This week, instead of taking on one reader’s question, I’m addressing a concern that a few readers have raised: How to handle the responses of outsiders when mixed siblings have different racial appearances.
What do you say when strangers take note of your biracial children’s different looks? From intrusive questions: “Do they have the same father?” “Are they both really yours?” to wildly inappropriate observations: “They can’t be siblings! That one is so much whiter than the other.”
As a parent of mixed siblings, it’s hard not to stand there, gap-mouthed at the audacity of strangers. But our children need us to speak up, to model good responses to such rudeness. My Multiracial Media colleague, TaRessa Stovall —like me, a multiracial mother of two—has some fantastic comebacks for the unsolicited comments and advice:
Comment: “Wow! Those kids don’t even look like they’re in the same family!”
Response: All my children look like siblings, and like both of their parents.
Comment: “Your older one is lucky. She got her mommy’s lovely hair. But she is so much darker than her sister!”
Response: We do not allow colorism or related comments to be made about any of our children or in their presence.
Comment: “I’ve never seen siblings look so different from each other! It must be confusing for them.”
Response: Please stop acting as if differing shades within families of color is new or different. It’s not.
When it Comes to Inappropriate Questions (“Do both Those Children Have Black in Them?”) I Have a Personal Favorite: Why Do You Ask?
Why do you ask? puts the onus on questioners to confront their own biases. No one wants to explain their reason for putting you on the spot.
Why do I ask? Um … well, I’m essentially nosy and hope to gather ammunition for when I gossip about your family later this evening.
Of course, no one is going to say that out loud, but being forced to think about their motivation may make people reconsider their wording next time.
Now, I always get a few critical comments on this column saying, why are you fixated on color? Why can’t you just let children be children? We are members of the human race and color doesn’t matter! The fact is, in the current socio-political climate, at this point in our century, the color of one’s skin, the race one is perceived to be, has a huge impact on one’s life. Perceived race affects how we are treated by others, how guarded we must be in certain scenarios (a trip to a high-end mall, an encounter with the police), even what employers—or teachers if you are a kid—expect of us. Children are observant. They are aware of these differences and look to their parents to make sense of them.
Let’s Be Very Honest About One Thing: Racially Mixed Siblings—With the Very Same Mother and Father—Can Wind Up with Highly Contrasting Looks.
I happen to be raising a pair of such children myself. The photograph above (from about twelve years ago) shows my own children.
These mixed siblings have a biracial, Black/White/Jewish mother and a White/Jewish father. So, fraction-wise, they’re ¼ Black and ¾ White. Over the years, I’ve heard all kinds of crazy comments, from people I knew as well as from those I didn’t.
“You’ll need to put lots and LOTS of sunscreen on this baby,” our pediatrician said of my son when he was a few months old. Regarding my daughter, who was two at the time, with a lovely café au lait complexion, I had been given no such warning. (Of course I was already putting sunscreen on both kids—but the doctor hadn’t bothered to mention it before.)
“He looks just like a little white baby,” noted one of my friends.
“I guess that one looks like his father,” said a checkout worker at the local grocery store. “The other one is clearly yours.” All this in the presence of my very verbal, very observant two-and-a-half-year-old daughter.
The people who made these comments, asked these questions, were not thinking about the subtext or how I might feel. They were certainly not considering the impact on a preschooler who was just beginning to get that, in this world, people are sometimes treated differently because of their color.
After hearing a story about Martin Luther King at her nursery school, my daughter came home and said it wasn’t fair: her brother could drink from the “good water fountain,” while she couldn’t. I attempted to reassure her, saying that those water fountains were from a long time ago. Today, all the water fountains were for everyone. But, I added, if we’d been around in the days of the “whites only” water fountains, the only one in our family who would be allowed to drink would be daddy. (I didn’t get into how many places, parks, pools, hotels etc. Jews were banned from in those days!)
“The brown girls get in trouble,” my daughter told me one day when she was four. We were walking to the car after her dance class. At her age, she had already noticed the teacher responding differently to children of different colors. I don’t remember my explanation, but I do recall feeling angry and a little helpless. How dare the world teach my sweet child something I wasn’t prepared for her to know? Of course, as a parent, there is no way to filter your children’s experiences and interactions. They happen when they happen and you try to give an answer that considers the child’s level of understanding.
I made a point to observe the dance class the following week. Sure enough, in a class full of four-year-olds, where every girl had her own quirks, her own silliness and her own way of disregarding the teacher’s instructions, the brown girls—besides my daughter—did get in trouble more. Were they more disruptive? Not that I could see. But for some reason, the antics of the girls who were “not so brown” were easier for the teacher to disregard. I won’t get into the teacher’s biases here. My point is that my daughter had observed a dynamic that her young brain was working hard to figure out.
Yes, color does register for young multiracial children. And yes, they do internalize our comments and questions, whether they understand them or not. Furthermore, siblings are hyperaware of one another. Anyone who has ever been a sibling or parented siblings knows this. Who got more dessert? Whose room is bigger? Whose turn is it to sit in Grandma’s lap for a story?
I have known and worked with a number of adult, multiracial siblings. All have stories about being treated differently from one another by a relative or a neighbor based on skin color and racial appearance.
“I was considered the ugly one because I was darkest.”
“My sister was my white grandfather’s favorite because she could pass (for White).”
“My father would make us all line up in order of whom he considered most beautiful, starting with my sister, who was the lightest, and blond.”
Mixed siblings live with comparisons, even in the best of circumstances. For parents handling observations about their kids’ differing looks, the main concern is their well-being. Here are some guidelines:
- Have a prepared response. Come up with your own, or borrow one of Stovall’s above.
- Deliver it with self-assurance. If you model composure and keep your answer brief and simple, your children will feel confident about your response as well. If you get flustered and frustrated, however, that’s okay and understandable. You can talk with your children after the encounter, saying something like: “That woman had no right to ask that question. I got annoyed and couldn’t get my words to come out right. You are both beautiful and clearly mine.”
- On the other hand, do allow for the possibility that the question is coming from a benevolent, if awkward, place. For example, if the person doing the asking is in the process of adopting biracial children who look very different from one another, they may be genuinely interested.
In any case, use this opportunity to initiate or continue the conversation with your children. Ask them: What did you think when Mrs. Smith said you must look like your daddy? What do you think she meant? What can we say to her next time?
Teach your children that speaking of color is not taboo. Even if conversations about racial appearance can be uncomfortable, we can still think together about the subject. When mixed siblings have opportunities to openly discuss their differences—physical and otherwise—it can have a positive impact on their self-concepts far into adulthood.
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