This week, after hearing several parents’ concerns about Multiracial children’s self-concepts, I came up with the term: Mixed Race Looking Glass, to describe how Multiracial kids see themselves differently as they grow and learn.
As Multiracial people, we often see ourselves through what I think of as the Mixed Race Looking Glass: Differently from how others might identify us, differently from how we identified yesterday or will identify tomorrow. It’s a natural part of being all of who we are.
This Means—Contrary to Historic Thinking About the “Tragic Mulatto” Stereotype—that Multiracial People can have Flexible Identities Without Being “Confused”
For Multiracial children and children from Multiracial and Transracial adoptive families, the “Mixed Race Looking Glass” is frequently in play. The race these kids imagine themselves to be does not always match what others see. For young children who are just figuring things out, I believe that this racial flexibility shouldn’t be quashed, but instead, should be a conversation opener.
For example, to the Chinese daughter who tells her Caucasian mother: “I don’t want to be Chinese any more. I want to be White like you, Mommy,” the mother can say: “Gee, I like that you’re Chinese because it’s one of the things that makes you YOU. Why do you want to be White?” This will open the door for the child to talk freely and sort out her feelings vis à vis race. Maybe Mom will learn that someone at school said something that made the daughter feel ashamed of being Chinese. Maybe someone told her she wasn’t her mom’s “real” daughter because she wasn’t White.”
Another example is the little girl with rich, brown skin who draws herself with the peach-colored marker to match the skin-tone of her White mother (but not her Black father). A parent can say, “Wow, look at this self-portrait you’ve made. I see you’ve got on your favorite blue dress. I also notice that your skin is peach like Mommy’s.” Make the observation without judgment or correction, then wait for her response.
The girl may say, “Oh, that’s me when I grow up,” genuinely believing that growing up will turn her skin peach. Her mother is, after all a grown-up. The parent can then talk about the fact that grown-ups have all different skin tones. Dad can say, “Look at me. I’m a grown up. I am brown and I’ve always been brown.” And again: stop, wait and listen for the child’s response.
Don’t assume a brown child who draws himself pink is experiencing self-loathing and internalizing racism. It’s possible that he’s identifying with a “pink”-looking parent. It’s possible that pink happens to be his favorite color.
On the other hand, with colorist messages everywhere—even in children’s toys and TV shows—be open to the possibility that the pink crayon means something more. Ideally, the Mixed Race Looking Glass would provide a neutral view of a child’s backgrounds. Unfortunately, influences in popular culture—especially the notion that “lighter is better”—can lead to a distorted sense of self, or worse.
Most Multiracial children have experienced or at least overheard some racism from a very early age—even before they have the language to describe it. Some will respond by trying to “erase” the features they deem unacceptable, drawing themselves pink, wearing a flowing blanket over their heads to create straight hair. Listen to the language your child uses to talk about race and color.
If a Brown-skinned child claims he is White, for example, and becomes distressed if anyone attempts to help him see otherwise, it is a clear sign of internalized racism.
Make sure the child is experiencing plenty of positive interaction with people of color—family, friends or both—as well as reading books where protagonists represent diverse cultures. Most importantly: keep talking and keep listening!
It’s so important for parents to demystify and detoxify discussions about skin color, race and identity. Let children identify different complexions among people they know. Observe the range of shades together. Teach kids how skin colors, features and hair textures correspond to various parts of the globe. Talk about variations in color that exist all over—even in families like yours.
And when your child draws herself, rather than showing her the marker that matches her skin and taking away the one that doesn’t, ask her about her choice. Sit with her and draw yourself, modeling a choice of marker that fits your own identity. As your child grows, she may try on different selves as she makes sense of who she is. With your patience and support, she will come through the Mixed Race Looking Glass with a whole, multifaceted and fully integrated identity.
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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