In a world of categories, how do you inspire your children to break away from categorization and create their own identity?
This is a question that I had never thought of before I had children. I never had to, I am a White woman born and raised in a predominantly White community. I married a man from Kenya and we have two children together. My husband was born in Kenya and moved to North America when he was thirteen. He speaks three languages and is very connected to his African roots. He also never had to actively think about identity until we had children. My husband and I were both raised in environments where we were the majority. We grew up openly celebrating important holidays, speaking the same language as everyone around us, and being generally immersed in our own cultures. We never had to wonder where we fit in and we never had to choose a culture to identify with because we were unconscious to the fact that we had a choice.
Once we had kids we quickly realized that our children would not have the luxury of being brought up in a place where their identity was never questioned. Our kids are tri-cultural. They are one part Kenyan, one part White American, and one part Black American. I say this because in North America, unfortunately people don’t look at my kids and think that they are bi-racial, specifically Kenyan and American, they look at them and categorize them as being Black Americans. This is a misconception because my kids are African, and African culture and Black American culture are two completely separate identities. This plays a very tricky role in their identity development. My kids know that they are Kenyan Americans and they are very close to their Kenyan heritage. However, they are being categorized and are anticipated to adhere to the stereotypical roles of Black American culture.
By birth, my kids were put on a metaphorical fence, a fence that they will be on their entire lives. They live in a space that exists between two races, where Black meets White, dipping back and forth from either side but never fully in one side or the other. This is then compounded by a third factor, which is society’s expectation of them to behave as Black Americans. They are in a sense caught in the middle of a trifecta of cultures being influenced by each of them at the same time.
That is why I say that they are tri-cultural. Although they are foundationally bi-cultural they will pull from three very different and distinct cultures to form their identities over their lifetimes. Instead of becoming bogged down and discouraged by this complicated twist of fortune, we have chosen to embrace it. I’ve found that the key to raising well-adjusted tri-cultural children is actually to evade talking about it all together! I have never sat down and told my kids, “You are tri-cultural.” That conversation is best saved for a later date. My husband and I choose to implore a strategy that was used to shape our own identities, immersion.
A factor that makes this a bit problematic is that we live in a predominantly White community. A natural consequence of this, is that they will commonly be taught about White culture, with smatterings of major Black figures intertwined throughout their curriculum. We have had to implement strategies to keep our children open-minded while allowing them to form their own individuality. We want them to have access to as much information as possible and let them decide where they feel most comfortable existing.
We have made it a priority to take our children back to Kenya. This is so our children can meet family members, make friends, learn their language and feel truly incorporated in that side of themselves. Through traveling they are able to see different types of people, doing different things all over the world. This helps broaden their perspectives and dissolves some of the pressure to fit into a racial category because they realize that on a global scale we are all vastly different.
We use a good deal of literature to help teach them about great leaders from all ethnicities, focusing on people that they will most likely not hear about in school. We are very open in talking to our children about the history of North America and how it was not kind to Africans. We use books to teach these delicate subject matters and strive to give them age appropriate information about topics that they are interested in.
Instead of focusing on all of the implications that being Black in America might have on them, we choose to focus on teaching them about humanity and encourage them find goodness in all kinds of people. We have decided that it is not our job as parents to tell them who they are or to decide for them which race they will identify with. We would rather give them the information and the confidence to expel all traditional discourse of fitting into a racial category and help them strive to carve out their own space in this world — a space where they are free to be whoever they want to be.