Address race with children

Parents should prepare mixed-race children for reactions, remarks of others

Family Matters

November 09, 2003|By Stephanie Dunnewind | Stephanie Dunnewind,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Parents of multiracial children sometimes say they are colorblind. Since race doesn't matter to them, they figure it shouldn't for anyone else.

But these parents - usually Caucasian - are doing their children a disservice by not preparing them for the prejudice and cruelty they'll sometimes face from peers and society, says Donna Jackson Nakazawa in her book Does Anybody Else Look Like Me? A Parent's Guide to Raising Multiracial Children.

Nakazawa, a white woman married to a Japanese American, has two biracial children. Her book came out of her struggles to deal with friends' and strangers' curiosity, assumptions and racial biases while raising her children with positive self-images and cultural pride.

It still takes Nakazawa by surprise when strangers do a double take because her kids don't "match" her: "Isn't the bond my children and I share so rich and potent, the connection between us so obvious, so palpable, it speaks volumes, transcending all imagined racial assumptions?"

It's a misconception that multiracial children are conflicted and internally "mixed up," Nakazawa writes. "In truth, the confusion about our multiracial children's racial identity is society's confusion - most people simply don't feel comfortable when they don't know how to racially pigeonhole our children. That discomfort ... should be owned by society, not our multiracial children."

In the 2000 census, the first to give respondents the option of identifying themselves as more than one race, nearly 7 million Americans cited a mixed racial background. More than four out of 10 were under age 18. As mixed-race marriages increase (from 1.5 million in 1990 to 4 million in 2000), the number of multiracial births also is expected to jump.

Some of her parenting tips:

* Don't dismiss preschoolers' questions. "At this stage our children's antennae are so tuned to issues of differences that stereotypic and inaccurate information can be particularly damaging."

* Encourage children to be proud of all their racial background. Encouraging them to identify with only one race "is all but guaranteed to set them up for a state of inner turmoil and identity problems over the long haul."

* Insist strangers respect boundaries and children's privacy. Sharing a family's intimate details in response to a stranger's questions puts politeness ahead of the child's needs, Nakazawa says.

* Watch for two pivotal "pressure points" that children will face: grade school (usually third or fourth grade), when teasing starts and multiracial children realize that others see them as different; and the early teen years, as they struggle to fit in socially and find their identities.

* Embrace different cultures - through activities, dance, food, celebrations, travel - as a family, rather than singling out children.

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