Nora Lester Murad teaches cross-cultural understanding at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. She is an American Jew married to a Palestinian Muslim with daughters ages three and seven.
Embracing the Identity of "Mixed Family"
It is commonly believed that children in mixed families may have a hard time feeling positive and comfortable with who they are. Yet many researchers have concluded that the most healthy identification for mixed children is "biracial" or "bicultural." We think this enables children to have a healthy relationship with both sides of their family and with both their cultures.
For example, research done by Gibbs and Hines and reported in Maria P. Root's Racially Mixed People in America (1992) found that "In families where both parents and adolescents confronted the issues of biracial identity, teens appeared to be better adjusted. These families actively promoted and participated in a multicultural life-style, encouraging their children to explore both sides of their racial heritage and exposing them to a range of ethnic activities, institutions and role models" (p. 237).
But it isn't so easy for children of parents whose peoples have a history of conflict, like Blacks and whites in the U.S., Muslims and Jews in the Middle East, or children adopted in the U.S. from countries that have experienced oppression caused by U.S. policies. These children may find it hard to claim all their identities without causing problems for their families and themselves. Jane Lazarre, author of Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons, says in a racialized society like the United States it may also be unrealistic. Using her own son as an example, she says it is ". . . as if Khary, a young Black man walking on the streets late at night, can expect to be treated by the police like a young white man because his mother is white" (p. xvii).
In the United States, the legacy of the "one drop" rule is still strong. This rule, grounded in slavery, said that anyone with one drop of Black blood was Black. Even today, people are considered either "white" or "non-white" as if any racial mixing dilutes the "purity" of whiteness. This is why it is more common for children of white and "of color" unions to think of themselves (and be identified by others) as people of color. So, when a mixed race child does not emphasize that s/he is half-white, it may not be a rejection of their white parent or ancestry, but rather merely a recognition of racial realities.
In addition to the obvious factors of higher socioeconomic status, positive parental relationships and the like, the healthy psychosocial development of mixed children is also associated with parents' political choices--like choosing integrated schools, living in integrated neighborhoods, and having a multicultural social life. For white parents especially, fully supporting their mixed children may require political clarity and commitment that they were not raised with.
Some experts even suggest that the healthy development of mixed children requires that parents also develop an identity as "mixed." Beverly Daniel Tatum explains in her fabulous book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations about Race (1997) that, "The successful adoption of children of color by White parents requires those parents to be willing to experience the close encounters with racism that their children--and they as parents--will have, and to be prepared to talk to their children about them. Ultimately they need to examine their own identities as White people, going beyond the idea of raising a child of color in a White family to a new understanding of themselves and their children as members of a multiracial family" (p. 190).
Racial self-exploration is not usually easy or pleasant--especially for Whites. It may provoke doubts, guilt, and fear and can distance us from people we love, including our children. Exploring race and racism may expose painful realities long hidden by white privilege. Once "enlightened," one may never stop seeing the world from multiple viewpoints. Maureen Reddy, another white mother of Black sons, explains in Crossing the Color Line: Race, Parenting, and Culture (1993):
This racial awareness, this constant consciousness, has been the biggest change in my own life and the foundation of all other changes. Although I retain my white skin and many of its attendant privileges--when I'm out without my family, anyhow--I have lost the dangerous privilege of ignorance. From the mundane to the powerfully serious, race is always there, in my head and in the world. It is in this sense that everything is racial (p. 37).
It seems fairly obvious that a person born of two races or adopted into a different race than his/her biological origins would be forced to negotiate personal, social and political challenges in the formulation of a healthy identity. However, the idea that (ostensibly monoracial) parents can experience an expanded racial or cultural identity as a result of membership in a "mixed" family deserves much more attention. Researchers about "mixed race," "multiracial," or "multicultural" experience should examine how familial identification with someone of a different race or culture affects one's own identity and the conditions under which this expanded identification does or does not take place.