“Wait…so she’s your daughter?” said one of the mothers while shopping a at Pottery Barn for Kids when Cami was just four years old. A handful of preschoolers were playing amidst pots and pans at the kitchen display station in the center of the store. My daughter Cami was one of them.
“That’s so…interesting.” She looked again at Cami then back at me, and then looked again at her father who was standing a few feet away with our 17-month old son. I knew what was coming next, as I had heard it before quite often.
“She has your features, but your husband’s…” She didn’t finish the sentence. She wouldn’t say it. Skin Color.
Like most parents of multiracial and transracially-adopted children, I am often reminded of the visually oriented society that surrounds us. My daughter’s then wavy brown-blond hair, almond-shaped eyes, and what her father and I had coined as her “perma-tan” skin, often created this sort of social exchange from complete strangers at shopping malls, grocery stores and parks. Cami looks white, but she isn’t. Not entirely.
My daughter (now 15), would soon learn for herself as I did growing up with a white mother and black father, that to be multiracial in America comes with its own set of inevitable challenges imposed by other people. Fortunately for her generation, the odds for greater understanding of her multi-ethnic background stands increasingly in her favor.
We May Be a Mix of Different Looks, Not One in Particular
Before my son was born, I often wondered what he would look like since, growing up, my own sister and I didn’t always look as though we came from the same family. Although we shared the same light- brown skin color, she was the one with long-flowing “renaissance” curls down below her waist by the time she reached four-years-old. While I, occasionally mistaken for her older brother, was well acquainted with the afro-pick by age 9… the long lost cousin of the Jackson-5 my mother used to say.
My earliest memories of my sister were playing “dress-up”, and “styling salon”- with her as my subject. I so badly wanted hair like hers…the kind worn up in pigtails with ribbons or a French braid. The options she had for wearing her hair seemed endless; even my mother commented on how much fun it was to style her hair. “To pick…or not to pick”, was the extent of hair-styling options for me. Even my hair was a mixed-race experience. I had wavy hair up front with kinky thick hair at the base of my head. I was quite resourceful, soon creating alternatives for my then out-of-control crop-top.
By about 6-years-old, I was wearing the next best hairdo: a yellow knit swaddling blanket given to my mother for me before I was born. Wrapping it around my head and placing button-pins (barrettes didn’t work) on the sides was how I wore it around the house. It was my long luxurious blond hair. My friend Julie up the street had blond hair, which I thought was awesome- just like a Barbie doll. While it may be easy for some to jump to conclusions and argue that deep down I wanted to be white – I was too young to think about racial identity in such a complex way. I wanted what I saw on TV and there were few options for mixed-race girls like me. (The first “multiracial” Barbie doll named “Kayla” didn’t hit the market until 2002 – and even her hair was bone-straight.)
I was by no means colorblind as a young child, but since virtually anywhere you went in Los Angeles you could find a person who wasn’t white, my parents having different skin colors didn’t strike me as particularly unusual. Nor was the fact that people found my sister and I interesting because we looked like a mix of different ethnicities, yet not one in particular.
“I didn’t know your Mom was…WHITE.” People would often comment about my mother’s skin color when seeing her for the first time. After awhile I just began to tune it out. To me she was just mom – not my white mom. If other people were getting hung up on skin color, it was more their problem than mine.
My father once said in order for a mixed race marriage to work, you’d have to be committed. If you were insecure and worried too much about what other people had to say, it would be those outsiders who could tear your relationship apart. This caution also applied to my growing up biracial and asserting a mixed-race or multiracial identity. I have heard more negative assumptions and projections regarding my self-esteem and ability to find a “place” within the world simply because my parents were of two separate racial backgrounds. Rarely people bothered asking what I thought about my own racial identity, or how I saw myself in relationship to other racial groups. I was always nudged to pick a side. Those people didn’t comprehend or talk about race the way my family could – I couldn’t pick a side. Neither one fit.
Not only have I been empowered by my multiracial perspective, but I can understand to further extent why other people may be limited in their thinking about race. They simply haven’t had the same immediate daily exposure to interracial perspectives like I have. Both my parents raised us to realize that there were always going to be people in this world that would be spiteful and unjust, yet it was up to us to make sure that those narrow-minded people never got the best of us.
What About the Children?
“Mixed race children would be the ones that could promote change”, my parents would remind us. Yikes. No pressure. However my mother (who passed 21 years ago on October 27, 1995) believed and instilled in us the potential for proving through our very existence that racial integration was the key to unity and progression within America. This was a far cry from the racially separatist dogma throughout the days of Jim Crow and “Separate but Equal” policies enforcing segregated schools and public spaces when my father was in grade school.
The Supreme Court case Loving vs.Virginia ended the ban on interracial marriages in the U.S. in 1967. (My parents met in 1968.) However it took another 30+ years for the children of those marriages (myself included) to be legitimized by the U.S. government. (Census 2000)
Because interracial families and children often present different looks within the family, it’s proven much easier for others to dismiss our communities as complicated or confusing – even nonexistent. While in the 4th grade my son Noah was told he was white, after a teacher told the students to “choose the race” they belonged to for a classroom project on diversity. Multiracial wasn’t an option and he was unclear about how to answer the question. We don’t fit easily into boxes. We might be too difficult to place and accommodate within racial and multicultural classification systems – especially those established historically to keep the races separate. As a result, it is commonly misunderstood that the children from these families must have the same problem understanding and accepting themselves.
I am living proof that this isn’t always the case. And I’m certainly not alone.
When I crossed the borders of my culturally enriched family I learned that the world waiting outside wasn’t necessarily ready for who I was, and more importantly what I signified. I learned as a teen during the late 80’s and early 90’s that I was considered this individual that wasn’t quite black enough and would never be considered white. That wasn’t a problem for me, however. I was both.
“It doesn’t really matter how you see yourself,” I was often told. “Society will determine what you are and where you belong.” How outdated this sounded! For some of us, embracing a “biracial” identity would be the only option. And if it wasn’t available, we’d do what was needed to change it.
But with every article I would write, or interview I would give to the press over the years, without fail, members of what my mother referred to as the Peanut Gallery would come out to voice just how wrong I was about my identity and how I saw myself. Never mind that I’d probably spent more time and energy researching and exploring multiracial identity academically, and live a mixed race experience inherently and daily. Thankfully, as societal patterns and media representations continue shifting in support of diversity, the embrace of a biracial or multiracial identity becomes less and less problematic to maintain.
Multiracial Activism – Is there such a thing?
As a teen I grabbed anything I could get my hands on regarding mixed race or “multiracial” identity and why it sparked so much animosity from certain people. The journey took me to the University of California, Berkeley where I found a wealth of information through their Ethnic Studies Department and their courses on the mixed race experience in America. Imagine, coursework and resources highlighting the experiences of multiracial people, movies, academics and families from all over the world. I felt I’d found my people, my history. Our existence blurred every racial border and fixed category the United States crafted to keep the races separated. I had just the right amount faith to believe that other students would benefit from these resources too – they simply needed to know how and where to find the information.
When my mother died, the circumstances from that night in 1995 only solidified my fervor to educate people about biracial identity and multiracial families here in the U.S. Those of us in the earlier days of social media activism took to online “webzines” in the late ’90s like The Interracial Voice and The Multiracial Activist to sound off against these injustices and criticisms against our communities.
It was here where many of us could access and share resources with one another – conferences, student run mixed-race organizations across the U.S. and abroad, and local and national community coalitions providing support to families and friends from different racial backgrounds were easy to find across the web. I also realized these online outlets were the first places reporters and journalists would go to comb through our editorials for a story on interracial relationships and mixed race children.
Learning how to sniff out the drama-seekers soon became a mandatory practice. So did building a tough layer of skin against the haters of all things mixed-race, biracial or multiracial. We were the living embodiment of racial integration, and many people, black and white – didn’t like that. For generations there were laws on the books attempting prevent our existence, and yet there we were anyway. (And we weren’t going anywhere.) Adding insult to injury, agenda-oriented journalists and news outlets often refused to share our empowered voices with the public, opting instead to publicize the negative stereotypes about our families. But we kept moving forward anyway.
Talking with a fellow activist years ago while on the board for a local non-profit organization for people of mixed racial heritage, we rolled our eyes at how often we were contacted by members of the press for interviews and “special reports” about interracial marriage and the poor unfortunate children from those relationships. We found it rather amusing that people obviously unfamiliar with the mixed-race experience continued to view us as somehow living within the Bermuda Triangle.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not attempting to paint the picture that the multiracial experience isn’t at times a difficult road to travel. It absolutely can be – especially when other people beyond our community have had limited access to information on multiracial children and interracial families. Resources about mixed-race or multiracial children aren’t only for us! If the aim is to embrace and prepare children for the diversity within the world we live in, our families and experiences should be included as well.
In 2016, with the power of social media and modern technology, the ability for this generation to access resources celebrating and supporting culturally diverse families is simply a “point-click” away.
My parents were also living proof that although race can certainly divide some people, it certainly didn’t break their 22-year interracial marriage (ending when my mother died from a diabetic stroke in 1995) or the self-esteem of their children. They raised me as biracial – both black and white. I was raised to believe that I could befriend, date, and marry whomever I wanted – as long as I was treated with love, dignity and respect. They told me that while people may try and make things harder for me because of my color, society was often misguided about most things when it came to race. My parents couldn’t have been more right. I would learn as they prepared me to follow in their footsteps, that later I too could prepare my children to follow in mine.
Where do we go from here?
There is still much work to be done, but pushing for multicultural education and access to resources inclusive of our culturally diverse families is critical. If you are reading this now, thank you. If you know of other children and families who may benefit from this information, please share it. If we don’t speak up for our community, others may continue to do it for us.
Nowadays my son (12) and daughter (15) are often schooling me about the latest resources and films making their way to the general public about interracial families like ours. Very exciting! Several of the articles here on Literatigurl.com were inspired by those conversations. A great reminder that if you are willing to listen and empower your kids with an appreciation for cultural diversity, they may one day have a great deal to teach you too.
Kimberly Cooper, MA is a former advisory council member for the Association of Multiethnic Americans (AMEA). She has given lectures locally and nationally on the mixed-race experience and been interviewed by various newspapers and media including ABC News, National Public Radio and The Los Angeles Times, regarding news stories and research related to the U.S. Census and the multiracial community in Los Angeles. Her article, “An Educational Defense of Multiracial Identity: Celebrate Rather than Assimilate Biracial Heritages” published by the San Francisco Chronicle, examines the effects of Census 2000 with regard to U.S. education. She’s now a development consultant for non-profit agencies on race, health and education, and contributes to The Huffington Post and Literatigurl.com