What It Means to Grow Up Biracial
BY JULIA HASKINS As a child of interracial parents, I never gave much thought to our family's composition unless other people pointed it out. My mom and dad were the ones who loved and protected me; why would I care about anything else?
Looking back I see how naive I was, because of course people pay attention to race. But even today I still don't see the fuss or fascination with interracial families. A recent New York Times article by a mother in an interracial family reminded me of the many comments, both negative and innocently well-meaning, my parents and I have received over the years. I cringed in solidarity with Nicole Soojung Callahan in describing many an awkward encounter, like being mistaken for her children's babysitter and all the unsolicited comments about her daughters' physical features. In her essay, Callahan brings light to how "What are you?" often takes precedence over "Who are you?" It's admirable to take the first step in talking about race, but that initiative needs to be one of sensitivity. Fortunately, kids have this power.
From what I've seen, adults make more careless racial remarks than children. Sometimes these comments come from a genuinely good place, but are largely unnecessary. No, I didn't get "good hair" from one parent or the other. And no, being mixed race had nothing to do with being in the accelerated reading group in elementary school. Aesthetic compliments are certainly kindhearted, but also, to borrow a word from Callahan, misguided. And stereotypes about biracial children set us up for incredibly high standards that don't reflect all of us. (I'm far from the genius musical athlete some assumed I would become.) But children, in their incredible guilelessness, only see other friends. They may inquire about their peers' looks, but out of pure curiosity, and not as a way to categorize people. It would be foolish to think that all children can stay that way, but they do give me immense hope for the future of interracial friends and families.
Kids never cease to amaze me with their easygoing attitudes. They understand good in people, regardless of the way they look. Take the Cheerios ad controversy over the depiction of an interracial family -- all a big blowup created by grownups. But some adorable reactions from kids make us all look silly with their ultimate conclusion: What's the big deal?
Times are changing -- Census data show that interracial and interethnic married couples grew by 28% over ten years. Interracial families are hardly unique, from political families like the Obamas and the de Blasios, to celebrity families like the Jolie-Pitts and Robert DeNiro and Grace Hightower. Race will never be a non-issue, but making friends with people of other backgrounds definitely can be. And it's something kids generally do with ease.
I don't believe the goal is to be colorblind. It's to be accepting and respectful of the differences that we see. I encourage parents to have thoughtful, open discussions about race with their children. But even more, I hope parents can help preserve their children's nonchalance toward people who don't look like them. Less wonderment and more thoughtful acknowledgment of our differences is a lesson we can all take from little ones.
Image: Girl with palette via Shutterstock