Is It Getting Easier to Raise a Biracial Child?
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Every time I see a glimpse of Barack Obama's mother, S. Ann Soetoro, in the family photos sprinkled all over the news, I wonder what it must have been like for her to raise a biracial child in the 1960s. By all accounts, she seemed to be ahead of her time -- open-minded, well-traveled, knowledgable about her child's heritage, and committed to a multinational education for him. In a Time article on Obama and his mother, America is described as "constrained by war, segregation, and a distrust of difference" in Ann Soetoro's day. Knowing how hard it can be today as a member of a multiracial family, I imagine there must have been times when Soetoro and her unique entourage were rejected by members of their community, family, and society throughout Obama's upbringing.
Though Ann could marry Barack Obama Sr. legally in Hawaii at the time of their courtship, interracial marriage was still illegal in parts of the U.S. mainland. Ann admitted to Obama later in life that his white grandparents were initially upset about her union with Barack Sr., and Obama himself has suggested that his grandmother was suspicious of blacks, although she didn't appear to take it out on him. But even with the support of her parents and an international sensibility, I wonder -- how did Ann manage it? And how much have things improved for multiracial families since then?
For the last several years, my husband and I considered ourselves lucky. Rarely did our "interracial couple" status come up in meaningful ways. My father harbored racist assumptions about minorities in general, but he was quickly disarmed by my husband's kindness and didn't dare come between our obvious happiness. My husband's Puerto Rican family was also supportive. They had some curious assumptions about me, too, like, "My uncle's got a white lady. We're gonna be rich!" Their hopes were dashed when I went broke and moved in with them. Otherwise, our racial differences became a footnote, only occasionally referenced by our families on both sides in the form of benign jokes.
Then we got pregnant. Suddenly the color of our child's skin, whether he would have "good" hair, the color of his eyes, and every other aspect of the baby's appearance became a topic of race-based discussion. "He's gonna be half cracker, half Puerto Rican!" or "Maybe he'll look like Lenny Kravitz," or "Maybe he'll be striped, like a zebra." How our unborn child was going to look and how our roles would play out as interracial parents suddenly become an obsession for our loved ones. It seemed as though our families were waking up to the reality of our status as a multiracial family. When junior arrived, there would be a permanent manifestation of our union. For all the talk about skin color, I started to wonder if my family would feel alienated from the child if he turned out to be dark, and vice versa with my husband's family if he emerged as white as snow.
Throughout my pregnancy, I contemplated what it would mean to be a multiracial family. Bringing a mixed child into the picture connects individuals across races in a way that is irreversible. It also seems to fuel people's deepest fears about purity of race, loss of identity, and loss of culture. My husband and I had a parenting plan that spoke to these issues, but I worried about how my son would adjust to the differences between the Latino community and the white population, and I lamented the unfortunate fact that he'd probably always face some level of discrimination from both sides. It's clear from some of Barack Obama's speeches and writings that he faced the same dynamics when he was growing up. And what does my generation, which lies between Obama's and my son's, have to say?
Larry Woods, a non-profit director in Harlem and the child of Portuguese and African American parents, says that when he was born in the 1970s, it was a time when people were still very openly racist. His parents were lucky enough to live in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which was already a bohemian, artist's community back then. However, the town was peppered with Portuguese fisherman who weren't too keen on the small black population. Larry's grandfather was one of them, and he was angry when Larry's mother brought his father to the house. Then, when Larry's father brought his mother to Tennessee, the home of the Ku Klux Klan, his paternal grandfather didn't know how to react and couldn't quite relax -- he addressed her with the same extreme formality that was expected of him around white folks from the South.
When Larry's parents started having children, things changed for the better. "Once kids come along, prejudices tend to fade away," Larry said. Both sets of grandparents fell in love with him and his sister. But that didn't mean life would be easy.
As he grew up, Larry struggled with his identity. "I didn't know how to discuss race, or how to respond to questions. Once I was filling out a questionnaire and I asked my mom, 'What race am I on this?' She said no to every category. I was very frustrated." After his father left his mother, he grew up with her in an all white community. "I was a speck of black sand in a sea of white. I didn't know who I was and I was very conscious of being black, but I also wasn't black enough for the black side either. My coping mechanism was to detach and formulate my own sense of reality. I turned it into an asset -- my identity was not spelled out so there was a sense of needing to figure it out. So I traveled and learned about other cultures." Larry says this quest determined everything -- even his academic and professional life today. "Because my choices weren't spoon fed, I adapted. I'm stronger and more grounded because of it."
Larry sounds like a success story, but is it the norm? Today, one in 19 children are born biracial or multiracial. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), multiracial children tend to be higher achievers with a stronger sense of self. They have a higher tolerance of diversity and may even be happier than children who grow up with a single-race identity. Children of mixed-race couples also tend to be more sensitive, culturally aware, and educated in both cultures and more likely to carry on traditions. However, the AACAP also notes that multiracial children sometimes cope with society's biases by identifying with the minority race, while maintaining a private interracial identity at home. Multiracial children may feel guilty about identifying with one race over the other or lose a connection with one side altogether. There is an undeniable pressure to not quite fitting in with any one group, but Larry says with the increasing numbers of multiracial children, even this aspect is getting a little easier now.
"Growing up, my older sister faced a lot more racism and felt a lot more like an outsider than I did. By the time I came around, black culture became novel, and I was more accepted [by whites]. For my little brothers and sisters, it's even easier because there are so many more people out there who look like them." Larry says it's important for a biracial or multiracial child to use the identity crisis to his or her benefit. "Constantly try to find out who you are. Change, explore, define who you are yourself. Draw on the cultures you come from and make it your own."
I will no doubt share Larry's advice with my young son as he grows, and, like Ann Soetoro, make an effort to teach my child about his diverse heritage every chance I get. Even though I didn't back Obama's candidacy, I know his possible presidency is important for biracial children everywhere. For this, I am grateful to Barack Obama, and I look forward to a climate that is even more tolerant of multiracial individuals and families because of his presence and power in politics.
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Heidi Schnakenberg is a writer and activist whose work has appeared in the Des Moines Register, Women's eNews, and several national and international publications. As a screenwriter, she has worked with Francis Ford Coppola and American Zoetrope. Her latest project is an original screenplay based on Spanish Harlem in the 80s and 90s, called El Barrio Del Sol.