I’ve twice had the most profound and awe-inspiring life experience: giving birth to a child. Now ages 3 and 5, my bizarre, amusing, remarkable daughters have spent their entire lives teaching me innumerable lessons on patience, love, deep breathing, and truth-telling. Their father and I do our best to speak honestly with our girls about life (in developmentally appropriate ways, of course), believing our task is not simply to nurture children but also to raise adults whose personal and social compasses will serve them well in the world.
More than a decade of anti-racism activism combined with a nearly 4 year journey to the conception of my first child gave me a lot of time to mentally flip flop through the acrobatics of combining parenting and critical race consciousness. I cooked up all kinds of plans for keeping it racially real with my half-White, half-Asian kid. I bought children’s books with characters of color in every shade, speaking myriad languages, rocking all body shapes, and sporting various hair textures. I swore off Disney and amassed a cache of Hayao Miyazaki films peppered with videos of talking animals free of racially suggestive attributes. I pored over eBay auctions for baby dolls of color that seemed “ethnic,” but not so much that they’d come with a miniature wardrobe of nothing but kimonos or dashikis. (Because, c’mon – people of color also occasionally wear jeans and tee shirts.) And in a deliberate effort to combat the effects of “pregnancy brain,” I kept my racial analysis razor sharp by framing my natural, drug-free labor and delivery as a revolutionary act – the ultimate opportunity to huff, puff, and push my child to liberation.
As our girls grow, my husband and I are choosing to talk about race head-on because if we don’t do it the world will do it for us – and probably in a way we don’t like. Sure, my girls have a white daddy, but both my spouse and I know that the racial construct is unforgiving and uncompromising in its categorization. Self-definition, while perfectly lovely in our mixed-race home, ain’t the name of the game when race is concerned: you’re either white or you’re not – and our mixed kids are not. We’ve spent a lot of time openly observing and commenting on our own family’s coloring: us girls are light brown, Dad is pink. (Interestingly, this color consciousness has evolved quickly into racial consciousness, with “light brown” becoming “Asian,” and “pink” changing to “White.”) Our older daughter’s racial identity formation grew relative to our parental coaching, and by 2 ½ years old she made plans to start a “brown skin girls” soccer team and gleefully claimed her “Hapa POWER!” with tiny raised fists and a loud, squeaky voice.
I was feeling pretty good about the caliber of my racially-focused child rearing until one run-of-the-mill spring day at the park when my child announced loudly for all to hear, “Mommy! There are A LOT of Black people here!” I froze. I looked around and caught the stone-faced stare of an African American mom, lips pursed and awaiting my response to this loud-mouthed Asian kid.
“Shit!” I thought to myself. My knee jerked and I had a silent, rapid fire mental throwdown: “Be quiet, child! Why do you have to be so damn loud? All of the Black people are going to think we’re racist because, well … because you noticed that they’re Black! And then we’ll be seen as the Asians perpetuating anti-Black racism! Gaaahhh! Why me??? Why now???”
Thankfully, none of those deliberations escaped my lips. Instead, I paused and took a second to dig deeper. In that moment, I realized that my daughter’s observation was less about the Black people there and more about the absence of all the white people who usually frequent this particular park. The lack of Whites at a playground where they generally make up about 75% of the families was so stark that it made our presence as People of Color that much more pronounced. This was what my child saw, and I heartbreakingly realized that her tiny world is already forming around the normativity of whiteness.
I also stumbled upon something else in this contemplative moment. I discovered that inside of me lurks the powerful, deeply socialized desire to meet race – even in the most harmless of observations – with silence, especially the liberal silence rooted in the fear of being called racist simply for commenting on racial difference. As a Person of Color, this ingrained silence is made all the more complicated by internalized oppression and my battle to prove to other People of Color that I may be Asian, but I’m not White.
So on that sunny spring day at the park – after I dragged my own racial socialization through the gauntlet and sweat bullets over my fear of having Black people assume I was “just like white folk” – I turned to my daughter and said, “You’re right, honey, there are Black families here. And we’re brown and we’re here, too. And it looks like Daddy is the only white guy here today.” She turned to me, smiled, and simply replied, “Yup! Will you push me on the swing now?”
17 replies on “My Racial Trigger: Raising Brown Babies”
I always loved how my mother explained it to me, “God made all the beautiful flowers in different shapes and colors, so why not people too?”
A witty mom, and no doubt, a well learned lesson!
Great stories you’ve shared here! I’m also raising mixed race kids, and always working to find ways to talk with them about what they’re experience wrt to race and other biases. Thank you!
I found your perspective very interesting especially in light of trying to figure out how to discuss these issues with my own daughter. In reality I’d say maybe only 10% of her friends are actually white.
Most are mixed race, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Malaysian, Taiwanese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Spanish, Pakistani, Sri lankin, Iranian, Indian. Our “whitest” friends are Jewish or German, and even those families speak German at home.
To my daughter all of these kids are like her she doesn’t say black or white she has said like me or brown. Surprisingly the little girl who is half black and the one who is completely Mexican are in the like me category but one little girl, the one from Sri Lanka has very dark skin and she is “brown”.
One day when playing with the Mexican and Iranian girl both I’d consider to be brown skinned one of them said the girl from Sri Lanka couldn’t have a specific doll because she was brown and that was different them them. I learned about this conversation later but my daughter picked up on this and has noticed and wondered since.
When going to meet a new friend o w say she asked, is she like me? I said what do you mean? She responded her skin is it the same as me or brown? I asked her if it mattered and she said no. But she wanted to know. On another day she told me a friend couldn’t play with her because her hair was strait and not like hers, my daughter has pretty wavey/curly hair. And I started too see this less about race and more about sameness.
When the brown comment first happened I spent a lot of time talking about culture, Kai-Lan and Mulan are from china, just like xyz. Dora and Handy Manny are from Mexico like xyz, when we went to Epcot in each country we talked about friends and princesses from each place, jasmine is in Moracco, which is like Persia which is like where friend xyz is from.
But for all the talk I’m assuming something sunk in, it still boiled down to are they like me or not?
But in her eyes 90% if her friends are just like her, even though in reality most are not. I’ve never personally considered Asian as a persuasion of color and I wonder how this distinction gets made, by us, by society. My German and south african friends look super white but they speak there native tounges at home, one friends daughter only speaks a few English words she just picked up in preschool at 4. Other friends who don’t seem to embrace the traditions or foods or language of the cultures at all, look much more not white, do how exactly do we define race?
Culture? Birth right? Looks? And when I can’t figure this out, how do I explain it to my 5yr old?
We have had the same experience over many years – from age 3 to 7.. My daughter is brown-skinned and I am white-skinned. She is used to be in the minority in our mostly white-skinned small town. We visit a nearby city often and initially she made a very similar, loud observation … “Mommy, everyone here is brown!” And I looked around and said Yes! You are right. And we people watched for a while on the subway and observed a wide range of colours. We visit often now and she still exclaims that the city is “where my brown people live!” Our analysis about race, colour and self-identifying has deepened as my daughter has aged. It is good for her to experience being in the majority and me being in the minority. And both of us feeling comfortable.
Imagine if a little white girl would punch her fists up high and say “white power!”
In my days chasing white supremacists around, I saw my share of that and more. Sadly, it’s out there.
So when a half-asian girl does it, it’s “cute” and “empowering”, but when a little white girl does it, she’s a racist and a white supremacist?
Well, my take is this. Saying brown power is really different than saying white power because white power is and always has been about domination and supremacy in the U.S. That’s the meaning of white. It was invented as a rationale for native genocide and slavery. Before that, folks didn’t really think of themselves as white in the same way, though interestingly, the first group of Europeans to be given that label “white” in North America seem to have been women, and as a way of making the case for the need for protection in order to keep them barefoot and pregnant.
But let’s put this whole theory that, say, black power is as damaging as white power in another context. What if a model were to hold up her fist and say “pretty power!” Do you think it’s really the same as a fat person, say, raising her fist and saying “fat power!” Or if a man raises his fist and says “male power!” do you consider that no different than if a woman holds up her fist and says “woman power!”?
Those differentials in power, access, and privilege make a real difference. They are the context in which we give meaning to these acts. So, I get you’re probably not going to agree with me on this because I’m guessing you disagree that race is a political system created specifically in order to name some groups so exploitable that you can actually own them, and to make it okay to kill people to push them off their territory, but those who do agree with that proposition based on libraries full of research see a difference. Sorry if that difference offends you. You might just be reading the wrong blog.
So apparently, all that “white” means is racism, genocide and oppression. There’s nothing to be proud of to be European, to be proud of having a European heritage, it’s racist for Europeans to be proud of their culture and what they achieved (and it doesn’t boil down to racism or oppressing other).
In fact, if we were to actually study history, we’d learn of the over 1 million European slaves owned by Africans, of the invasion of Europe by the Asians (the Mongolians), by the Middle-Easterners (the Ottoman empire) and by Muslims (the Moors).
Europeans, throughout time, have been enslaved and oppressed by Asians, Africans and Arabs but somehow, that’s ignored.
I don’t appreciate the trolling but you make such a great foil that I will make this one last point.
All that white means is racism because white was invented as part of a racist system. But that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be proud of about being of European heritage. White is not the same as European. The point you are obviously purposely misunderstanding is that white is a political category while European is an ethnic one. The people of Europe can be proud of a great many things. The French, for example, have contributed much to the world just as they have been a global force of colonization. Every country and it’s people are complex, but race and racism obliterate that complexity. Many Asian and African nations have oppressed people around the world. That’s just a fact. But, racism doesn’t address that either. Instead, racism is a political system within which white is a category that was created in order to put whites on top. So when someone says white power, they are talking about the power of being on top, in the supremacist position. Brown and black are categories of exploitation. Being put in that category meant being on the bottom of the hierarchy. The Hierarchy and racial categories go together. One means nothing without the other.
Anyway, I was talking about racism, not talking smack about you or your European heritage, though the personal way in which you respond makes me wonder if I haven’t accidentally wandered onto the subject of you by talking about racism. If so, I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable but, like I said before, you might just be reading the wrong blog.
Basically, multiculturalism lies in the promotion of the interests of non-white people and in the demotion of the interests of Europeans and making them feel ashamed of their heritage–somehow, I don’t see that succeeding so it’s doomed to fail.
FYI, white people have always held the reins of power here in the U.S., so your examples about Africans supposedly enslaving them does not even apply to American history whatsoever—it’s not even the same thing,so why even bring that into the conversation. I don’t know why you keep saying that people of color having pride in themselves somehow puts white people down, because it dosen’t. That’s ridiculous, and you’re got it twisted completely. All you have to do is look around you to see that white folks have NEVER been in any danger of losing their pride over anything,especially when they’re the majority of the population and own/control the media. You need to read anything by Dr. Micheal Eric Dyson & Tim Wise to get a real grip on race.
Plus,this country has ALWAYS been multicultural—we just didn’t call it that until recently. The reality is, though, that the term “white power” got hijacked by white supremacist groups who advocate the destruction of people of color—particularly the KKK–that’s what their whole reason for even existing in the first place is based on. That’s what being white means to them—total and complete domination of pretty much everything because they think being white makes them superior, since white folks up until 50 years ago had all the power in the U.S. That’s also how they justified lynching and enslaving black people any time they felt like. So stop trying to play the “whites were victims too” card, because it’s not even working here,and it’s already old and tired. Granted, I know that the KKK and white supremacist groups do not speak for all white people, but,unfortunately,a lot of white folks still buy into that white supremacist BS even now. I’m a proud black woman and I don’t have to hate anybody to express my pride in who I am, but (some) white people in certain areas of the country are still taught to hate anybody who isn’t white on sight,simply BECAUSE they aren’t white.
Thanks for your comment Cheeky. Really thoughtful and well appreciated.
Great post, I love your perspective Pakou!
I am not sure I am comfortable with this. Isn’t it more important to instill high self esteem rather than teacher your child to point out every color and ethnicity. IDK I am African American and my husband is Japanese. We live in Japan. I just don’t think it is necessary, but then again my boys are 2 and 5 months old.
I like this post because it highlights the complexities of bringing up children in this racialised world that we all live in. What I want is for all children to be raised in such a way as to ensure that they love and respect themselves and others irrespective of skin tone, religion or culture. Talking about and sharing the difficulties they we experience within our families can only help us on our way to a more equal global society.