Ask Lisa: Advice for the Multiracial Community #1

Today we begin a new advice column, which will address itself to issues confronting those in the Multiracial Community.  Our advice columnist is Lisa Rosenberg, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice since 1999. Lisa is multiracial—black/white—and specializes in counseling multiracial families, couples and individuals including issues related to transracial adoption.

Do you have a question?

And, with that, let’s begin:

Dear Lisa,

Please help me understand why my daughter-in-law, who is as white as I am, thinks I am racist. I admit that my husband and I live in a town and attend a church that is mostly white, but we are politically liberal and believe that all people are equal in God’s eyes, no matter what color they are.

Four years ago my son and his wife adopted a beautiful little girl from China. My husband was skeptical of their adopting a child of another race, but I reassured him that it would be fine, seeing as the child would be raised in our son’s family and so would be just like our other grandchildren.

This has turned out to be very much the case. I am very close to my granddaughter and consider her my own blood, even if she is not. Well, this past Christmas, I guess I really put my foot in it, though I do not understand how or why. Wanting to let my daughter-in-law know how I felt about my granddaughter, I said “I love her so much I barely notice she that is Chinese anymore.” My daughter-in-law was furious with me, called me racist and would not explain what was wrong with what I said. My son is no help. He just told me to let his wife cool down and everything will be fine. What is wrong with what I said?

-Hurt Grandma wants to learn.

Dear Hurt,

I can tell you love your granddaughter very much, but why shouldn’t you notice that she’s Chinese? She is Chinese and that’s one of the wonderful things that makes her special. Your statement implies that being Chinese is something to be overcome with the help of love. Can you love your granddaughter because of—rather than despite—her differences?

I counsel all parents (and grandparents!) welcoming a child from another country, or of another race, to embrace the child’s culture and incorporate it into the family. When their daughter came home, your son and his wife stopped being a white couple and became an interracial family. Chinese is a part of their identity and now yours as well. You owe it to your granddaughter to learn something about the province she comes from, about the history and about the food.

Also, read books for parents adopting children of different races, as your son and his wife probably have, to understand how to make your transracially adopted granddaughter feel accepted, confident and proud of who she is.


Dear Lisa,

I am biracial (white, British mom and black, Kenyan father) and will soon be marrying an African American woman whom I love deeply. The problem is, she insists that we include the American Slave tradition of “jumping the broom” in our wedding. I am not comfortable with this practice, as I feel it is demeaning and connects us to a slave culture that should be left in the past. Since my African heritage comes from my dad who is Kenyan, American slavery is not part of my personal heritage. How can I convince my bride-to-be that our wedding should be about us and not archaic traditions that do nothing to elevate the relationships of people of color?

–Broomless Groom

Dear Broomless,

You say you love your fiancée deeply, yet you seem very quick to disparage a tradition she holds dear. Though there is some debate about the exact origin of Jumping the Broom, most agree that it is one of the few West African practices that American slaves were able to preserve. Many American blacks view it as a beautiful a way to honor ancestors and celebrate the survival of a brutalized, denigrated people. Ask your fiancée to talk about what the ritual means to her and to her family. Then share one of your own family’s traditions which you would like to include in the ceremony.

Though some might not consider you and your fiancée an interracial couple, you come from vastly different cultures. To make this marriage work long-term, you will need to create a joint culture in your home that celebrates both your families. Learn about each other’s family customs (I hope you have done this already!) and figure out how to keep the most cherished ones alive. This will sustain you as a couple and will be of enormous value to your future children.

My wedding gift to the two of you is one word: dialogue. If you can share your viewpoints—about culture, traditions and everything else—if you can listen to each other with open minds and hearts, your union will thrive.


Dear Lisa

This is the latest chapter in the ongoing feud between myself and my younger sister. We are both mixed-race and were raised by our white mother in a largely black neighborhood. For reasons that I won’t get into, my sister (who is actually several shades darker-skinned than I am) has always identified more with our mother’s Scotch-Irish heritage than with our father’s African-American heritage. I am much more connected to my black ancestors than she is. Not surprisingly, her husband is white and mine is black.

On Christmas, when I off-handedly referred to my six-year-old son as biracial, my sister lit into me, saying that he can’t be biracial if he is three-quarters black. She says that to “count” as mixed-race, you have to be half and half like we are, and have two parents of different races. On the other hand, she insists that her three children, who are ¾ white, DO count as mixed only because appearance-wise they cannot pass for white. I got through Christmas, but I haven’t spoken to her since. My husband, who considers all of us BLACK, period, says to let it go: what do I care how my sister categorizes our boy? But I am still angry. I think my sister is being exclusionary and elitist. How do I explain to her that it is my son’s right to identify however he pleases?

–Mad Sis

Dear Mad,

What about just telling your sister that it is your son’s right to identify however he pleases?

Of course, I suspect you are looking for something more than that—some advice to ease the complex dynamic between you and Sis? You mentioned quite a few things that I would want to explore if I were seeing the two of you for family therapy. Most significantly:

1) The skin color difference between the two of you. Did being different shades of brown have an impact on your sibling relationship as well as your identity in general? Did being lighter-skinned in a largely black neighborhood put pressure on you to identify more with your black heritage? Likewise, did being darker make your sister work harder to identify with your mother?

2) Fractions. You mention that your sister’s children are ¾ white and she notes that yours are ¾ black, where you and your sister are ½ and ½. If you were in my office, I would ask whether people in your family routinely identify multiracial people in fractions and what that means to you.

3) If your husband identifies all of you as “black, period,” what conversations do you have with him about racial identification (you referred to yourself as mixed-race and your son as biracial)? Does he object to your referring to your son as biracial?

In any case, it would be great if you and your sister could have a few sessions with a credentialed family therapist to talk over your relationship and shared multiracial heritage. That said, right now I would let your sister know exactly why you are angry. Is it that she implied that her children “counted” more than your son because of their genetic make-up? Do you feel she is denying your son’s connection with your mother’s Scotch-Irish roots? It may be helpful to write out everything that is bothering you and then talk over the main points with her when you are both feeling calm.

The advice offered in this 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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2 Responses to Ask Lisa: Advice for the Multiracial Community #1

  1. I have a question about people who adopt a child from another race or country. Is it beneficial for a couple to have friends or acquaintances that are of the same race or color as the child they plan to adopt? Many adopted children who are not around or grow up with people who look like them, may feel isolated or have a problem with their own identity. Just wondering.

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