Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Why "color blind" isn't the best we can do when it comes to race

As a child, I never gave the color of my skin much thought. I grew up in a very sheltered community, and my parents sacrificed a lot to send my brothers and me to a wonderful private school. I thought of myself as half Indian (from India) and half Haitian and entirely American. I knew my father has a blend of French, German, Arawak, and Africa blood running through his veins while my mother's side is basically an unbroken bloodline from Persia, and I thought that everyone was mixed on some level, and that's about as far as my race-related introspection went.

I went to college in a very urban environment, though, and that's when I realized that while I didn't think of myself as one thing or another, other people were struggling to figure out to which group I "belonged." A campus cop told me that I "talked English real good" for an exchange student. A boyfriend's mother told her friends, while I was within earshot, that I was "such a nice girl, it's such a shame she's not white." An African-American friend laughed that I was "an Oreo." People routinely asked me where I was from, and when I replied, "New Jersey," they'd say, "No, really, but where were you born?"

Over at Child Caring, I'm asking how we raise multi-racial kids in a color-conscious society. Because, in spite of having a mixed-race president -- or, perhaps, because of it -- the issue of race is very much alive in modern America.

In 2000, for the first time the U.S. Census offered people the option of identifying themselves by more than one race. About 6.8 million people recorded themselves as being multiracial; more than half of those who consider themselves multiracial are younger than 20 years old, which seems to indicate a growing acceptance of interracial relationship and a rise in the number of biracial and multiracial kids.

And yet, when it comes to raising these children, some parents are still facing questions and, at times, criticism.

At Babble, Elizabeth G. Hines shares a friend's reaction to her donor-assisted pregnancy: Why, the friend wondered, would you choose to create a mixed race child? Why wouldn’t you just stick with one race or the other?

She writes:
"... she asked me what my ideal donor would look like. I answered honestly that I had no pre-set "ideal" in mind, but assumed that my partner and I would pick a donor that reflected the racial background of the one of us who was not biologically related to the child. At the time, I was in an interracial relationship — which meant, she quickly deduced, that I was talking about conceiving a bi-racial child. That, and that alone, was enough to make my fair-minded, thoughtful friend shed her liberal cool and call into question my credibility as a potential parent. Not my identity as a gay woman, mind you, which might have been an easy target. This was about race, and the perceived disadvantage I would be burdening a child with by choosing to create him or her from two different racial gene pools."
The idea that belonging to more than a single racial group could be a disadvantage or a burden is one that I've never understood. I'm multiracial. My kids are, too -- even my stepkids. My father is of mixed race. As are his parents. And their parents. And their parents. When it comes to mixed marriages, my family's been doing it for generations.

So, when it comes to defining my race on a form, I check "other" and, if that's not an option, I don't check anything at all. Maybe it's a matter of privilege, but I've never been adversely affected by being multi-racial.

That said, while the color of one's skin may be as insignificant as the color of one's hair, it's still a detail that gets noticed, no matter how old you are. Jenn at Juggling Life saw this first hand when her first-grade class was working on self portraits and most of the children, even ones with dark skin, chose peachy-pale paper cutouts to decorate. With a second self-portrait project, she distributed paper cutouts herself, and "You should have heard the outcry! Students were outraged at not having the peach color." Does this illustrate an issue with race, or one with the ideals of beauty or acceptability? Is it even possible to separate the two?

I think that how we choose to define ourselves has as much to do with politics as it does with genetics, and I don't consider one part of my genetic makeup more significant than any other part -- together, they make me who I am. And while my kids may color cafe-au-lait faces on their self-portraits, they're paying attention skin color, not race. To them, right now, it's a detail to be noted, but it doesn't actually mean much of anything. Which, I think, may be better than being color blind.

Do you talk to your kids about race?

No comments: