How I'm Teaching My Mixed-Race Daughter to Deal With Hard Questions

little african american girl with glasses
iStock.com/Rawpixel

On a typical weekday, my toddler and I walk my kindergartner across the street to her school. But one Monday, I was curled up on the couch, fighting a nasty case of food poisoning, so my husband walked her instead. After school, I was still ill, so he picked her up. When she came home, I noticed her mood immediately. 

Advertisement

She was quiet, with downcast eyes, not skipping around as usual. I called her over for a hug and asked what was wrong. "Jennifer* said..." she started, and then hesitated.

I urged her to continue. "This morning when we got to school, Jennifer asked, 'Is that your dad?' And I said yes. And she said..."

Her eyes were watering now, and I was getting concerned. "She said, 'You are not the same color as your dad!'"

"Okay, let's talk about that," I said, relieved. I am African-American and Afro-Caribbean, and my husband is Chinese. We're a blended family with six children ranging in age from 3 to 19. This isn't the first time we've had to tackle this issue.

More from CafeMom: What I've Learned About Race & Motherhood From Having a Son Who Can 'Pass' as White

Here is how we have helped our children deal with their peers when it comes to questions about race.

Determine the source

Most kids want the bottom line: What to say to the person who confused them or hurt them. The response depends on who raised the issue with them. Is this other child a friend or someone with whom she has ongoing issues? Is this person just ignorant or curious, or is he or she being malicious or bullying?

I know Jennifer. I've observed her on field trips and at my daughter's birthday party, and I know she considers my daughter a friend, but I asked anyway. "Do you think Jennifer was being mean, or do you think she just didn't expect your dad to be Chinese?"

"I don't think she was being mean on purpose," my daughter said.

I also feel that Jennifer may have been surprised because my kindergartner is dark, like me. Jennifer and her mom are African-American. I've never met her father and didn't feel comfortable assuming or asking her mom about his heritage. However, seeing me and my daughter together every day, Jennifer might have guessed our family all looks the same. 

More from CafeMom: My Mom Group Turned On Me After I Vaccinated My Kid

I told my daughter, "Since Jennifer is your friend, and you don't think she was being mean on purpose, just tell her matter-of-factly that your mom is black and your dad is Chinese. So what? Lots of people have two different-color parents." Here in Hawaii, the interracial marriage rate is 86 percent, and in my daughter's class the majority of children are multiracial.

Not every situation is this benign. Years ago, when my oldest daughter was in kindergarten, a classmate made remarks that I felt were deliberately derogatory. In that case, I instructed her to say nothing and the next morning, I told her teacher. She called a conference with both families and effectively handled the incident.

Avoid colorblindness

After addressing the specific situation, I talk to my children about the broader subject of race and culture. One thing we avoid is the "colorblind" concept -- the surface view that ignoring race and color ensures everyone will be treated equally. It sounds good, but it doesn't mean "we're all the same." Instead, it invalidates what makes each of us unique. I think of it as a head-in-the-sand approach. Saying you "don't see color" does not make me less black nor my husband less Chinese. This is a disservice to everyone, and especially to multiracial children.

"Colorblindness has helped make race into a taboo topic that polite people cannot openly discuss," said Monnica T. Williams, PhD, in an article on the Psychology Today website. "And if you can't talk about it, you can't understand it, much less fix the racial problems that plague our society."

Celebrate the unique blend

That afternoon, I spent a long time talking to my daughter about what was so great about her own mixed heritage. Not so that she could make herself out to be better than her classmate, or anyone else for that matter, but to bolster her self-confidence. For example, she wears her hair mainly in braids, like I did at her age, and she eats congee for breakfast, like her dad did. She knows how to use chopsticks, and on New Year's Day we all dig into a bowl of black-eyed peas for luck. She gets cupcakes and red envelopes on her birthday. Of course, this was not the first time we'd talked about these things, but she needed a reminder.

More from CafeMom: 15 Ways We Can Teach Our Daughters to Love Their Bodies

Teaching young multicultural children to love themselves for all that they are, and to not cower or feel forced to identify with only one heritage, is the best way to help them deal with the questions or comments of their peers.

As with most kindergarten slights, the storm seems to have passed as quickly as it arrived. Weeks later, I asked if my daughter had spoken to Jennifer about it, like we discussed. "No, not yet," she said, shrugging. "Has she mentioned it again to you?" I asked. "No," she replied, and ran off to play.

 

*Name has been changed.

Read More >