I was born multi-racial and didn’t realize it until I was 6

Guest post by Monica

Multiracial jigsaw
By: Ben SutherlandCC BY 2.0
I have been noticing a surge in articles online about raising biracial or mixed race children. I’ve been reading a lot about the topic because it astounds me that it’s such a big deal — and it scares me a little. While I can (sort of) understand why this topic is important to some people, I wanted to share my perspective as a mixed race child — one who didn’t even realize she was different in the first place.

I was born to a very mixed family in the late 1980s. The truth is that I never saw this as anything weird or unusual at all — my family never mentioned our racial make-up and I never saw it. No one ever said anything to me or my family in school or at work, and when my African-American grandfather brought me to meet his co-workers, no one mentioned my skin color.

This might come as a shock because I am white — very white. My skin is as pale as pale can get, and yet my grandfather is African-American. My mother is half Italian, half African-American, and my father is the son of mixed (Spaniard and Native American) mother with a European father. From all this you would think there’d be something interesting to say about my siblings and me, but… there’s not.

It never occurred to me that I might be different until we moved to the United States when I was six. My exposure to race and ethnicity was helpful in that I already had an understanding of people and their differences. People would ask me how it felt to grow up in a mixed home, and I would promptly reply that I didn’t know.

I sometimes see kids struggle with their identity, and when I tell them that I’m also mixed race they either don’t believe me or ask me what I find to be a sad question: “How do you feel about it?” The truth is I don’t feel anything: I’m me. Unfortunately, this isn’t an answer people who are hell-bent on knowing your ethnicity are happy to hear.

I came home from school one day in tears, asking my mother what I was. My mother looked at me, completely confused, and said, “You’re a human, Moni.” I was upset and asked her what kind of human I was, and she said, “The cute kind.” It wasn’t until I explained that I didn’t look Hispanic that she said to me I could be whatever I felt like since I have “plenty to pick from” that I calmed down. She told me that whenever someone asked me my race I could simply answer “the human race” — which turned out to be the best advice my mother ever gave me.

I am not Hispanic or Caucasian or African-American — and I don’t have to be just one.

As an adult I find myself faced with the issue of race every day — I never know what to check when I’m filling out any kind of official form. I urge parents of mixed race children to not teach them they are a mixture of two cultures (or three, or four) but instead teach them that they are human beings. Skin color really is only skin deep, and it’s not truly an indicator of anything other than a gene lost in a million years — it often doesn’t even reflect what culture someone belongs to.

The truth is, if it were not for my mother’s words I’d be incredibly frustrated by the situation. Instead, the idea that I belong to the human race is the foundation of my upbringing, and I realize that I cannot be easily defined by what my skin looks like.

Comments on I was born multi-racial and didn’t realize it until I was 6

  1. Thanks for sharing your perspective! I was surprised to find a television documentary recently following mixed-race kids. I checked the date in the on-screen guide many times thinking it was a rerun from a decade or two ago. I realized sort of suddenly that it was naive and probably insensitive of me to not recognize that this is still a big issue for many people. One light-skinned girl was striving to be recognized as an African American, while another bi-racial girl wasn’t really sure how to identify. Checking boxes on forms was confusing for them, also.

  2. I think this is my absolute favorite post I’ve ever read on this site. We are all a part of the human race, the human family, and that is all we are. Hundred or thousand year old grudges and stereotypes do no one any good at all, love for all fellow human beings is what we should be teaching, above ALL else. You are you, and I am me, and we are equals within our human family. Nothing else matters. <3

  3. I love this! Thanks. I am raising a multi-racial child and have on occasion wondered to myself if I should be putting more thought into this or reading books or something but I trully haven’t felt the need and to be honest I often forget that she is multi-racial. So far it just hasn’t been an issue. She’ll take whatever she takes from all the cultures she’s exposed to and be herself as a result of it. A beautiful member of the human race.

    • Hi there! I wish I had something to say that would help you with your dilemma… I honestly still have such a Venezuelan mind set that I still can’t really see it? I don’t mean that to be offensive at all it’s just so strange how I can live in the same world and yet my mind is so off put by the mere idea of someone having to worry about being ‘bi-racial’. I hope you can find a way to teach your child all you want to teach them and that the world is kind to them about who they are.

      • I find it fascinating how different attitudes to race can be in different parts of the world. From what people have told me it seems that South and North America are the two ends of the spectrum – in South America race isn’t a big deal (people are more interested in nationality) and isn’t seen as necessarily related to your skin colour whereas in North America it’s often a major defining characteristic for people. Almost every American I’ve known can recite where each of their ancestors came from and their own racial background in fractions. They will ask other people about their race and expect an equally detailed answer from them.

        Here in Europe it seems to be somewhere in the middle, race is often seen as a complicated topic, it’s not necessarily related to your skin colour or where you’re from and it’s often unclear where the boundaries are (for example most people understand the concept of Hispanic people, but that’s related to the Americas, people from Spain are white and European). In the UK forms tend to have lots of options related to each skin colour (e.g. Black British, Black Afro-Carribean, Black Africa, Black-Other and there’s always a box for simply ‘Mixed’, and of course ‘prefer not to say’) and if people ask about it it’s more likely to be related to where you were born and raised than where your ancestors are from or what colour your skin is.

        Then there’s places like Central Asia where race is more about what region you grew up in and what traditions you were raised in that what you look like.

        I find it interesting in terms of looking at the different attitudes and how they vary between people and places, but I tend to think in practice it’s much to complex of a question to ask in casual conversation. You really need to cover a person’s thoughts about race generally before you can get into how they identify themselves. Which means 99% of the time I think it’s not worth worrying about. As you said we’re all human.

  4. Deciding which box to check now as an adult seems like a trivial problem compared to the ones I dealt with as a child. I’m half white half indigenous Caribbean, for the most part I grew up with just the Caribbean family, and that’s how I identify culturally. But as the one white looking anomaly in my family I was often shunned and constantly reminded about how I was different by my relatives, even though it’s something that never came up at home. Other students and sometimes even teachers insisted that I must be lying about my ethnicity, I was even told that I was probably adopted and just didn’t know it. All this growing up in one of the most diverse parts of the US. I think the worst I’ve ever heard is that if I look white I should just go with that and not tell people about my full heritage. While race shouldn’t matter to other people, heritage does matter to the individual. I’m proud of who I am and I would not want to have been denied all the cultural richness I grew up with.

  5. I enjoyed reading the author’s experience. I would love to live in a world where people were more focused on our shared human experience, and less discriminatory based on skin color. I wonder whether the author would have had the same experience in the United States if her skin color was darker. I speculate that it’s easier to ignore skin color differences when you have the privilege of matching a culture’s most valued traits.
    Interestingly, the elementary school I went to (Spanish immersion, all teachers Hispanic/Latino) put so much emphasis on valuing the histories and cultures of people of color, that I felt very sorry for myself for having “no culture.” I think it was a very unusual and comical experience. As an adult I understand better all the unearned privileges I receive for being white. I also see that everyone has a culture, and that I have the ability to make up my own traditions if I don’t like what I’ve been handed. I won’t lie, though. I do sometimes still wish I had been born into a culture that’s easier for an intelligent person to romanticize.

    • its entirely possible to grow up with no sense of one’s own ‘color’ and the social implications of the same.

      i’m one such a person. skin as dark as you can imagine but because nobody cared when i grew up, imagine my shock when, all of a sudden at thirteen, during registration in a new school and country and i get TOLD i’m Black.

      its a title that still, to this day, dont relate to. it had no bearing in my formative years and lacks relevance still, to this day.

      i am whom i am. short, tattoed, pierced, shaved head, tomboy working in a male dominated field.

      i’m also pregnant with an interracial baby (hubby is Chinese) and we’re expecting her anytime from next week

      i pray we raise her with a strong sense of self that will override any identity our silly world wishes to burden her with.

    • This:

      “I would love to live in a world where people were more focused on our shared human experience, and less discriminatory based on skin color. I wonder whether the author would have had the same experience in the United States if her skin color was darker. I speculate that it’s easier to ignore skin color differences when you have the privilege of matching a culture’s most valued traits.”

    • Hm, I am the author! And I can’t say what COULD have happened were my skin tone darker but I can say this much: My skin color is not an asset of any kind. I actually have experienced racism FOR BEING PALE and then being Hispanic (a term that I don’t agree with, by the way). All in all I think the United States from MY experience needs to break free of that whole ‘skin color’ cycle and it’d be nice if it started with not having to check off your ‘ethnicity’ (whatever THAT means) in forms. I don’t have to do so in my own country EVER.

  6. My only concern with having future mixed kids is their hair. Will they have hair like my husbands(half-black, half Puerto Rican) and be super curly and thick? How do I deal with that? Are my kids gonna be as difficult as I was about my hair? And my hair was relatively simple at the time. Yep. That’s pretty much my biggest concern, that as a white girl I won’t know how to deal with my kids hair. haha. But I know I’ll figure it out.

  7. I love this article. Hopefully one day race (and gender for that matter) won’t be such a big issue in some places. From a large city Canadian perspective, my workplace is full of folks of just about every race, our daycare a rainbow of kids, my friends are of every combination, and many of my parent-friends are in relationships with partners whose families are from opposite ends of the globe. It seems to be a non-issue. In the states, race does seem to be a bigger deal than I canada. I understand that given its past and politics. My parents lived in the states for a decade and noticed race and religion to be topics that Canadians didn’t seem to pay as much attention to. Perhaps it’s different in smaller towns or other parts? Any other Canadians weigh in?

    • As a fellow big-city dwelling Canadian, all of my experiences would lead me to agree that race really isn’t that big a deal in Canada, and that is something I think a lot of Canadians are proud of. I see mixed couples and people of mixed ethnicity of every life stage, every day, and no one blinks an eye. At least, that’s what I thought growing up most of my life with white privilege.

      My fiancee, however, has different perspective (he was born in Hong Kong). In many large cities (I’m sure all over the world, not just Canadian ones) communities divide themselves based on their races. In my city, there’s “China-town”, “Korean-town”, “Little India”, “Little Italy”, etc. So even growing up in such a diverse city, he definitely experienced that race is kind of a big deal – you hang out with Asian kids, you don’t date white kids, you don’t venture out side of your Chinese community. Now, that may be a sense of racism on the part of a community, but it definitely made him feel like race is an issue in our society.

      As for small-town Canada, I still think that race is big issue, though it is starting to go away. My fiancee has had many experiences of going up to a friends cottage and getting stared at like he was from another world, not another country. When we vacation outside of our big city, we still get looks (especially when we hold hands together), as if no one has seen a mixed race couple (though, honestly, they may never have). Though in recent years we’ve found a lot more people of various ethnicity vacationing when we have, which is nice.

      My fiancee has had his share of racist slurs thrown at him, been treated differently based on his skin tone, but the two of us think it’s getting better.

      • I also think race is less of an issue in Canada.
        It’s interesting what you wrote about small-town Canada as I am a white woman living in small town Canada with my Chinese husband and mixed race daughter and it is a total non-issue. One of the advantages to small town living is everyone knows us for the people we are not the race we are.

        • I would absolutely love to know where you live, as my fiancee and I are looking to move out of our big city to a smaller country-ish town, but the fear of discrimination is holding us back.

          It’s that small community feeling that we are looking for, as well as our perception of a slower pace of life that is so appealing, but we can’t seem to find any that is ‘quite right’ or very diverse.

          • I’m from a village (pop. 2300) along the St. Lawrence river (1hr south of Ottawa on Bank St.) and I second the above poster’s opinion of small town life. My experience was that class differences were much more apparent than racial/cultural differences. In contrast, I have friends in Quebec who found that religion (not race, or class) was the big deal in their small town. Obviously I can’t vouch for all small towns, but I love’em and I hope you find one you like 🙂

      • I’m from a small town in Canada, in the North, and race is definitely an issue the further you get from big cities. Anyone not of Anglo-Saxon descent gets the short end of the stick, though I’m happy to say many of the smaller cities and towns are slowly becoming more diverse over time. I can remember my grandfather and even my father using language that I would *never* use to describe certain people, and now that we’ve moved out to the Wet Coast, my son is making friends with an incredibly diverse group of kids and has never even heard those words.

  8. Thank you , thank you , thank you for this. As a mother of three, two sons from a previous marriage and a new baby girl(mixed) from my new relationship, this topic has concerned me. Ive read some very sad and disturbing articles about how to raise my mixed baby girl, what heritage to teach and how to make sure she has equal amounts of both for a “healthy” upbringing. My mindset has been to raise her like I would any child I have had with respect and love and teach her to love who she is, not to pick a color or a “side” if you will. I could not put into words how I felt but you just did. Thank you so very much for this..it was a breath of fresh air for me and just what I needed.

    • This is the most beautiful thing I’ve read in months. Thank YOU for just being willing to say “my child is not different” because if you think about it… What makes us different? I think there are so many MUCH MORE INTERESTING things that make human beings different than our so-called ethnicity. Your new baby is no different from your previous children whatsoever so why give them any different kind of education?

  9. I like the honesty.
    I also have made the oversimplified statement that we are one human race. Although that’s true, it doesn’t explain hate crimes, xenophobia, racial profiling, the war on drugs, stop and frisk, the New Jim Crow Prison Industrial Complex of mass incarceration, massive housing segregation, the discrepancies of unemployment. 

  10. I’m mixed race and it’s a big deal for me. The Hispanic side of my family rejects me because I’m white. The white side of my family rejects me because I’m Hispanic. When I got to school age, the school I went to was very racially divided and the kids demanded I had to choose: are you hispanic or are you white? I didn’t choose and had no friends. I’m not that old either….this happened only a few years ago. I’m glad some mixed race people have a significantly less hard time with their identity but for others, it’s still very hard, no matter how our parents taught us that we are “just American”.

    • My partner (he’s Hispanic and was raised in a rural, very white area) unfortunately had similar struggles. He didn’t fit in with the white kids because of his skin color and his name, but he didn’t fit in with the Hispanic kids either because he didn’t speak Spanish. Unfortunately, for many people, race isn’t just something they can choose to ignore because everyone else makes a big deal about it.

  11. My siblings and I are not mixed race, but we are lots of mixed nationalities (we never lived in the States so “race” is never something I had to choose from lists on official forms). My mom always said we were “citizens of the world”. I feel at home nowhere, I feel at home everywhere. I hated it as a teenager, but I love it now!

  12. It may be “only skin deep,” but the struggles one face are often response to appearances. It really is about color. Everyone’s experience is different, but the author says she has very pale skin there are privileges granted by that alone.

    • You are correct I have VERY pale skin (paler than a lot of my European friends!) but how does this mean I have not experienced racism? I think you forget I posted that I moved to the US but I never specified I stayed THERE. In Venezuela I am a constant mockery for my skin color and in fact do suffer from racism because I am pale skinned. White privilege is real… but it’s not the only thing out there and sometimes people forget that.

      • I think that’s a good point – I imagine light-skinned people living in parts of Asia have similar experiences. (Although in other parts of Asia, having a light complexion might be an advantage.) Just like Christians in the US have major privilege, but Christians in China do not.

        Basically, being part of the non-dominant group (or looking like the non-dominant group) tends to lead to a lack of privilege.

  13. Speaking of boxes lol. I just had the realization not too long ago when looking at those damn boxes. I’m mixed racial. Not that many would think it. I’m German and Irish and Cherokee. I look pure Irish from the pale freckled skin to the red curly hair and emerald green eyes. But I am Cherokee. At least in part. My daughter the same as me and Puerto Rican but I never once thought of telling her she’s one race over another. I thought of just raise her as her. My son is me and a while bunch of European stuff from his dad (yes different parents) and he looks like me coloring wise and someone thought they had the same dad. No need to raise them anything other than who they are. What they are is human.

    • Interesting mix yous have. Everyone loves green eyes. For blue I have to live with the term “Blue eyed devil”.

      Identity is a huge topic. One of the most important parts of our identity should be an internal LOVING self who respects others regardless of how THEY look.

  14. Well, I’m really glad that you have had such an easy time growing up mixed. It’s an ideal that most of us want. I am also mixed, have “human” marked as my race on my birth certificate, and grew up experiencing relatively few incidents of direct racism as my skin color and facial features allow me to pass on both sides. That said, I think that making it a non-issue silences any dialogue, and in that silence you’re leaving room for racial and ethnic issues to remain the way they are. And racism is still systemic in every country I’ve ever visited. I’d much rather my children be grounded in their understanding of their identities, have given it some thought, and be able to have a conversation about it if it comes to that. I am happy for you that your experience was easy, and I’m thrilled that you are brave enough to write about it, a lot of people aren’t. I just wanted to add my two cents, and so I’ve done.

  15. I am an ESL teacher and one of my students is a fluent speaker of an Asian language. Her parents only speak that language and are mixed race. I think that’s what happens when American soldiers are stationed in your country. She, as a result, is a gorgeous child who you would suspect is African American until she begins speaking her home language.
    It is amazing how the complexion of our world is becoming so much more varied. My husband is multi-racial as well. I look forward to contributing my own gorgeous child to our diverse world.

  16. Thought-provoking article! I am, like the author, ALSO of African-American/Italian descent. My mother is a Black woman of mixed heritage, of a fairer complexion, and my father was White of Italian-American heritage. Again, like the author, race was very rarely discussed in my home (pretty much never). And yet, I never grew up even remotely confused about my heritage and I’ve always been extremely comfortable being mixed-race. I guess, looking back on it *now*, I realize that race didn’t have to be discussed in my interracial family…I grew up visiting my African-American grandparents, visiting their Black neighborhood and was exposed to and influenced by Black culture, and at the same time knew about my Sicilian heritage by way of dad. It was automatic, instinctive to me what I was, and lengthy conversations about what “it meant to be a mixed child” didn’t have to happen due to my parents’ complete ease and comfort with being an interracial family, and their success in naturally exposing me to both sides. I admit, as an adult, I identify with African-American culture more closely because I was closer with my mom’s Black family (many of my dad’s Italian relatives, like my grandma, had already passed away), but that was something that came about naturally with me, nothing that was forced or stressed as being the only way to identify.

    But like the author’s suggestion about emphasizing our common HUMANITY instead of superficialities like skin color, that was also an element of how I was raised. My color, my race, was never ever paramount in my mind. I always thought of myself as a human being first and related to many other peoples from many other cultures and ethnicities. Important people in my life ranged from those of the Jewish community to the Filipino. Race/culture/faith was never a barrier to me in connecting to other people, because I was always raised to understand our common humanity. Diversity wasn’t something to ‘strive’ for in my life; it was ALWAYS there.

    I think raising a mixed child can often be complicated simply due to our history’s complicated past but families like mine certainly got it right, and I think the reason WHY was that they truly did not over-obsess over their ‘differences’ but realized the commonalities. I think many other racially mixed children need to be taught this lesson, because once they realize this most important part, a natural understanding of their own selves will come forth. 🙂

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