It’s like we’re twins. Okay, not really. She has her stuff way more together than I do. So without further ado Dun Dun Dun Dunnnnnn!! Today, I’ve got a really awesome guest post from another single white mom with a biracial daughter. It’s got some really rad articles linked. I hope that you read the articles too, because they express a growing movement toward truly accepting all of yourself, no matter what your skin color suggests. This is a good reminder for everyone, but particularly for biracial kids. — Martha
Kenna Barrett is a freelance writer, doctoral student, and fundraising consultant. She lives in New Haven, CT with her 3-year-old daughter. If you want to read more of her work, check out kennabarrett.blogspot.com. (If you want to raise money, check out www.kennabarrett.com.)
I’m stereotypical. I own both Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father and multicultural onesies, your standard white mom to a child of color. Lately, I’ve been captivated by a study — published in the Journal of Social Studies in 2009 — that found that multicultural children who identify with all strands of their heritages have higher levels of well-being than multicultural kids who primarily identify with one heritage or another.
What the study found was suggestive: high school students with mixed heritage who labeled themselves as multiracial reported lower stress than students who also came from multi-ethnic backgrounds but who allied themselves with only one of their heritages. On measures of “positive affect” and “school citizenship,” that first group scored higher than the kids identifying with what were statistically considered to be “lower status” ethnicities; on measures of alienation, they reported lower levels than kids identifying with higher-status ethnicities.
In other words, those kids who not only knew their parents were, say, Chinese and Ethiopian, but also identified with those multiple backgrounds seemed to do better. “This pattern of results suggests that identification with multiple groups or a ‘multiracial’ category is associated with positive outcomes for multiracial individuals’ psychological well being and social engagement,” the study authors conclude.
Barack Obama, as we know, does not hesitate to share that his mother is white, his father black. But in his memoir, as I was surprised to find, Obama consistently identifies himself as black not multiracial. His book consists, he tells us, in “a boy’s search for his father, and through that search a workable meaning for his life as a black American.”
Joyce was different. This college friend of Obama’s, memorialized in Dreams from My Father, has African, French, and Native American heritage. Joyce tells Barack that she’s multiracial and that she’s skipping the black students’ meeting that afternoon.
When the young Obama presses her about her decision, she explains that she doesn’t want to choose between her black and white identities, and that she felt pressed to do. Obama is bothered by Joyce’s view, seeing it as complacent, as a refusal to acknowledge the realities of racism. In Obama’s estimation, Joyce is not simply refusing to choose, she is actively identifying whiteness over blackness. “Why should we get lumped in with the losers if we don’t have to?” he imagines Joyce asking.
Identity is the most personal thing there is. And I don’t know what it’s like to span multiple ethnic identities. But I can imagine that Obama-Joyce dynamic unfurls a million times over, and I wonder how I might guide my daughter.
My 3-year-old has variously identified herself as “black,” “brown,” and “caramel.” If the multi-cultural study bears out, neither identifying with the high-status nor the low-status group was as good as identifying with both. Was Joyce, then, on to something?
I wish I’d known the real Joyce. The woman, whose name was changed in the book, was indeed ahead of her era, suggests a New York Times article. One in seven marriages nowadays is between people of different races or ethnicities. And more people from diverse cultural backgrounds specifically self-identify with more than one heritage.
I can certainly imagine that considering oneself of mixed heritage (no matter the wording) represents a “coming out” to all parties, a way of inviting multiple audiences to recognize the full kaleidoscope of one’s identity. “I’m not going to hide that part of me you’re less comfortable with,” it might be saying to any given audience. “Take me for all that I am.”
The courage of our multi-ethnic daughters and sons should inspire us all. Each one of us downplays parts of our identity that are less favored in any given context (Kenji Yoshino’s transfixing book Covering helped me realize this). Did I really dare flaunt my pregnancy, especially at work? My divorce? New status as an unmarried mom? Gender? Politics? And so on.
Maybe downplaying is not the only way to be. With the multiple identities all of us shoulder, perhaps reveling in all our “selves” is the real way forward.