This week, I counsel a Biracial mom whose Black In-laws will not accept her Italian heritage and talk about it in hostile terms.
My in-laws won’t acknowledge that I’m Biracial (Black and Italian) and so are my kids. They say things like “White people are the devil,” and “We need to get the Italian out of the kids.” My mother in-law got mad that I put my kids in a “White preschool.” I stopped going around them after that. Ok- the question is: if they don’t accept the Italian side do they even accept my kids? Should I keep my kids from them or should I talk to them about it?
Based on your brief letter, I can imagine you’re feeling frustrated beyond belief. Your heritage—along with your children’s—has been denied, dismissed and disrespected by your in-laws. One option is certainly to keep your kids away from them, but it’s possible that this will lead to tension between you and your partner.
Whenever a person has significant in-law trouble, I look to the marriage. Absent from your note is any mention at all of where your partner—your in-laws’ own child after all—stands on this. I can’t help wondering how the two of you discussed race and identity when you were getting married, merging your lives and planning for children—especially given that your partner was raised by people who hold strong racial biases. Did your partner embrace your Mixed background—or secretly decide that your shared Black heritage was all that mattered?
When you married into the family, it sounds as if your in-laws unfairly hoped you would reject half your own ethnicity. But your children share both your backgrounds and should be celebrated for doing so. The suggestion that the Italian part of their identity should be eliminated is unacceptable.
In any event, the first thing that must happen is a very frank conversation between you and your spouse. Ask outright: “Do you accept my full Multiracial heritage? Do you accept that our children have Multiracial heritage as well? Because your parents don’t.” Share the comments your in-laws have made, in case your partner is not aware of them. Then, study your partner’s reaction—which I hope is something like outrage. Frankly however, I’m sure your partner knows very well how your in-laws feel. My guess is that one of three things is true:
- Your partner does not feel safe confronting your in-laws. (This could be rooted deep in your partner’s childhood.)
- Your partner is hoping your in-laws will come around eventually without any intervention—or potential for conflict.
- Your partner agrees on some level with your in-laws, doesn’t understand why your Italian heritage is important, and hopes you’ll eventually forget about being Multiracial.
Think carefully about whether c) may be the case. I hope not. You need your partner’s support in this and so do your kids. The bottom line is that you are married to your partner and not your in-laws. Being involved in your life and your children’s lives is a privilege your in-laws must earn through love and acceptance of your whole identities. It is your partner’s job to give this ultimatum to your in-laws—which will take courage and resolve. Your partner should do the talking, but the two of you must be absolutely united on this. If it turns out that your partner is ambivalent or has misgivings about your Multiracial heritage, that’s something you need to address right away. Once that is resolved, and your partner is able to embrace your full identity, it will be much easier to confront your in-laws together as a team.