Raising tri-cultural children in a world of absoluteness

Guest post by Rachael Getecha

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.

Comments on Raising tri-cultural children in a world of absoluteness

  1. “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”

    I love this. I am mixed black american, as you call it, and white. My parents took this approach as well. I was exposed to both cultures, and I developed by own identity. I like this approach rather than trying to emphasize or force a certain culture on your kids. My husband is Vietnames, so our son is also “tri-cultural” and we’re striving to take the same approach.

    • Kristin I am so excited that you loved it! I am even more excited to hear from someone who was raised through exposure and that you believe in it enough to implement it with your own child. I appreciate your comment!

  2. Man, I’m with you on the tri-cultural conundrum. When my husband and I start spawning we’ll have a mixture of white-british/irishness on my side and french-vietnamese on his! Whilst it doesn’t fit with the ‘tri’ part of your article, I plan to employ the wise words of Sarek to Spock in the last Star Trek movie: ‘You will always be a child of two worlds. I am grateful for this, and for you.’

    • Elisabeth I love your comment and those wise words from Spock! That is so true. The fact that you are aware of this conundrum and that you are already thinking about how you will raise your future children, puts you light years ahead of most. Your consciousness on the issue will be a gift to your children. Well done!

  3. It boggles my mind that some people have to worry about outside influences or opinions of their children’s culture. To me celebrating culture should be totally removed from navigating race based judgement.
    My husband and I are children of mixed immigrants, albeit white European, so we each have a lot of pride in those cultures, but as we live in an area that is a serious melting pot of Asian cultures, we are nuts about themusic, literature and festivities and amazing food from china, India, japan, Taiwan, etc.
    I feel as though the immigrant culture is a part of who we are as north Americans and celebrating all culture is still somehow still celebrating our own identity…

    • Pips ideally, “celebrating culture should be totally removed from navigating race based judgment” but unfortunately it’s not. At least not in children, the reason being because children are sensitive to what others think of them and especially to what others say about them. So if someone says to a child (this is one example of many), “how do you even manage your hair, its so course” enough times, the child is going to start thinking that something is wrong with their hair being course. They will think that if it wasn’t course, then it would be manageable and being manageable is a good thing, so being unmanageable must be bad, so my hair must be bad. Then you have girls and women who spend millions of dollars, time and energy to make their hair more “manageable”. This becomes problematic in terms of identity development because you now have Black girls assimilating into positive White cultural perceptions of hair, instead of accepting their hair and themselves exactly how they are. This is how negative racial judgments creep into the realm of identity development. They are one in the same in non-majority children. Hopefully one day celebrating all cultures will be synonymous with celebrating our own individual identities but as for now and in my experience, people like their racial categories absolute. If you’re not one, unfortunately, you’re the other.

      • Also, it’s impossible to separate them because racism is utterly dependent on cultural distinctions. Biological arguments for racism are all debunkable. Racism is about cultural power and cultural control, plain and simple, and then about creating justifications for it. While I look forward to a day when we can celebrate cultural differences without any racism, as long as racism continues it will never be possible to separate the two completely in terms of people’s experiences and identities.

        It’s also important to realize that a huge aspect of culture is a group’s experience of dominance or oppression over the course of time, and response to it. Culture isn’t just the food and the music, but a set of assumptions, a shared perspective that comes from a particular experience. This is a huge part of why Africans in the US don’t always feel at home in Black American culture. It’s not just about the food or clothing or music.

        I applaud the author for doing what she can to give her children access to the various cultural perspectives that come with their history, and for recognizing the three distinct influences they will be affected by. Simply having access to all three will go a long way in helping them critically examine the assumptions that come with each culture and help them have more agency when dealing with the “isms”.

    • @pips
      it “boggles your mind” precisely because you are a european-american. your identity is not questioned in this country in the way that it so often is for people of color.

      as a person of color, of mixed heritage, this idea doesn’t “boggle my mind” in the least. i’ve dealt with it my whole life. only the fact that people like you are surprised and “boggled” by it, “boggles” me.

  4. This is a great post and I love that last line in particular: “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.” If only more people were open to identity being fluid and complex.

    I can identify with this post on many levels; from being an immigrant in the US to raising my child bilingually and as parts of two cultures (Romanian and American).

    I haven’t explored the complexities of living life as an intercultural couple and raising intercultural kids, but I do write a lot about bilingual/multilingual parenting. I’d love to hear from you how you guys go about it in your family! I have a series on my blog featuring different families and how they go about raising kids with more than one language and I’d love for you to share your experiences. If you’re interested, you can find the other parent profiles here: http://simplybikeblog.com/?page_id=6866


  5. while it’s great that you and your husband are already considering the implications of your children’s identities, with loving concern, i think it’s integral to remember your point that you (both parents, but especially as the white parent) have no “say” in the identity of your children. they will create their own identities out of their lived experiences. i say this, because i grew up with a similar cultural heritage in that it was a euro-american mother, a father of color, and a third racial appearance.
    identity, specifically racial identity, is incredibly personal and can differ even amongst siblings. no one, even parents, have a “say” in I-dentity. i would caution you to be careful in how and how much you speak about this delicate, personal thought process to your children during formative years. if they want to discuss it, of course, be open and willing to engage. but, don’t put thoughts in their head that might color their own, still-developing, lenses.

    also, please reconsider the way you speak about african american culture and “stereotypes” as you discussed. emphasizing or enabling an “oh, but i’m not (that kind of) black! i’m african!” mentality is NIETHER respectful of african american culture nor helpful to your children as black children living their lives in this country/world.

    • Piggy backing on what I typed, because the editor doesn’t do we’ll on my iPad, lol…

      I am a tri-racial child myself. But throughout my life, I have experienced severe racial exclusion here in the USA. It has been damaging. And my parents were there every step. I know I stated I am an African-American, and that is the group I most identify with. Ultimately it was understanding the culture of oppression of ppl of color here that helped me understand my experiences. What I am trying to say is, no matter how much streamlining of your children’s social experience you do, THEY will decide who they identify with, and it won’t always be about race. Question: how much do you tell your children about oppression of people of color in the USA?

      • @Tishushu To answer your question. My kids are 7 and 4. What they know about oppression is age appropriate. They know about slavery, the underground railroad, Jim Crow Laws, segregation, the 13th amendment, and the back to Africa movement, to name a few. They know Dr. King, Rosa Parks, W.E.B DuBois, Marcus Garvey, Frederick Douglas, The Freedom Writers, and Malcolm X. They know about great Black Americans. They read poems of Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes,and Mya Angelou. They have posters of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali and poems of Mya Angelou hanging in their play room. You could ask them about why only certain Black Americans get studies in schools and they could tell you. You could ask them why most Americans think Malcolm X was bad and they will tell you why he was not. I am a part of my local colleges “Tunnel of Oppression” where we set up huge interactive theaters demonstrating the plight of oppression in all races. I’m not just some crazy lady that had biracial kids and didn’t realize the implications. My kids are well versed on many cultures, specific people of that culture, and the oppression dealt with in that culture. I personally have read all of the above people, along with countless other books that continue to further my knowledge base and understanding. My part in their identity development is to educate them about as many events and people as possible, to the point where they don’t want to learn any more. So that when the time comes they will have a great history of all those people, events, and places to draw from.

  6. @ Anony – I respectfully disagree with just about everything that you wrote. I’m not sure if you read my article or if you just chose to get angry about one line that I wrote and then respond. Either way, when you write “(both parents, but especially as the white parent) you have no “say” in the identity of your children” you are correct, I cannot, nor do I, nor did I, insinuate that I tell my children how to identify. As you point out, “they will create their own identities out of their lived experiences.” But when you are a child who do you think is in control of your lived experiences? In this article I am talking about my husband and I’s approach to raising our children, which is through immersion. I even wrote, “My husband and I choose to implore a strategy that was used to shape our own identities, immersion.” I didn’t write, “My husband and I plan on having a say as to which race our children will identify with.” Maybe you miss read?

    Secondly, I never suggested that we take an “oh, but i’m not (that kind of) black! i’m african!” approach in my house, because that is simply false. That must have been a stereotype that you have encountered though your own “lived experiences”. I wrote that it becomes problematic for my children when people expect them to behave as Black Americans when they know little about Black American culture. The comments that I get and that my kids get, that suggesting that they are Black Americans can be confusing for them because most of the time, my kids, have no idea what the person is talking about. It would be like someone coming up to a Black American and saying, “hey, I have this get together coming up and I would really love it if you would dress up in traditional Kikuyu clothing and then sing the Kenyan national anthem in Kiswahilli!” The Black American would have no idea what that person was talking about because they have assumed that the person was Kenyan when their are not. Now, if someone said that to my husband or my kids, it would be odd-yes, but they would know exactly what they were talking about. I wrote, that people’s idea that my kids should “act Black” is “a misconception [and stereotype] because my kids are African, and African culture and Black American culture are two completely separate identities”. I wrote, “African culture and Black American culture are two completely separate identities.” Not that Africans are better than Black Americans” because suggesting that would go against everything that I know to be true.

    The fact that you and I differ on using the term “African American” or “Black American” is not an issue of disrespect but rather a difference in our “lived experiences”. If you would prefer me to use African American instead of Black American then how would you like me to refer to Africans that are Americans?

    I realize that the topic of race, especially in America, is always going to hit a nerve with some people. I’m guessing that is what happened here. But creating emotionally charged rants that deny facts is not a way to progress the thought processes on issues of race. True acceptance will come only when we allow all races, even, “the white parent”, into conversations about race. Being exclusionary only exacerbates any problem.

    My article was a simple acknowledgement that my children will always be influenced by three different cultures during their lives and that they will need to learn to navigate all three. I never suggested that one was better than the other or that I was going around talking to my kids all day about their racial identity, because I don’t. I think everyone can agree that identity is a personal decision. The article was illustrating how we are trying to give our children the tools to make that personal choice for themselves. I don’t accept that the issue of racial identity should be a hands off topic because I’m “the white parent” If race isn’t an open and accepted topic of conversation in our house, then where will my children go to have their questions answered? I am not willing to create any sort of shame surrounding my children’s biological make up or make it a topic that is off limits. In our house no topic is off limits. We have chosen to create a safe environment where our children are free to come to either parent with any questions or concerns.

    And as I said in the article, “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.” Whoever they want to be…. And whoever they want to be is accepted and celebrated by me.

    • This idea that a parent has nothing to do with a child’s identity? It just doesn’t make any sense, sorry. A white parent is part of a child of colours identity and part of their identity-making process and there is no way they can’t be.

      Now, of course race isn’t something that’s totally chosen by the parents and children and is going to be partially imposed from outside- and as we see in this case african american identity is being imposed from outside despite it being not reflective of actual heritage- simply because the kids probably *look* african american. This is true, and probably people won’t let the kids identify as ‘white’ even if they want to. But saying that parents shouldn’t or don’t participate in the identity formation processes of kids? That makes no sense.

      • I don’t think Rachael ever said that. She states throughout the article and comment section that while she and her husband can immerse and educate their children regarding their identities, it is ultimately the child’s decision as to what they ultimately identify as culturally.

        If you’re responding to Anony’s comment and not Rachael’s, then your comment makes more sense and I apologize for telling you something that you already know.

  7. Hi Rachel, great article! Identity, and more specifically my future children’s identities, is something that I think about all of the time, and many points in your article really resonated with me.

    Do you have any resources that you found helpful regarding children and identity?

    • @GlamGori I was lucky enough to have found two really amazing PHD’s while I was in college who were well considered in Ethnic Studies. I took as many classes from them as were offered, spent countless hours in their offices picking their brains, and read everything that they recommended to me. I was also involved in my universities cultural center. I went and listen to speeches by various people, watched documentaries being debuted, and was involved in events that they would put on about cultural awareness. Again I got lucky, and the director of the cultural center at that school was incredible. She would host a monthly “get together” where the topic would be “ism”, no topic was off limits. Students from every culture and every walk of life would come in and talk about daily struggles, identity, racism and so forth. I would go, listen and participate and I took a lot away from those open and honest discussions. I also think that traveling gives people a more broaden perspective on race and categorizations in general. So a long answer to your question is that there are a lot of factors that contributed to the way that I have decided to raise my kids. I read constantly and am always looking for information and thought provoking material, look on the internet (carefully), check out your local universities cultural center and see what sort of forums they provide. If I had to pin point the one book that changed the way I thought about racial identity, it was actually the first required book in an ethnic studies class I took, called “Caucasia” by Danzy Senna. It is not for those who can’t handle an occasional curse word or heavy content but it will get you thinking in a good direction. Honestly, so much of it is just being around all different kinds of people, being willing to educated yourself, having an open mind, and being willing to learn about and accept other cultures practices. Hopefully that helps!

      • Thank you for such an in-depth answer! I remember the book “Caucasia”, though I personally found O’Hearn’s “Half and Half” more personally relevant.

        And on a side note, I totally understand your opinion regarding “Black American” vs “African American”. My husband is Indian, and trying to constantly remind people the difference between India-Indian and Native American or the difference between Indian American and American Indian can be frustrating.

  8. I think a lot about our son’s experiences with race and culture. My wife is Mexican American. She was adopted from Mexico at the age of two by a couple (2nd generation German American father and 1st generation Mexican American mother) living in the US. Her adoptive mother died when she was young. So she wasn’t immersed in Mexican culture as much as she would’ve been had that not happened. I’m a white American of mostly Northern European descent, but my family has been here so long that my experience was typical white American (in the South). We chose a donor that matched my heritage and physical features. We now have this beautiful little boy who is Hispanic Caucasian and plain ole Caucasian. My wife is proud of her Mexican heritage, but due to her lack of immersion, we have to actively work at giving our son that part of his heritage. It’s important to us though, and we do our best through his books and toys now as a toddler, and will continue to seek ways to do so as he grows up.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  9. @Amy The fact that you are conscious of the outside factors weighing in on his identity is half of the battle. The other half is love, open-mindedness and immersion and it sounds to me as though you have all those parts covered 🙂

  10. @tishushu Yes culture is relative. What exactly I am trying to say is that MY CHILDREN and many others, who are not of one race, have many factors that contribute to their identity. In this case I was talking about the three cultures that will affect my children, two that are by genetics, White and African and one that is a societal expectation, Black American. I never wrote this on the pretense that I know EVERYTHING that there is to know about Black culture, no one does. I was simply making an observation about the three cultures that will influence my kids. This might be hard for someone to understand that has never had more than one force at work on their identity. And I seriously wish people would READ carefully before posting comments. Honestly this process has left me hopeless for the future of any sort of racial peace. People find one line that strikes a chord with them and, from that point on, they choose to slant everything that I wrote to favor that perspective. Writing, “Not only that, but your children will decide who they can relate to, not you. Narrowing their options by streamlining their experience won’t make socialising [sic] any easier.” Lets me know that you might not have read the entire article and completely missed the point of what I was trying to say. Because what I wrote said NOTHING about, “narrowing their options” or “streamlining their experience.” It actually said the exact opposite. We have no hope for racial understanding if we continue to be exclusionary. We have no hope for racial understanding if we see a White women writing about influences of African and Black culture on her children and assume she has no right to comment on the issue. This article is not about White and Black, it’s about awareness. Awareness of the factors that contribute to our children’s lives, it’s not about absoluteness. It’s not about defining anything for them. It is about me as a mother being aware of three cultures that I have personally witnessed my children trying to negotiate. It’s the, “they’re not Black they’re African”, or “they’re too light to be African” or “they’re not White they’re Black.” It’s these sorts of absolute statements and thought processes that put my kids in the middle of these three cultures. I never said that this fact was anything that I would take action on or try to control. It was an acknowledgement that this was happening and that I plan on letting them decide, for themselves, how they will chose to navigate each culture. And it’s all relative isn’t it? But if we continue to discount others experiences instead of maintaining an open mind, the state of race relations will continue to stagnate.

  11. Thanks so much for this post. I’m not a parent but I am/will be an aunt of several children from different racial backgrounds, as my best friends are predominantly “TCKs,” as we call it– Third-Culture Kids, so this is something we think about a lot too in my “friend family.” As I was reading your article, I remembered this Time magazine article that came out a while ago, about children’s perceptions of race and what was most effective in helping them understand that racial discrimination is not ok. Maybe you’re familiar with it, but if not I thought you & other readers would enjoy it! (http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2009/09/04/see-baby-discriminate.html)
    The most important, and somewhat surprising, lesson I took from the article was from the research studies on kids’ racial attitudes. Turns out our tendency to think kids will not be prejudiced if they grow up in diverse environments or with stories about diverse people is off-base. The study found the kids to be far from color-blind but in fact to exhibit some terrible assumptions about what racial difference must mean, since adults weren’t talking to them directly about it. A diverse environment, *plus* simple, explicit explanations about race, however, made a big difference in their attitudes. Unless they’re getting messages like, “choosing our friends based on skin color wouldn’t be nice” or “people of all different skin colors can be ___doctors/lawyers/president/__etc” rather than vague notions of “everyone’s equal,” it seems they developed the opposite message.

    The article goes on with a lot of other interesting points, so I won’t belabor them, and it sounds like you and your family are very likely to already be having those conversations, but I had to pass it on in the hope that all of us who care about effectively raising our kids to value diversity could read and share it! Thanks again for sharing your story.

    • @Hm the world is such a funny thing, I was actually was re-reading that article last week! It is painfully interesting. I completely agree, about needing to talk directly to children about race. The problem is that race is such a historically taboo subject in this country. Not talking about it hasn’t been working. So what now? Continue doing something that isn’t working or try something new? I’m with you, I say have open, educated, honest discussions about race with your children and let’s see where that takes us. Thanks for commenting it is much appreciated!

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