Bringing a Multiracial Baby Into a Color-Conscious World

Reflections on parenting by interracial couples.

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As a child, Janice — who has a Japanese father and an African-American mother — often felt that she wasn't completely accepted by either community.

Now in her 30s, Janice and her husband, Michael, who is African-American, are discussing starting their own family. But she worries that her children will suffer the same confusion and hurt that she experienced while growing up.

"My family never talked about race," Janice says. "That was left for me to figure out, mostly through painful trial and error."

More children than ever face the same potential challenge. While America has long been a cultural melting pot, a growing number of today's marriages are their own mini-melting pots. Thus, the number of mixed-race babies is on the rise. Especially in communities where mixed-race unions had been rare until recently, these children are prompting people to think, more than ever, about race, identity and the new families being formed.

Of course, mixed-race children create opportunities for families and others to learn, grow and celebrate diversity. But difficulties also can arise, and to minimize them, prospective parents need to plan ahead. "Couples should talk about race issues and how they'll handle them before they get pregnant," says Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Alvin F. Poussaint, M.D. Bias Begins at Home Many interracial couples must deal with the issues of race and prejudice within their own families. Nica, who is African-American, remembers that even before she and husband Daniel, who is white, were engaged, their relatives asked, "What about the kids?" Again, the key is to have conversations about the issue with family members before the child is born; waiting until afterward may lead relatives to knowingly or unknowingly express negative messages to the child.

"Having such discussions can lead to great conflict but ultimately great understanding as well," says psychiatrist Kyle D. Pruett, M.D., author of Me, Myself and I: How Children Build Their Sense of Self: 18 to 36 Months (Goddard Press, 1999).

Mixed-race couples also must try to agree on which of their ethnicities the child will identify as his own — for example, African-American, white or both. "The issue of your child's identity should not be handled any differently than the way you've already coped with being an interracial couple or any other issue," says James P. Comer, M.D., a child psychiatrist at Yale University and co-author, with Poussaint, of Raising Black Children (Plume, 1992). "In the end, it's all about discussion and compromise."

Another factor to consider is how the child's appearance may affect the way people treat him. Just be aware that appearance isn't always predictable. For example, parents may find themselves explaining that despite their baby's fair skin, blond hair and blue eyes, he is also African-American, Asian, Latino or something else. "The world will judge, classify and treat your baby based on the superficial — how he or she looks," says Comer. That can mean being treated prejudicially. "Being biracial usually isn't a problem for a child until someone else makes it one," he adds.

For that reason, Poussaint advises parents not to ignore their children's racial makeup. "Not talking about race with them could leave them unprepared to deal with racism if or when they are confronted with it," he says.

The Kindness (and Unkindness) of Strangers Joan is East Indian and has dark skin. Her husband, Matthew, is Caucasian, with blond hair and blue eyes. Their daughter, Marie, is a mixture of both, with gray-blue eyes and brown skin. Once, at the beach, a man commented on Marie's deep "tan," then continued to ask intrusive questions about the child's appearance.

While Matthew simply laughed off the man's pestering, such situations can be opportunities to educate other people. In fact, Pruett encourages taking an explanatory rather than a confrontational approach to tactless questions or remarks; responding angrily can do more harm to a child then the comment itself.

Nica, whose daughter looks Caucasian, came to understand that most such remarks are innocently motivated. "People would assume I was the nanny, and that made me angry," she says. "But then I looked around the park. Most of the babies were white and the nannies were brown, so in a way, it was a natural assumption." Eventually, Daniel made Nica a T-shirt that says, "No, I'm not the nanny."

"I don't get angry anymore," Nica says. "Most of the time, when people ask obnoxious questions, I realize they do it mainly out of curiosity, and that makes them say things without thinking first."

Downplaying the Race Card By being secure in their own identity and infusing their family life with mini-lessons about heritage, parents of mixed-race babies can help their children develop a healthy sense of self. "Parents should expose their children to friends, experiences and activities that relate to both of their backgrounds," says Poussaint. You can also use pictures and stories to teach your children about their heritage (see "Resources" at left). In the process, encourage them to see race as more about culture than appearance.

Just keep in mind that as in any family, the main goal is to raise a healthy, happy child. "In the final analysis," Pruett says, "race and ethnicity are only second-level concerns." Or, as Daniel puts it: "The act of becoming a parent is so much bigger than the sideline issue of race."

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