Growing up half Asian and half white, I dealt with racism and sometimes felt insecure about my features. But now I'm teaching my kids to be proud of where they came from and how they look.

By J.A. Kohl
May 07, 2021
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The author and her two kids.
The author and her two kids.
| Credit: Courtesy of J.A. Kohl

As a child, I remember constantly hearing my parents' friends—sometimes even strangers—remark on how "beautiful" my brother and I were. "They are so exotic," they'd say. But when I hit elementary school, I realized these so-called compliments were only making me feel "different." And as children, we want to belong, to fit in, to be like our peers.

My mom was Chinese. Her father was from mainland China while her mother was born in China but raised in Jamaica. My father was born and raised in Germany and had an accent. He is old enough to remember World War II, his missing father, American soldiers, and helping his mother at the age of 9 put food on the table.

But here I was living with my immigrant parents on Long Island, New York, amongst Italians, Irish, and many blonde blue-eyed children who looked nothing like my brother and me. As we learned about famous explorers in school, we began to discuss where all our families were from. For me it was always complicated to explain: was I Chinese and German? Jamaican, Chinese, and German? Eurasian?

Things got worse when I got older. Children would yell racial slurs when they saw me or repeat a chant that made me cry so often, "Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these."

Fast forward to my adult life and I couldn't be prouder of my heritage. I celebrate being not only different, but so different—with an Asian mother, a German father, first generation American, Caribbean culture, immigrant parents who traveled the globe to find one another. As for me, I married an Australian. And our beautiful son and daughter show those same exotic features that embarrassed me as a child.

I make my kids fully aware of their culture, heritage, and language. They go to German school, we celebrate Chinese New Year, they love getting hongbaos (red envelopes with money), we say things like "mate" and "crikey," and make Anzac cookies to honor Australian troops.

My children now have a much longer answer than I did when asked what their ethnicity is. "Hmm, my mom is German and Chinese, my grandmother was raised in Jamaica, my grandfather was raised in Germany, and my dad is from Australia." And as my 7-year-old daughter so astutely once exclaimed, "So I guess that makes me American Mama," and she is absolutely right.

While conversations about diversity have become more mainstream in 2021 than they were when I was growing up, here are three ways I help my kids embrace the things I struggled with as a kid.

Share Your Own Family History

Unless you are Native American, we are all immigrants. Share with your children your path to America. Share the hard parts too (in an age-appropriate way). I knew at a young age that my parents were considered an interracial couple and that there was difficulty with that. I also knew that in the Chinese culture boys are held in very high esteem and that was hard for my mother. All that helped me understand my parents and our family journey. That's why I have always openly spoken to my children about our family's roots and emphasized all the beautiful parts of them.

Make It Relatable

Talk about the students in their class. Go through the class photo and ask questions. What are their names? Where are they from? Can they speak another language? What do they celebrate? In second grade my daughter told me about Max. "Mama this is Max, his real name is Maximilliano and he has two dads and one speaks Spanish." As you can fathom, that led to a fantastic discussion about accepting all different kinds of families.

Encourage Respectful Questions

Our amazing first nanny Suzan is Black and from Grenada. When my son was a toddler, he would ask "Mama, why is Suz brown?" He would ask Suzan and he would ask us. We explained to him people are lots of colors. We did not avoid talking about color or pretend different colors don't exist in our world.

Someone asked me once why Chinese people don't have eyelashes? I didn't have an answer for that other than it's common for Asians to not have noticeable eyelashes. When I was young these questions would have been taboo but I think encouraging our children to be curious and ask questions in a respectful way can only lead to more understanding and acceptance.