Guest Editorial

"Raising a Mixed Race Child"
By Lucia Vilankulu

L. Vilankulu Often in these pages, I have seen heartfelt posts from parents asking what is the best way to raise a mixed race child. In my own life I have been approached by the parents or parents-to-be of mixed race children who want the same advice. While it's flattering to be considered a successful model, my answer is always the same and seemingly inadequate: I don't know. I don't know because my parents didn't raise a mixed race child, they raised a child.

Obviously these well-meaning and conscientious folks are not approaching me intending to insult me or alienate their children, nor is my answer as flippant as it sounds. My parents conscientiously raised me to see myself as a person first, a member of a family second, a person in the world third, and an American with an Irish/African background last. Many who consider racism as inescapable and inevitable as the very air might doubt the success of such an attempt.

Mixed race children do not naturally have an inborn sense of strangeness or a sense of two halves at war with each other, despite what everyone from Thomas Dixon in the 19th century to the tabloid TV pundits of today will tell you. The very notion is introduced to them by a playmate, a teacher, a race-obsessed media, or, sadly, a parent. I know this because the message that I was "mixed," and therefore "mixed-up" was broadcast to me from the time I started first grade until the present, yet I was somehow curiously deaf and incomprehending to the message. Because my parents had never conditioned me to think of race first when thinking of myself, I missed it or disregarded it when others did so.

Don't get me wrong, my parents must have thought a lot about what they were facing in having a child together, although not as much or as agonizingly as those who cry "what about the children!" as though mixed couples were proposing to bring a race of misshapen freaks into the world. When they had me it was 1970, and although it wasn't 1963 by any means, it certainly wasn't Star Trek, either. What they decided was to be a couple, not a Mixed Couple, and parents, not Mixed Parents. This sounds like common sense, but when you think of the stubborn ways in which we constantly reproduce the myth of race as either a negative or positive concept to the detriment of our sense of humanity, it is actually a revolutionary conclusion. When, for example, the black partner thinks of her Asian partner as "my Asian partner," rather than "my partner," or the white husband is proud of having overcome the status quo in his marriage to his Latino wife instead of just being proud of his wife, then something less than a partnership is occurring. Even well-meaning parents, who undeniably love their children, can get caught up in the idea of their child somehow being an unknown quantity by virtue of their "racial mixture," and therefore requiring the constant affirmation of an "identity," at the expense of personality. Just the other night I was party to a lecture on the bus delivered by a young white mother to her mixed race child, "You're black, and I'm white, see? We're not the same." What it might do for Black Pride, it will never do for family unity, nor will it do anything to encourage the child to think of himself as a human in the world rather than as a category.

When I was four, I asked my father why we could not go to Riverside Park at night. In my father's family, they do not believe in disillusioning children, so instead of telling me that at night the park was populated by prostitutes, rapists and muggers, he told me that at night the whales and sharks came out of the Hudson River and disported themselves among the trees and benches. Another time I asked him why one could sometimes see the moon during the day as well as by night. He told me that it always did so whenever I was a good girl. Whenever I asked my parents about racism, and asked why certain kids hated me, or why some parents wouldn't let their children play with me, they told me that sometimes people just behaved badly, and not everyone was nice or safe to be with.

The explanations above might not be factual, but the messages are clear: don't go into the park at night, the world is full of mysterious events such as the moon shining by day, and not all people are nice, but you can't let that make you feel bad about yourself.

Many other things which were mysterious to me as a child are now made sorrowfully plain. The mean man in the pink house who threatened six year old me for standing near his car was probably angry and threatened to see a "little colored child," on his property in a previously all-white beach town. The strange men who chased me into the cornfield on my grandfather's farm were probably motivated by more than just the bizarre irrationality I ascribed to them at age ten. The refusal of the white father to let me enter the house with his children probably had nothing to do with the non-existent mud on my shoes at eleven. I'm indignant now at the nasty way many white (and non-white) adults treated me when I was a child, but I don't ever wish that I had known then what was really going on. If my parents had explained to me that the above people, and others, had consciously and purposely scorned me, wished to hurt me, and possibly do me bodily harm, would I have been better off?

Is it a handicap that I don't always assume that all white people are racist? Is it a handicap that I have a sense of my own excellence that transcends rumors of quotas and affirmative action abuse? Is it a handicap that I walk into a room confident and assured, not because "I'm half-black and I'm proud!" but because my interior world is a powerful place to be?

I don't believe that my experience is one that is common to mixed race people or "monoracial" people, but I see no reason why it should not be. The mother who tells her child, "you're brown and I'm very light tan and we're the same," instead of "you're black and I'm white, and we're not the same," is allowing her child to embark on a sense of self that is based on personhood rather than a sense of racial division. When I have children of my own, and put my theories to the test, I'll use my parents' method of raising a child who is both open to the world and protected from within.


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