How I explain race to my mixed-race children

Guest post by Christina Simon
Christine and her family. Photo by Porcha Dodson.

“African American.” “Black.” “Mulatto.” “Biracial.” “Mixed-Race.” “Multi-Racial.” Other. It’s not always easy to explain race to children. I’ve struggled over the right words to use more than a few times. Do I say “black” or “African American?”

I’m a mixed-race mom (African American and white) who married a white guy. Our kids are obviously mixed. Being mixed has shaped my identity, made me who I am. I’ve always felt different, but in a good way. Sure, I’ve had my share of racist insults and rejection hurled at me, but nothing that I wasn’t able to shake off. Now, I’m raising mixed-race kids and I have the challenge of helping them discover and embrace their unique identity.

My kids are seven and ten years old. For the past few years, discussions about race and identity have been a regular part of our family dinner conversations. When my kids were about four or five they’d ask why we all have different skin colors. For a while, confusion ensued about which one of us is black and which is white. This was hilarious because they didn’t really understand how a person could be both. Then, they started to understand the concept of race. Now, they get it… I think. The other day, my seven-year-old son asked me to remind him who in our family is African American. I find it touching that he sees me as “Mom” and not by my skin color.

When my kids were younger, they often identified themselves as different races. My daughter would say that my son was African American, but she was white. I’ve explained the concept of being mixed to them in the same way it was explained to me by my parents. I was always told I was an incredibly lucky person to have parents from two different races and cultures. I often tell my kids the same thing.

Today, the issues for mixed-race individuals are as much about our self-identity as they are about the way we are defined by others. Deciding which boxes to check on the Census form is empowering for me. Knowing that people understand mixed-race individuals are a growing part of our culture is significant. Still, as in the past, we are defined by our skin color. President Obama is mixed-race, but he self-identifies — and is identified by others — as a black man based on the color of his skin.

I want [my kids] to know that they are unique and special, in part, because of their mixed heritage — not in spite of it.

As a mother of mixed-race kids, I know I have two important tasks. First I want my kids to understand both sides of their heritage, African American and white (Jewish). Secondly, perhaps my most complicated challenge is to help foster a strong sense of self-esteem in my kids. Yes, they are different from non-mixed kids. But I want them to know that they are unique and special, in part, because of their mixed heritage — not in spite of it. My hope for them is that they grow up being able to comfortably navigate both of their worlds, embracing who they are as exquisite individuals.

When I talk to my kids about being mixed, I emphasize the positive attributes that come with belonging to two races. I’m also honest about the fact that some people may not like them because they are mixed. These people, I tell them, are ignorant. It’s always eye-opening to explain racism to a child. I tend to draw on inspiring references from history like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement to tell my kids about African American struggles for equality.

Recently, I asked my kids if they could name any famous people who are mixed, African American and white. “President Obama and Lenny Kravitz,” said my daughter without hesitation. I smile when my son tells me it doesn’t matter what color somebody is — he says what matters is their character. I couldn’t have said it better.

Comments on How I explain race to my mixed-race children

  1. This is one of the best articles that I have read relating to being biracial and how to handle it with children… yet it’s from 2011. I wish there were more articles/ blogs like this.

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