Parenting Across the Color Line
April 11, 2011 (WPVI) -- M'Balia Singley grew up in Philadelphia. She spent most of her time with her books, but she knew that once she started dating, her African American family had a strong preference that she also date other people of the same background.
Frank Chism grew up in a mainly white Missouri town. His high school of 1600 had, he guesses, 2 black kids and one Asian student.
Frank and M'bi ended up at the same college in the late 80s. During her senior year and his junior year, they began to go out. "Our parents were just horrified...not having it," recalls M'bi.
The two parted after college. M'bi dated another white man and had her now 13-year-old daughter, Singley Risico. In their late 20s, Frank and M'bi reunited. They've now been married seven years and have a three-year-old daughter, Adelia.
The couple specifically chose Mount Airy as a neighborhood because of its famous racial diversity. Adelia is too young to understand race, but they've already walked this parenting path with Singley. They purposefully put her into a local public school, which was predominantly African American, for the first two years of school, before moving her to a private school that is predominantly white. They wanted her to be comfortable in both kinds of crowds. "I feel like I could drop her anywhere. I could drop her in a place where they don't even speak English, and she'd feel comfortable with who she is," says her mother.
But when asked how they racially identify their kids, there is no pat answer. "Some days she's black, some days she's biracial, some days it's white...when the rhythm's off," M'bi jokes. More seriously, she adds, "I do feel like my daughters are black. But I feel like by saying that, we kind of dismiss the rest of who they are. And I want them to be proud of who they are."
Indeed, experts say this question is the most important one for parents of biracial kids to answer. Even if the parents find they rarely talk about race themselves, or even shy away from the issue, kids need to be ready to deal with a world that will constantly ask, "what are you?"
"Children look to their parents for their identity," explained Lori Tharps, who blogs about parenting and race at MyAmericanMeltingPot.com. "To ignore it, to say race doesn't matter, to say we live in a color blind society, it's very foolish. And you're doing a disservice to your child."
Tharps, who is African-American, is raising biracial kids with her husband, who is from Spain. She says parents should decide early on what the family will be considered and pass that on. "Give it to the children lovingly, like 'You know what, we're a great mixed family, and you're a great mixed kid' Black, Latina, biracial, multiracial, whatever you want to call it."
Dr. Marissa Cummings of CHOP recommends that parents indeed pick the biracial or multiracial designation. "It doesn't insult one culture and it's a more accurate reflection of who that child is, and it is a richer experience to embrace both sides."
Some other advice:
Obviously, it's better for the child to have a neighborhood and school that are diverse. But, especially with the economic and housing downturn, it's not also possible for families to move around. In that case, Tharps recommends websites like her own that list out forums, groups and activities that will help you hook up with other biracial families. Even the occasional picnic or movie night can give your kid a chance to see there are lot of other families like yours.
Also, mixed families are a growing trend. Already there are any number of public figures who are parents of biracial kids or biracial kids themselves. Matt Damon's daughters are half-Latina, as is Salma Hayek's. Halle Berry's child is half-white, as is she herself. Actresses Olivia Munn and Vanessa Minnillo and pitcher Tim Lincecum are half Asian. "We call it the rainbow game," says Tharps, who regularly points out other biracial people to her sons.
Just because people have come together doesn't mean there aren't still issues that require work. Frank had to look at the stereotypes he grew up and weed them out from his thinking. M'bi didn't relish talking about injustices of the civil rights era; she's been careful to discuss racial difficulties with her kids in a way that is honest but doesn't focus on or condone continued bitterness or rage. Experts say both parents need to make an effort to learn the history and culture of the other partner and take a leading role in sharing it with the kids.
The more you make race a regular and open topic, the more normalized the issue will be for your kids. And humor also can make it easier to tackle tough moments. One day Singley got in the car and said a white described her crush on a black classmate as "jungle fever." When she asked M'bi what that was, her mother made a joke. "I was in a tree and Frank came along and domesticated me!" After the laughter subsided, they discussed the comment as just a curiosity---what did the girl mean? Was she trying to confess something? "It's a silly term," says M'bi. "We take the layers off and keep the moments she has like that very human, so she's not walking around angry."
One other thing biracial families may encounter are the slings and arrows of others, from curious stares to mean comments. Recently at the airport, a ticket taker looked at Frank and M'bi, looked at their documents---with the three different last names---and then looked back at them. "Okay, what's going on here?" he finally asked in exasperation. M'bi has been asked if she's the nanny and the family is used to people staring.
Tharps recommends turning it into a teachable moment. First, kids usually don't notice unless you have a big reaction. But if they do notice the looks, use the circumstance. "Then you say something like, they're staring because you're a beautiful child. Or they've never seen a family that looks as different as ours, but that's probably because they don't get out much. You normalize it for them," says Tharps.
But perhaps the stickiest spot may be when your family is having a hard time accepting your partner or children. Both Frank and M'bi's families hail from the South and had to adjust to their decision to be together. But now both families are embracing, accepting it is a regular thing to have a person of a different race at the dinner table. But if things don't go so well for you, experts say take a two-prong approach: work on improving relations yourself, but shield your kids, even if that means keeping them distant from the family member till they are older. "I think you have to have a serious discussion about how much exposure they have to your child," says Cummings.
But now more than ever, you are likely to have support everywhere from the folks next door to strangers in line at the market. The days of the "tragic mulatto" seem long over, replaced by a world where everyone from the Commander in Chief to director Steven Spielberg to athlete Derek Jeter knows that it's like to live a life that looks like a Benetton ad.
tamala edwards parenting reports, parenting, tamala edwards
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