To parents of biracial children
By Elliott Lewis
I always hesitate to give advice to parents of biracial children, even
when they write to me to ask for it. Since I'm not a parent myself, I don't
feel I have much credibility in that department. Who am I to tell people how
to raise children when I have neither the academic expertise nor any
personal experience to draw on? I try to answer parents' questions as best I
can, while making it clear that I am speaking only from what I've been through and
the limited research I've read on identity development in multiracial youth.
But there's one aspect of parenting a multiracial family where I'm no
longer holding back or feel a need to bite my tongue. It concerns those
parents (and for some reason I hear it more often from white parents) who have made
statements to me such as, "I think I would feel hurt if my children
identified solely as black." Or, "I don't want to be left out of my child's
Or, "It breaks my heart when I hear of biracial children identifying
only as black."
I'm afraid my rather cold-hearted-sounding response to these parents
is: "TOO BAD!"
Why do I say this? Because as far as I'm concerned, racial identity is
not about how white parents "feel." It's not about how black parents
"feel." It's not about how my black-identifying multiracial parents "feel." It's
not about how parents "feel," period.
Attention, Parents: Let it go!
In my mind, coming to terms with racial identity is about how we, the
biracial children, feel. We each have our own unique, personal
histories. We each have to face our own day-to-day reality. We need the freedom to
resolve the racial questions in our lives in the manner that makes the most sense
to us, given the world we live in. Not the world our parents WISH we were
living in. Not the world our parents THINK we're living in.
Some biracials say they would feel guilty if they were to identify with
the race of only one of their parents. It would be like turning their back
on their mom or dad, they tell me, ignoring a central part of their
heritage. As long as their biracial self-concept stems from their own feelings,
experiences, and cultural connections, I see no problem. But the choice should be
rooted in a positive affirmation of their blended background, not on a parent
trying to guilt-trip them into a biracial identity.
Robert Fulghum, author of "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in
Kindergarten," once wrote that the lives children are living and the
lives parents perceive them as living are not the same.
How true. And that's especially the case in interracial families,
where social experiences and brushes with racism may vary greatly from family
member to family member.
The racial identity biracial children ultimately adopt as adults is
influenced by many factors. Some factors are largely outside a
parent's control, such as physical appearance, experience with discrimination, and both
acceptance and rejection by peers, co-workers, and other family members. Some
biracials see any declaration of their racial identity as a political statement
and will identify with the part of their heritage on whose behalf they feel they
Personally, I think the role of parents in helping young biracials sort
through these identity issues is to serve as a facilitator,
acknowledging the contradictions their children may feel, exploring the topic with them,
guiding them to appropriate support systems, and encouraging them to read up on how
others have dealt with the issue. (I recommend the book, "What Are You?" by
Pearl Gaskins, as a good start for biracial adolescents.) Parents also need
to examine their own position on racial identity and become aware of the
underlying assumptions they bring to the table, which may or may not ring true in
their children's lives.
Rest assured, it is possible to identify as black without denying other
parts of your heritage. Take Halle Berry, for example. She clearly sees
herself as a black woman. And when she won the Oscar for the movie "Monster's
Ball," she went on and on during the ceremony noting the historical
significance of a black woman winning the award for lead actress. Then she went on and
on thanking her mother, telling the world how much she loved her, while
the camera captured the white woman who is Halle's mom looking on proudly from the
Yes, you can be both black and biracial at the same time. Not everyone
will agree with how we choose to express it. But that choice is ours to
make, no one else's.
Each of us must come to terms with our identity in our own way and in
our own time. It complicates things when people try to force an identity upon
us. Even if those people are caring, loving parents.
A trip back in time
By Elliott Lewis
For my mother and her two younger sisters, it was a chance to relive old memories. The four of us -- Mom, Aunt Marge, Aunt Phyllis, and me -- piled into the rental car and headed toward their childhood home, located in what used to be a small coal mining town outside of Pittsburgh.
The old house is still standing, but it's undergone some renovation since the 1940s when my grandparents were raising the family. Today, it has an indoor bathroom, a convenience my mother and her siblings did without. Mom has just turned 70. But a sudden turn of events has pre-empted a proper celebration.
The day before her birthday, her older sister, Patty, died. She had Alzheimer's Disease and hadn't recognized anyone in the family for years. On the weekend of her funeral, eight of her nine brothers and sisters made the trip home for the service. The only sister who didn't attend has health problems of her own.
I turn the rental car down a short, narrow street that ends in a T-intersection a few hundred yards away. The street is paved now, my mother notices. The old house is on the left. My mother almost doesn't recognize it. New porch, she says. There have been other changes, too. The cherry trees at the end of the block, where the neighborhood kids used to go to pick fruit, are gone now. So are some of the other homes that once lined the street.
As we make our way through the neighborhood, Mom and her sisters begin calling out the names of families they grew up with, pointing to their houses or in some cases the vacant lots where their homes once stood. It didn't occur to me to ask which of their neighbors back then thought Grandma was Italian.
Apparently a number of people did. I can see why. As a kid, I always thought my grandmother was white. I mean, she sure looked like a white lady to me. But since she grew up in America at a time when the one-drop rule defined anyone with any known black ancestry as black, Grandma had little if any choice in her racial identity. My mother and her brothers and sisters didn't have much of a say either. Remember, they were living B.C. or Before "Cablinasian," the term Tiger Woods invented as a child to describe his racial heritage. We are a rainbow family, for sure.
My grandmother, considered to be a "light-skinned black," married a dark-skinned African American, although neither the term "black" nor "African American" was acceptable in Grandma's day. Their ten children represent various shades from light caramel to milk chocolate brown. My mother is one of the lightest, and she married light as well. My father is even classified as "mulatto" on his birth certificate, which makes me a mixed race person of the multi-generational order.
My dad's mother was white, but he barely had any contact with her. He was raised mostly by his black father, which I'm certain affected his racial identity. I don't bring up any of this during our little heritage tour, however. It is, after all, my aunt's death that has brought about this impromptu family reunion.
On the drive back to Aunt Patty's home, where the relatives have congregated for most of the weekend, we come up on Cricket's Bar, a local watering hole in a rickety old building along the town's main street. "Let's go in," says one of my passengers in the back seat. The establishment "must be at least a hundred years old," says my mother sitting up front next to me. "It's been around as long as we were here, and I'm 70." I park the car, and we make our way inside.
One of my uncles has arrived ahead of us and starts making introductions. "Cricket," I learn, was the nickname of the man -- the white man -- who used to own the place. Cricket's son, who is the same age as my mother, now runs the joint. "You know, we were in the second grade together," Mom tells him. "Betty?" he says. "Yes, I'm Betty." I'm flabbergasted. How in the world do you remember classmates from the second grade more than 60 years later? But I guess that comes with being a member of a large family -- remember, there were ten children in all -- and having grown up in a small town. My mom doesn't drink, and my aunts aren't in the mood. They just wanted to check out the old place. But before our car leaves the parking lot, Cricket's son chases us down to present my mother with a T-shirt from the bar. "It's my last one. But I thought you might like it as a souvenir," he says. Mom thanks him, and soon we're on our way.
"One thing about Cricket's," my mother says while sitting in Aunt Patty's living room later that night. "You talk about discrimination and all that... But anyone could always go in Cricket's." At Cricket's, color didn't matter. And apparently, it still doesn't.
RACE BUSTERS, FREEDOM FIGHTERS, AND MULTIRACIAL VILLAGE PEOPLE
By Elliott Lewis
A funny thing happened on the way to the U.S. Census Bureau. Somehow we became "the multiracial movement."
By "we," I'm referring to the 6.8 million of us who exercised our right tocheck more than one racial category in the last census, the interracial groups that lobbied the federal government to remake the racial check-off boxes in the first place, and the private individuals who argued it was time to reexamine our past racial classification schemes.
With a New Year upon us, Census 2000 behind us, and the results from the nation's headcount tabulated, it seems like a good time to look forward and look back at the discussion surrounding formal recognition of mixed-race
As I see it, those of us involved in "the movement" -- from activists to casual observers -- fall into three basic categories: Race Busters, Freedom Fighters, and Multiracial Village People.
Let's start with the Multiracial Village People. They're the people who view interracial couples, their children, and mixed race adults as members of a new, cross-cultural, multiracial "community." They see this community as unique, distinct, and in many ways separate from other ethnic groups and communities of color. If they have children themselves, they are likely raising them with a strong sense of multiracial identity, and may be disappointed if at times their children identify otherwise. They do not see their community reflected in political discourse, represented on race questionnaires, or recognized in society overall. They supported adding a stand-alone multiracial category to the census and frowned on alternative proposals as not sufficiently advancing their community. The most hard-core of Multiracial Village People hold the position that all people of blended racial backgrounds should identify themselves as multiracial, no matter what.
The Freedom Fighters supported efforts to add a multiracial category to the census, but also supported the solution the federal government ultimately came up with -- to leave the categories essentially the way they were, but change the directions on the form from "check only one" to "mark one or more." The Freedom Fighters' main goal is to give multiracial people the right to self-identify in whatever manner we see as appropriate. It's the same right monoracially-identified people have had for decades. If your mother is white and your father is black, and you consider yourself black, that's fine. But if you consider yourself biracial, then you ought to be able to indicate that on the census as well. Fed up with black nationalists, race-based interest groups, and the most militant of Multiracial Village People trying to dictate how we should identify, the Freedom Fighters are about letting racial identity flow out of our own personal histories, family circumstances, and political points of view, whatever they might be.
The Race Busters are out to destroy contemporary notions of race itself. And they approach this mission with a greater sense of urgency than others. For years, scientific research has found race to be a biologically bogus concept.
"Racial" differences represent a small fraction of a person's overall genetic makeup. There is only one race, the human race. And the sooner we all realize what science has shown, the Race Busters argue, the closer we will be to ridding our society of the evils of racism. The Race Busters, as a tactical move, support campaigns to add a multiracial category to official forms or in some way recognize multiracial identity. But they do so largely as a countermeasure against the more rigid customs of racial classification, and they may withdraw their support for a multiracial identifier if they perceive it no longer suits their purposes. For Race Busters, the deconstruction of race is clearly the goal, whereas for the other groups it is merely a healthy byproduct of the growth in multiracial identity.
In short, Freedom Fighters believe racial identity should be a reflection of the life an individual has lived and allow for a variety of possibilities.
The Multiracial Village People believe racial identity should be "accurate," reflecting one's ancestry, irrespective of social interactions and experiences. And Race Busters link racial identity to their politicalbeliefs about what society should do to eliminate race as an issue. Some people may combine elements of each approach or shift among them depending on the circumstances.
But there is one new development in all this that I find troubling. In conversations both real and in cyberspace, in places where I once heard calls to add a multiracial category to the census or allow for multiple check-offs, I am now hearing calls to eliminate the race question and the collection of racial data on government forms altogether. It begs the question: What has so radically changed in America's racial landscape to justify such a drastic departure from the approach being advocated just a couple of years ago?
While we'd all like to rid society of racism, I believe it would be too dangerous to drop the race question from government forms too soon. Instead of a "colorblind" society where we don't see race, we risk ending up with a "racism-blind" society where we don't see the racial discrimination that continues to this day. Tracking racial patterns is important in order to monitor compliance with civil rights laws, promote diversity, and determine whether we're making any progress at overcoming racism. I want no part in creating a society where racist patterns and practices continue unabated, but are more difficult to address because we've stopped collecting racial information.
While that debate simmers, I'm going to enjoy the victory of the multiracial movement thus far. Clearly, the main purpose of the census is tied to congressional redistricting. But this once-a-decade headcount also gives us a statistical snapshot, a demographic picture of the country. Now that the Census Bureau has a mechanism for counting multiracial people, I finally feel like I'm fully a part of that American portrait.
What's up with interracial personal ads?
By Elliott Lewis
"I am interested in dating/meeting a nice woman of another race. I have not actively dated outside of the African-American community, but am looking to broaden my horizons (so to speak)."
The letter came from a reader of NewPeopleMagazine.com. It had been posted onthe front page of this website for the last month or so with an invitation for other readers to respond with their thoughts on this man's interest in interracial dating. My response is this:
Not about interracial dating in general. (Of course, interracialrelationships can work!) But I am suspicious about this message and otherslike it that I see posted on websites or printed in the personal ad sections
of newspapers. Black men looking to meet white women. White men looking tomeet Asian women. White women looking to meet "black or Hispanic" men. And
on and on it goes. The ads often specify a "race" first, before mentioning religion, interests, occupation, hobbies, or education, if they mention those things at all.
I recall seeing one such ad in The Washington Post from a woman who described herself as an "Ebony lion queen" in search of an "Ivory lion king" to "make lion cubs." Yes, she really did use those terms!
What causes these singles to elevate "race" above all other characteristics in their search for a relationship? Is it because we live in a society where "race" is the first hurdle we feel we have to jump over in the dating game? Once a potential partner meets our racial criteria, then we can look at all that other stuff? Is that what's going on here? And if so, what's up with that?
Call me old-fashioned, but I'm just not a fan of personal ads. And an ad that specifies a "race" other than one's own raises my eyebrows even more.
It's like someone who's Jewish going in search of a mate who's a Mormon.
Nothing wrong with being open to other religions. Nothing wrong with interfaith relationships. But why target one faith and shut out members of your own? Is something deeper going on?
Don't get me wrong. I'm all for celebrating interracial dating, marriage, and families. But it seems to me the best of these relationships are the ones that, well, "just sort of happen," when people enter into them with an open mind. People who purposely and specifically seek out interracial romances while shunning same-race dating opportunities make me wonder: To what extent is their search criteria based on cultural stereotypes? Do they find something exotic in what seems different or foreign to them? If so, how long 'til the ethnic novelty wears off? What racial baggage of their own arethey carrying?
As a single, relationship-challenged, confirmed bachelor, I make no claims of being an expert on how the dating ritual is supposed to work. But I for one am not interested in being anyone's test case, satisfying some race-based curiosity, or fulfilling someone's desire to "broaden their horizons," as this particular letter writer put it.
Furthermore, as a caramel-colored biracial person, I wonder, would I be dark enough for a woman specifically looking for a "black" man? What would happen if a woman requests a "white" man, and I show up? If she's looking for someone "Hispanic," do I look close enough? Or are these terms being used more as code words for culture, language, or class?
Once in a while I'll spot an ad that ends with, "Race unimportant," or "Race open." I see that as a sign of progress. I'd like to think that interracial relationships succeed when the couples involved find they are compatible in so many other ways, often times in areas not covered in most personal ads.
A college professor once told me that in finding a mate, we generally look for someone who either shares certain characteristics in terms of ethnic
background, education, religious beliefs, and social class -- or who has a
healthy respect and appreciation for differences in these areas, an awareness
of how such differences may play out in our lives, and a sensitivity to our
So while I don't think it's wise to completely ignore race, given American
history and its power to affect our lives, it shouldn't be a determining
My own personal ad, if I were ever to place one, would probably read
something like this:
"Single, biracial, secular humanist with a biting sense of humor. A
thirty-something television journalist. Interests include travel, foreign
languages, movies. Oh, yeah, looking for the type of woman who would never
think of answering a personal ad. Respond and you will be disqualified."
Pretty wicked, eh?
Top Ten book reviews
By Elliott Lewis
It's amazing what happens to you once you start writing a monthly column. Since "Chicken Gumbo
for the Multicultural Soul" debuted on the New People website, I've received several emails from
readers asking where they could find additional information about interracial families, growing up
biracial, multiracial identity and raising mixed race kids.
Because I'm single with no children, I'm rather hesitant to offer direct advice to parents or teachers
on how to deal with the situations they face.
The answer I usually give is to: 1) read everything you can about multiracial experiences, 2)
become aware of the dynamics involved, 3) educate yourself about the complexity, diversity, and
variety of ways people experience being multiracial, 4) remember that each individual is different,
and 5) then do what you believe is best for your particular situation.
As far as what to read in order to raise your awareness of these issues, here is my "Top Ten List"
of books on the multiracial experience:
1. Black, White, Other
by Lise Funderburg
Biracial Americans talk about race and identity. This book began as a graduate school project
while the author was working on her masters degree in journalism. Lise is biracial, but has a white
appearance. She interviewed dozens of black-white biracial people and produced a very moving
collection of stories. The subjects look at race from a variety of perspectives. Some people are
firmly biracial in their identity while others firmly consider themselves black. A good range of
experiences represented. Number One on my list of books for learning more about the multiracial
2. What Are You?
by Pearl Fuyo Gaskins
Voices of mixed race young people. This book is very similar in format to "Black, White, Other,"
but aimed at a younger audience. It covers some of the same ground, but is a quicker read. Pearl
is also biracial, Asian-white.
She set out to write the type of book she wished she'd had when she was a teenager. The result is
a moving collection of stories, poems, essays, and commentary. The book is geared toward
adolescent and young adult readers, or anyone who might be put off by the thickness of "Black,
White, Other." This book also covers other racial and ethnic combinations besides black-white
and Asian-white, such as Hispanic-black, black-Asian, Asian-Jewish, etc.
3. Of Many Colors
by Peggy Gillespie and Gigi Kaeser
Portraits of multiracial families. This is the book version of a photo exhibit that's been touring the
country. A variety of families represented, some black-white, some Asian-white, some natural,
some adopted, some gay, some straight, along with a brief history of each. Number Three on my
list because I found it to be an excellent introduction to the topic of interracial families. But those
searching for a deeper understanding of multiracial, multicultural experiences will also want to read
some of the additional titles listed here.
4. Half and Half
Edited by Claudine Chiawei O'Hearn
Writers on growing up biracial and bicultural. This book contains a series of soul-searching essays
from a variety of authors of various racial, ethnic, and cultural combinations. One writer discusses
being white and Asian, another about being Hispanic and Jewish, others about black-white, one
about having a mom who is a black American and a dad who is a French-speaking black African.
A thoughtful book offering a variety of experiences and insights.
by Danzy Senna
The only fiction book to make my Top Ten List. The novel is set in the 1970s. A black-white
interracial couple has two daughters, one of them light-skinned, the other one dark-skinned. The
parents split up, the black father taking the darker-skinned daughter with him while the
light-skinned daughter stays with the white mother. The story is told from the perspective of the
light-skinned daughter. I'm not a big fiction reader, but I really enjoyed this book. The author is
biracial and grew up in Boston during the 1970s.
6. The Color of Water
by James McBride
A black man's tribute to his white mother. The subtitle says it all. The author's mother married a
black man and had a huge family, but all the while denied to her children that she was white. Years
later, the author persuades his mother to tell her story and reveal the truth. Well-received in literary
circles, the book is Number Six on my list because it deals only with one family's story, whereas
other titles I've mentioned here offer a variety of perspectives on being biracial.
7. Crossing the Color Line
by Maureen Reddy
Race, parenting, and culture. This book is written by a white woman who married a black man
and has a biracial son. Readers follow her on her journey as she discovers the impact of race on
her family life. The author is also a professor, but this book is very well grounded in her "real
world" experiences. The book came in at Number Seven on my list, but I'd highly recommend it
for the parents of biracial children, particularly white parents who have adopted black or biracial
8. Who Is Black?
by F. James Davis
This book looks at the history of racial classification in the United States and how the legal
definition of "black" has changed over time. For instance, at one point the categories "quadroon"
and "octoroon" were used to quantify the extent of someone's blackness. The author is a
professor, so keep in mind there are times when this reads like a textbook. Davis examines a
multitude of state laws, court cases, and social conditions that have influenced how America views
race. Very eye-opening from a legal standpoint.
9. Showing My Color
by Clarence Page
Impolite essays on race and identity. The author is a Washington DC-based columnist for the
Chicago Tribune. If you like his syndicated newspaper column, you will enjoy his book. The book
is Number Nine on this list only because it doesn't talk about biracial identity or interracial family
issues except in passing. (No pun intended!) The subtitle is a bit misleading. Clarence and I have
gotten to know each other, and I've never found him or the tone of his essays to be impolite. In
fact, his writing style is enjoyable to read. One of the most insightful books I've found on black
middle class identity issues and black-white race relations in America.
10. Racially Mixed People in America
Edited by Maria Root
The chapters of this book are written by various contributing authors, virtually all of them academic
researchers. Root is a University of Washington professor and one of the leading researchers in
the country on interracial families. This book provides a scholarly analysis of the experiences and
challenges confronting multiracial people. For that reason, I consider the book to be an important
text for professors and mental health professionals. But it's down at Number Ten on my list
because I found all the academic babble and scholarly jargon to be a little much for the average
Maybe someday, we'll start a book club. Until then, happy reading!
The seven habits of highly multiracial people
By Elliott Lewis
What causes some people whose parents are of two different races to identify themselves as
biracial while others adopt a single-race identity? What causes me to call myself biracial even
though my two, olive-skinned, multiracial-looking parents consider themselves black? Is there
something wrong with mixed-race people who take on a single-race self-concept? Is there
something wrong with mixed-race people who don't?
I've come to the conclusion that there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to someone's
self-identity. But I do think there are right and wrong reasons for the racial identity choices a
person ultimately makes. It is one thing if someone of black and white ancestry labels himself as
biracial because that identity is consistent with the uniqueness of his upbringing, family
circumstances, social interactions, and blended culture. It is quite another thing to take on a biracial
identity because an individual believes that black is bad, negative, and inferior, and wants to
disassociate from it by any means necessary.
In other words, when saying "I'm biracial," are you being true to yourself and the life you've lived,
or is there a contradiction between your day-to-day life experiences and the identity you claim?
With most of the multiracial people I know, there is no contradiction. Our lives simply do not add
up to a single-race identity. So we say we are multiracial not just because we are "multiracial by
birth." After all, in this day and age, who isn't? Rather, we have taken on a multiracial identity
because we are also "multiracial through life experience."
What are those life experiences? I'm glad you asked. Here now is my list of "The Seven Habits of
Highly Multiracial People":
1. Undergoes racial interrogation
Many of us are familiar with this. It is when people are unable to racially classify us based on our
physical appearance, so they ask, "What are you?"
2. Experiences the chameleon effect of being biracial
I've written about this before. It is when one's perceived "race" changes from place to place, from
circumstance to circumstance, from individual to individual. We may be seen as black one minute,
white the next, Hispanic the day after that.
3. Encounters bewilderment or disbelief when sharing life stories
Many people just don't get it. Not only do we experience "racial interrogation" and the "chameleon
effect," but when we try to share our stories with others, we are met with doubt and disbelief, as if
we do not know the very experiences we've had.
4. Attacked for a perceived lack of racial allegiance or authenticity
Because we often live between two different socially defined worlds and embrace more than one
culture, we are accused of "not being black enough," or of "not being true to our race."
5. Experiences a temporary racial identity crisis
The key here is the word, "temporary." I don't know anyone who identifies as multiracial who
hasn't gone through some kind of racial confusion or identity crisis. With some people, it lasts ten
minutes. With others, it lasts ten years. But it can be resolved into a unified identity.
6. Develops an interracial, mixed-race, cross-cultural comfort zone
Given our experiences, we find we are most comfortable in racially integrated, ethnically and
culturally diverse settings, and with other mixed-race people.
7. Adopts a racial identity acknowledging multiple backgrounds
Finally, we are able to put our blended background into words. We call ourselves "biracial,"
"multiracial," "blackanese," "hapa," etc. Or in some cases we express it by saying, "I'm black but
my mother is white," or in my case, "I'm more black than white, but more biracial than anything
Should anyone still be confused about why someone would label themselves "multiracial," or have
questions about what is driving this trend, feel free to refer them to The Seven Habits.