent and say, “can I walk with you?”
  • Avoid walking alone in places where you may be at risk.

For more ideas on helping your child handle prejudice, try this link from Bernardos Northern Ireland.  See Page 14 especially.

Ask Lisa Advice Question 2: Ambiguous Looks Playing a Part in Identity Crisis

Dear Lisa

I was raised to identify Black. Mom was Black and Japanese and dad was White. Despite my very light complexion and ambiguous looks,  I know more about being Black than I do about being White and Japanese. That’s the background, here’s the question:

I was born in the 1960s. In those days offspring of an interracial couple weren’t raised to identify as biracial or multiracial. Oft times multiracial kids were raised to identify with the marginalized parent. At least this was my experience. We are Black, White and Asian. 

My brothers have never owned one race more than another. One looks like something between Asian and ambiguous looks, the other looks Black and I am usually assumed to be White and Puerto Rican and depending on how I style my hair or dress, I too have an ambiguous look to me. We know nothing about our Asian side. While we were raised to identify as Black, we were exposed to many, many cultures and raised to be intellectually curious. For this reason, it’s hard to put us in a box.

Two years ago I came out as multiracial. It’s been an interesting journey for me: both the process of coming out and since I came out. Frankly I’m having a bit of an identity crisis. I am starting to question what I am. I don’t feel White, I definitely don’t feel Asian but when I tell people I’m Black, I get why they react with either confusion or even laughter.  

I recently took a DNA test and discovered that I wasn’t one-quarter Asian, one-quarter Black and half White. I’m one-quarter Asian, 57% White and only 18% Black. My question is this, I’m not comfortable really identifying as multiracial because I feel it’s disingenuous but I’m also aware I don’t look, act and talk the way most people think Black people should be. At 18%, am I pulling a Rachel Dolezal? 

Thank you, 

Identity crisis

Dear Identity Crisis,

Thank you for sharing your story. I think many of us in the multiracial community can relate to your description of “coming out” as multiracial—standing up for yourself when your appearance doesn’t match who you are.

I have a similar issue. Many people see me as black only, though I identify with both parents—my black father and white, Jewish mother—equally. I’m not either-or; I’m both-and. I cannot be half of who I am and ignore the rest, regardless of how I look.

I believe that we are all of who we are, period. And 18% black is pretty close to a quarter if you ask me. You were raised to identify black because black is part of your heritage and a very important part of your identity. For the record, Rachel Dolezal has an affinity for blackness and has made the choice based on her own personal desires, to identify as black. This choice has nothing to do with her heritage or genetic makeup. As many critics have noted: Dolezal can opt out of being black any time she likes. Thus: a world of difference between her situation and yours.

Ask Lisa Advice Question 3: Concerned About Children’s Identity

Dear Lisa

I am black and my now ex-husband is white. We share custody of our two children 11 (boy) and 13 (girl). Since we all live near my ex’s (white) parents in the Northeastern town where he grew up, the kids have grown up knowing their white extended family better than mine—who live far from us, down South. Both kids identify more white than black (though neither can “pass” if you get me). Part of that may be my fault. My parents did not get along with my ex, so while we were married, I did not make enough effort to travel south to visit.

When I announced that I was making arrangements for the three of us to spend a large part of the summer down south with my large extended family, I was disappointed to get pushback from both children. The older one in particular says she does not feel comfortable spending so much time in a “segregated” place. I read this to mean she does not want to spend so much time with black folks, which hurts me deeply.

Not only are my children removed from their black roots, they also hold negative stereotypes of the south, where half their heritage comes from. How do I correct this and make my children proud of and connected to their black side?

Concerned Black Mother

Dear Concerned,

You didn’t mention the demographics of the town you live in, but if your kids identify more white than black, I am wondering if you are their only link to the black community. If your town is mostly white, your kids may have adapted their identities out of survival. The risk here is that internalized racism can lead to long-term dysphoria.

In any case, single-handedly giving your children a sense of their black heritage at this age will be a challenge. You can expose them to black culture, e.g. read books by great black authors together, but if the kids are resistant, don’t push it or it could backfire. You can gently ask them about their feelings about their black heritage, but since you are already feeling hurt, it may be hard not to personalize their responses.

The good news is you have a large, extended black family to embrace them. So do just what you are planning to do. Take a trip down south so your children can get to know your family and experience the South first hand. What to do about the pushback? Don’t make it a fight. Instead, calmly explain that you are all going. The decision is final and they may as well enjoy the trip.

Next, haul out the family album and share photographs of the people and places you will be visiting this summer. Tell them stories about the relatives they will meet. Then skype with family members who are eager for their visit—show the kids that there are real people welcoming them—not stereotypes.

When you go, don’t worry if your kids seem shy and standoffish at first. But encourage them to participate in family life. Let them help prepare meals and learn about Southern cooking. Bear with your kids and trust that the experience will mean something important to each of them. You will be planting seeds that you can continue nurturing when you get home.


The advice offered in this Advice for the Multiracial Community column is intended for informational purposes only. Use of this column is not intended to replace or substitute for any professional advice. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.

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Published on: February 2, 2017

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