It’s 2011 and I have good news to report: my 4th grade daughter has never experienced any racial bullying. Though the subject is finally getting the news exposure it should, some of the coverage is about kids who take their own lives because of how soul-destroying the taunting is.
As a mom, I always listen to my kids whenever there is an incident at school or on the sports field that upsets them in an unusual way. My radar is finely tuned to the potential for mean girl or mean boy stuff to cross the line into comments about hair, skin color or other attributes that may signal race-based bullying. I read between the lines to hear what my kids are telling me.
Because my kids are at a diverse, progressive private school, they haven’t experienced race-based bullying. Their school has mixed-race kids of many backgrounds, so thankfully it’s not an issue. Our choice of school is one way my husband and I have tried to protect our kids from vicious racial bullying. I won’t let that happen to my kids if I can help it. Middle school isn’t too far away, so I am hopeful that my kids will avoid most—if not all––racial tormenting.
Find Role Models
We are incredibly lucky to have a new generation of mixed-race leaders. Starting at the top, there is President Obama, a brilliant intellectual, family man and one of the best orators of our time. During the primary, before anyone thought he could beat Hilary Clinton, my husband and I attended a small fundraiser for Obama. In person, he’s dignified and mesmerizing. The day he was elected, I could not have been more proud.
There are also numerous celebrities and high profile mixed-race marriages that we see regularly on TV and in celebrity and fashion magazines. Yes, we all know stars have their shortcomings and personal dramas, but now isn’t the time to discuss THAT issue. When I was growing up, there were very few mixed-race role models. Today, we have, to name just a few:
a. President Obama (Leader of the free world)
b. Halle Berry (Actress)
c. Rashida Jones (Actress)
d. Seal and Heidi Klum (Singer, Supermodel)
e. Selena Gomez (TV Actress/singer)
f. Devon Aoki (Model)
g. Soledad O’Brien (CNN Anchor)
h. Kimora Lee Simons (Reality TV Star)
i. Lenny Kravitz (Rock Star)
j. Ann Curry (The Today Show)
k. Maya Soetoro-Ng (Writer, half-sister of President Obama)
l. Jennifer Beals (actress)
m. James Blake (Pro Tennis Player)
n. Derek Jeter (NY Yankees)
o. Hines Ward (Football Player)
Point Out Common Attributes
Talking about mixed-race celebrities is an opportunity to show our kids “role models” who look like them. Talk to your child about a celebrity who may resemble him or her. If your daughter has hair or skin like a celebrity, point that out to your child. I often tell my daughter she looks like Rashida Jones, who shares my daughter’s light skin, freckles and hazel eyes. I also tell her that when she was a baby she looked a lot like Halle Berry’s adorable daughter. My daughter is thrilled when I point out these similarities and it often leads to a wonderful discussion about our family history, race and identity. This approach also works well if you have a friend, a co-worker or a neighbor who is mixed and has physical attributes similar to those of your child.
There is nothing more alienating than growing up thinking you are “different” than everyone else in the world. And, there’s nothing better than being told you look like somebody else in this world besides your parents. When the movie “Flashdance” came out in the early 1980s, everywhere I went, people told me I looked like Jennifer Beals. I was overjoyed! Finally, there was somebody I could identify with and someone who other people thought I resembled. She’s also gorgeous and a successful actress. How could I not be happy about the comparison? To this day, I still read every article about Jennifer Beals because she was my first introduction to what it felt like to belong.
The Moment Of Realization
Understand your child may have an “ah-ha” moment when they realize they are different. It might be a comment from a stranger, a new personal experience or a difficult time in their life that triggers the realization that they are different. Hopefully, this won’t come as a shock, but more as a moment of clarity—and pride. Exposing your child to mixed-race role models will help make “different” a good thing, a positive attribute and not something negative. My parents told me I was unique and I’ve always had that to fall back on during rough times. Different? Maybe. Unique? Always.
Allow Self-Discovery and Labeling
I recognize that although we, as mixed-race people, have a foot in many worlds, we are defined by the external world based on our skin color. President Obama is half white, but most people perceive him as African American. Mixed-race individuals, during some point in our lives, may feel rejected by one or both sides of our heritage. Or, we may feel much more comfortable identifying as one race, rather than the other, either by choice or not. President Obama, as an example, recently marked “black” on the census instead of “two or more races.” Over time, that can change. Making new friends, trying to fit in, arriving at college or starting a new relationship may cause a person to explore aspects of their background they hadn’t focused on before. I consider this part of self-discovery and an aspect of growing up mixed.
If possible, live in a diverse neighborhood. I can’t stress this enough! Living in a neighborhood where everyone is homogenous—and different than your family––can lead to extreme feelings of alienation. If it’s not possible to live in a diverse community, try to send your child to a diverse school where there are other mixed race kids. After school activities like sports can also be important avenues for exposure. I’m learning I can’t pick my tween’s friends, but I can create opportunities for her to hang out with diverse friends. There’s no doubt in my mind that this helps foster her self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. Devoting time and effort to making sure your child is surrounded by diversity may take some effort on your part, but it’s well worth it. The benefits of feeling like one fits in and belongs are priceless.
Food As A Symbol Of Your Culture(s)
Food is such an important part of every culture. Every New Year’s Eve, I make Hoppin’ John (black-eyed peas) and explain the tradition of the dish. (For the recipe, visit epicurious) The kids look forward to it all year. My family also celebrates some (not all) of the Jewish holidays. We make latkes and matzo ball soup for Hanukah while we usually serve ham for Christmas dinner.