How to talk to your mixed-race kids about race.
This story was originally published on The Mash-Up Americans.
Kids are back in school, and that means the season of awkward questions is upon our Mash-Up families.
We may be accustomed to snotty questions like “Where are you from?” and “What are you?” but as parents, how do we best prepare our kids for the same?
How do we have the awkward conversation about race and ethnicity? What do we tell our kid when they say to us that so-and-so said they were only half?
Well, we call in the experts. Sonia Smith-Kang, a black-Mexican-American Mash-Up Mom, multiracial advocate, and co-founder of Mixed Heritage Day at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, shares her tips for helping Mash-Up kids navigate the weirdness of school.
Pro tip: You never need to pick just one.
I am the proud Mash-Up of military parents: a Mexican mama and black dad. I was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Hawaii, then eventually moved to California.
During the height of the Valley Girl '80s, in a school of blue eyes, feathered blond hair a la Farrah Fawcett, OP shorts, Vans, and Ooh La La Sasson, I was the curly (read frizzy) haired, brown-eyed, Jordache knock-off Mash-Up tween who didn’t fit in among other teenagers who had no idea what to make of me. Let’s just say “Blaxican” was not a popular term back then.
My own family has gotten even mashier. I married a Korean man, and my black-Mexican-Korean-American kids are now in high school and middle school.
I’ve never wanted my kids to feel like I did, so we have what I call The Mash-Up Talk. It’s when we talk about all the awkward questions that other kids (and grown-ups!) ask us about who and what we are.
As a mixed-race family, we know these questions will come up. It’s just a matter of when. For us, this talk falls into the birds and the bees and the heavy "driving while brown" category. It’s part and parcel of our life.
My biggest piece of advice: Kids may not always come to you when uncomfortable situations come up at school. So be proactive and compassionate about the issues that may arise. Here are the most common questions that my kids have and have faced from others, and how I respond.
When kids ask them "What are you?"
My middle-schooler said she made it halfway through the first day of school before IT happened. By now, she’s a seasoned pro at responding to this question. Her answer: I am my mom, who is Mexican and black, and my appa, or dad, who is Korean. Ultimately, I want her to know that it’s OK however she identifies, and she only has to identify herself if she wants to.
Questions like these are a good opportunity to introduce your kid to Dr. Maria Root’s “Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage.” My favorites:
I have the right...
...to create a vocabulary to communicate about being multiracial or multiethnic.
...to change my identity over my lifetime — and more than once.
When kids ask them "Where are you really from?"
Reassure your kid that they are from here, and that people who ask that question are just trying figure that out because being from here means you can look many different ways and speak many different languages.
Also, make sure your kids know that if they feel uncomfortable at any time, they can say “I don’t want to talk about this any more” and move on. They don’t owe people an explanation, and they’re not responsible for making other kids comfortable with them.
When kids ask them "What are you more of?"
As a grown woman, I still get this question, so it’s not surprising that my mixed kids do, as well. My daughter says questions like that make her feel like she has to choose between her appa and me. I remind her that she never needs to choose. Tell your kids that you don’t have to choose one over the other.
When your kids ask you "What box do I check?"
We want our Mini Mash-Ups to know and feel that they are whole. Unfortunately, so many of our official forms and documentation require you to “pick one.”
First, I tell her nobody will upset if she chooses one identity over the other if she has to. Second, I tell her what I’ve done — choosing “other,” checking one box then writing in more identities in the margins, or not filling out anything at all. Finally, I tell her that someday soon, the papers will eventually catch up to our family!
When your kids ask you "What do I do when someone makes a racist joke?"
This is a peculiarly Mash-Up challenge, for kids and adults alike: Being Mash-Up and being mixed-race often means that somebody is making off-color (ahem) jokes about your culture, and they may not even know it. You’re an outsider on the inside. Then, when you call someone out on an offensive joke made at the expense of one of your tribes, they turn around and say something along the lines of “but you’re not even full (aka 'real') Asian/black/Jewish/Latino/fill in the blank.”
I remind my kids that they are whole people and that it is OK to be wholly offended by a mean joke. Also, racist jokes are hurtful to everybody, not just to the person or culture that is being made fun of. It takes a lot of strength to stand up to a bully, and they are being strong and kind for doing it. A lot of adults could learn from them!