The challenge of raising a multi-racial child

I am the mother of a two-year-old son. I am white and his father is black. I would love some feedback on ways to give him the best of both worlds. I would also appreciate any advice on how to handle "disapprovers." Any input on multi-racial children would be a great help.

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Your son's experience of being a mix of both Black and White will be uniquely different from either of his parents. The first step in raising children is always to attempt to understand precisely what their experience is, rather than what we might believe or imagine it to be. See the world through your child's eyes. Seek to understand and support his unique sense of self and multi-racial experience. His initial self-image is founded upon the reflection of those who love him the most.

The foundation of love and respect between his parents represents his world and he will identify with each of you. The family container holds authority for him and he will turn to the two of you for answers as he grows. Naturally, your "answers" will evolve with his age, and being truthful will give him reason to trust and develop his character around the values you teach.

The family is the cultural container for heritage and history. Intimate familiarity with extended family relationships on both sides and celebrating rituals of his dual cultures will serve to strengthen his sense of belonging in both. But there will be struggles.

As in many areas, children can be cruel and ignorance is our worst enemy. The greater the cultural diversity in which you grow up in and live, the less potential for discrimination as familiarity and contact contribute to increased tolerance and acceptance. Still, your child will become aware of racism and "disapprovers" over time. If your family relationships are loving and trustworthy, your children will look to the two of you for the interpretation of any negative experiences and rely on you to identify ignorance. As with any hurtful experiences, the family serves to interpret, heal and facilitate the transformation of pain into growth.

Strength and courage are the result of facing the challenges that are presented to us. As Martin Luther King said, "The measure of a man is determined by how he handles life, not only when things are going well, but when they are not."

Learn from others on your similar path. One client, mother of three, raised her interracial children with many of her own Jewish traditions and celebrations, but incorporated many of the "soul" foods of their father's Black culture. Even when her marriage dissolved and she was a single, white parent of three interracial children, she provided a supportive atmosphere with connections to both communities. Her eldest son immersed himself in his father's culture when he lived with his paternal Aunt and Uncle for a summer in his late teens. When her daughter was in her early twenties she lived and studied in Ghana. Her adult children enjoy a strong sense of their individuality based on acknowledgment and support of their diverse cultural roots and just downright "good parenting"! This mother believes that it was beneficial for her children to immerse themselves in their Black roots for some period of time while growing up. She also believes the "soul" food carried the roots of their African tradition on a daily level. Recipes, stories and rituals may serve to hold the power and flavor of history.

The family is the matrix for understanding our experiences and forming a sense of identity. Open discussions provide a safety zone for your children to achieve self-knowledge. The family's task to serve as the "buffer" for our growing children provides a safe place to seed self-esteem, rendering children less vulnerable to ignorance. Your child will internalize the family's clear and strong message of esteem and respect.

Another father of interracial children claims the most critical part in raising his children was keeping in touch with who they were, rather than who he was growing up as a Black American. He warns parents against the myth that "one drop of black blood" determines complete identity as an indivdual. Keep in mind that we are a very visual culture. The fastest and most superficial judgments are made upon first sight and can be divisive to an interracial child. To be "all black" or "all white" will not be authentic, and though your children may at one time or other identify more with one part of their racial background than another, their need to integrate the reality of who they are will be at the heart of their sense of self. Discussions about identity, especially in adolescence should be encouraged.

Your children will experience the realty of superficial classification by their "looks" as all of us are subject to, to some degree. It is our job as parents to support our child's true and unique identity above shallow interpretations. You and your husband must discover your own ways of handling others who may stare uncomfortably (for example) and be willing to discuss the effects of ignorance in society and how you wish to respond. Developing a safe forum for discussion of your child's bi-racial experience is crucial. Failure to discuss these issues may lead to identity confusion and lowered self- esteem, as with one Japanese-American client. Her family never discussed the fact that she and her siblings were the only Asians in her high school. Her own family's silence on this vital subject left her with a sense of unspoken "differentness." Haunted by the unspoken, a legacy of shame developed instead of pride.

Make yourselves the authority on your children's experience as they are growing up, and they will turn to you for the truth about themselves. Eventually, they will take this job over and continue to develop a strong sense of individuality and authentic belonging in their own families and community. See the world through their eyes, talk with other interracial couples raising children, integrate and honor both sides of your cultural heritage and your vision of "giving your child the best of both worlds" will inevitably evolve!

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