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What NOT TO DO When Encountering Interracial Families and Mixed-Race Kids

….Cuz it’s 2020 and y’all still need a manual.

This article was first published in the Spring 2020 issue of Birth of A Woman Magazine . Click HERE to get your subscription.

So….my brother-in-law’s ex-wife’s parents crashed our wedding. Yeah. I must note that my wedding was only 8 people so their presence was markedly noticed. I was trying to be on my best behavior so I tried not to let them dampen my spirit. However, I almost lost it when the woman continued to badger me about when we were having children and how cute they were going to be and how much she loved mixed children and curly hair. It was nauseating, and not just because of the alcohol on her breath.

I had been with my husband for 9 years prior to our wedding so I was already familiar with the stares and comments and erasure that is birthed when closed minds meet an interracial pairing. Our interracial marriage has only been legal since 1967 thanks to Loving v Virginia. I had briefly considered how my future children would be affected, but it wasn’t until this interloper was hounding me that I really gave my children’s racial identity a deeper thought.

My children are now five and seven and are aware that their cultural and racial makeup is different than most of their friends. While it is not my duty to tell them how to identify, I hope to ensure they have a solid connection with, and pride in, their Blackness despite being a minority in a racist society.

When I look at my children I see two Black kids and I know society sees the same (and if not Black, then society certainly looks at my children as a non-white other). When I am speaking I very consciously refer to them as biracial and depending on the audience mixed-race.

Having grown up in New York City and then moving to South Florida after my children were born, we’ve had to deal with our share of close-mindedness; manifesting as ‘well-meaning’ community members. I’ve had to correct language, swat hands away from my children and place firm boundaries around them since they are too young to assertively and confidently do it on their own just yet. As a Black woman who already has a lot to deal with socially it is extra exhausting for me to now have to police everyone in relation to my kids.


So I am doing my sisters ‘a solid.’ To all the women raising biracial (or Black) children this guide is truly a gift for them, written to you.

All I ask is that you be mindful. Your intention does not equal impact and your well-meaning comment to a mixed-race family maybe doing harm inadvertently.

Here are a few tips of what NOT to do that might help you refrain from inadvertent emotional violence.


Staring

Staring is never okay whether at an adult or child of mixed heritage or not. However, when it comes to dealing with biracial or multiracial children who often have what we degradingly term “exotic” or unexpected appearances we tend to forget this basic rule of common courtesy. Be mindful of staring at biracial children and mindful of your little ones doing the same.

We have come to a place in society where we dissuade our children from staring and pointing at people with disabilities, but have not yet found the wherewithal to avoid, and dissuade our children from, staring and pointing at different looking people with no visible disability.

It is very common when I’m out with my family to notice people staring at each member of my household one by one trying to determine who belongs to whom and how. This happens even more so when my husband, two children and I are out with my nephew who is Japanese and Jamaican. I can almost literally see the gears turning in people’s minds trying to figure out the family dynamic as if it’s any of their concern.

Try to mind your manners and avoid staring, and certainly avoid pointing and whispering to your neighbor about the family that looks just a bit different from yours especially if the children in said family can see you and hear you.

Touching hair

I started out my career as a hair blogger and I would do various styles, grow my hair out long to donate to a charity and instruct my readers and viewers how to do the same so, I am very hair focused. I notice styles, colors and I’m very interested in the way other people do their hair and talk about it a lot.

Despite this hobby I have never once reached out my hand to touch the hair of a stranger’s child, it never occurred to me that petting a child that is not my own would be a thing to do.

Now, I don’t believe in violence and I have never been in a physical fight as an adult but I have slapped more white women’s hands away from my children’s heads as they come in for an unsolicited grope of their curls than I can count. Women in Target are the worst offenders.

It must be a very privileged mindset for one to think that you have some type of ownership over another person’s body wherein you can pet, grab, touch or play with a part of their body without their explicit consent.

Now as a black woman with wild curly hair, I have had my share of requests to touch my hair. But, I have never once had a request from any of the women whose hands I had to slap. They don’t even make eye contact with me. They just reach out to touch my child’s hair as if their desire means they deserve to.

If this is you, please stop. Now that you have read this piece going forward do not reach out your hand to touch anyone’s hair that is not your own without explicit consent of the person whose head you are reaching towards. Your curiosity does not outweigh another human’s desire to be touched or autonomy of their bodies or hair. Be mindful.

Using Insensitive Language

I was at a birthday party for a friend recently and a woman referred to her adopted children as mulatto which took me aback for a variety of reasons. One, I hadn’t heard that term used in common conversation since 1993 when I was sticking up for a friend of mine named Jasmine whose mom was Black and dad was white. A coupling that was a true oddity back then. I didn’t know what the term meant back then but I knew the way it was used against her meant it must be something bad.

Mulatto has an ugly history and can most closely be defined as descending from Mule, the hybrid offspring of a horse and a donkey. It has been historically used to remind mixed white individuals that they are still “less than” due to their non-white blood. If you were not aware of the term or not aware of the history of the term I ask that you research it yourself and be mindful never use it.

Secondly she was using this derogatory term to speak of her own adopted children! At first I wondered if I’d heard her correctly and when I realized that I had, was then hoping she was from another country or some area where mulatto has no negative connotation as it does here in North America.

If you hear the term being used seriously or in jest let the person know it is completely inappropriate to use those words and the other counterparts are often used for mixed-race individuals such as half breed and gray baby. All should be removed from our lexicon immediately and again I ask you to be mindful.

You can say mixed-race, multiracial, biracial, or another such respectful term should you need to. And honestly, how often will you really need to? It is not your place to define or group a racially ambiguous subset of individuals nor is it your place to demand they classify themselves to you, which brings me to the next tip.

Asking “What Are You”

Do not ask “what are you.” I am a Black woman. When I look in the mirror I see all this chocolate skin and I don’t know how anyone could look at me and see something other than a Black woman. However, even I have had to deal with the question “what are you.” I usually just looked down at my skin and then back up at the person questioning me as if they’re stupid to which they’ll chuckle sheepishly and say “No, where are you from because…bla bla.” and trail off realizing how rude and overreaching they are to ask such a question.

When you as a white member of the majority ask a minority to identify themselves for you that is almost the peak of white privilege. What you’re saying is “hey you are an unidentified other, an alien. I am part of the majority and I demand to know how you identify so I can classify how I view you, value you, and treat you accordingly.”

Besides the fact that how someone identifies is absolutely none of your business and completely inappropriate for you to interrogate them on, it is also a wholly personal decision how they choose to identify.

In North America with its dark history of chattel slavery and the one drop rule (wherein if there is one drop of black lineage in the bloodline the white is sullied and you must now identify as Black) it’s a loaded question and you should be mindful not to ask it.

That said, how a person identifies is not based on what ethnic group they are part of its a personal decision whether they like to be referred to as mixed, biracial, multiracial, multicultural, black, white, pink purple or other. Whichever box they choose to check (or not check) has nothing to do with you or your curiosity. I asked that you be mindful and if in the conversation you think to ask this question be aware that you may get a response a little sharper then you anticipated.

Complementing the mix

My husband and I took a cruise with my son when he was just about 1 year old. When you look at my son alone one may assume he is multiracial or of Latino descent. When seeing him flanked by a white dad and Black mom, it’s clear that he’s a bi-racial boy and it is very often that people, well-meaning as they may be, let us know how much they approve of the mix.

I have heard more times than I can count that ‘mixed babies are the cutest babies’ and on this cruise a woman referred to my son as ‘the perfect mix.’ I was too annoyed to get into a conversation with her, plus I was a few mojitos deep so I surely wouldn’t be polite. My husband removed us from the situation but I was left on my pool lounger wondering which part?

Which part is the perfect part of him because looking at him all he got from me is a tan and some curl to his hair?

In 2019 supermodel Bella Hadid was named the “scientifically most beautiful woman in the world.” I know, it’s absurd, but stay with me. This actually made news and is not-so-subtly reinforcing white supremacy as it reminds us that the standard of beauty is European based.

So are we saying that the erasure of my blackness to add a little hint of color to my husband’s whiteness is the perfect blend for my child? Had he been darker would he still be a perfect mix? Had his hair been coarser, nose wider or lips fuller? Where does the perfect mix turn into too ethnic? Where does ethnic turn into ugly?

You may not have considered this if you are someone who has said mixed babies are the cutest but I again urge you to be mindful because firstly all babies are the cutest. They just all look like squishy tiny old men. Second, implying that mixed babies are somehow cuter than single-race babies is inaccurate, biased and dripping in white supremacy.

It is often the mixed-race children who have stereotypically Eurocentric features with olive skin and loose curls who are heralded as the face of mixed-race people, and lauded as beautiful while an entire country (I’m looking at you, Brazil) of mixed-raced individuals whose traditionally African features are more prominent are cast aside as second class.

Now, you may see yourself or someone you know in the examples noted above. Do not take offense. Just do better. You can’t feign ignorance now. Interracial couplings are gaining in popularity and while still a minority the rate of mixed-marriages is soaring.

The 2010 US census lists 15.1% of marriages as interracial and 2.9% of the US population as biracial (that’s about 9 million people, for context). The products of such couplings are a quickly expanding group of biracial “mixed” children for whom we need to be respectful allies.

I encourage you to share these tips with someone who can use the information for good as I know you will.

My husband and I are very fortunate to have been raised in the multicultural landscape of New York City. Queens is the most diverse city in the entire country by countries represented there. You’d have to try very hard to have a homogenous circle. We are blessed with family and friends who “get it” and when they don’t are respectful when asking questions or, like a dope ally, go research the information on their own.

It is folks like them that give me hope for a more racially respectful and comfortable culture.

Listen, we get it. Interracial relationships aren’t the norm and biracial children are certainly a minority. The fact is that each day more interracial pairings and mixed race children are created. Luckily there are a lot of societal changes requiring people to be more mindful. I know that after reading this, you will be more mindful too.

Thanks for reading. Please share! I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Lissa

Thursday 4th of June 2020

I appreciate your words. Sadly (and embarrassingly), I’m guilty of some of this in the past and understand that though I was well-meaning, I must learn and do better. Thank you.

Kris

Friday 24th of April 2020

Nicely written. I see your beautiful children and their beautiful curls and realize that maybe it can be something about their curls too?? My heritage is distinctly European as is my husband's, but our oldest daughter has very curly hair--ringlets. She has the same issue of people reaching out and touching them. They're beautiful little curiosities that honestly I love touching too! Something about the way the hair grabs nearby pieces and happily spirals themselves down. Although I would never do that to someone else or their child!

Caroline

Sunday 1st of March 2020

Great article. I am a white woman and I do believe biracial babies are adorable, as are white babies and black babies and pretty much every baby ever. I agree it is sad that we are still in a place where even well intentioned people feel there is a need to express their approval of what is deemed “different”. The fact that they deem the dynamic different enough to deserve attention is sad in itself. I do want to say, however, I have a beautiful all Caucasian baby girl (almost 3 now), who has perfect, natural, wild, spiral curls, and for 3 years I have never gone anywhere without someone reaching out to touch them or bounce one of them and it drives me crazy as well. Her 8 year old sister has the same color hair, same thickness, same texture... but her hair is completely straight and no stranger has ever reached out to pet her... something about curls I guess.

Elke

Sunday 1st of March 2020

I am half Puerto Rican and half "white". My mom is brown and my dad is your typical American white dude with a background from all over Europe. We look "white" and most people assume that we are. When we were children, people would ask our mother if she was our nanny because we were lighter than her :(

When I had my eldest son, someone asked what color he was and my sister, so annoyed at the question responded "One of his legs is a little darker than the rest of his body". Seriously what a stupid question. Who care what color he was? How about is he healthy?

Sharon

Friday 28th of February 2020

Ever since I had a class in genetics,I have always considered biracial people genetically better. All of the genetic recessive genes for inherited illnesses would be less. Therefore, I was always jealous. I was very disappointed that I my own DNA is just western Europe. How boring! My children could have had all kinds of genetic defects. Fortunately, all seem to be okay. Since reading this article, I realize that even a well meaning comment can be hurtful.

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