I recently learned that the Wall Street Journal‘s Expat Blog has ceased offering new content or publishing their existing content for free. I wrote a piece for them last year about raising mixed kids in global families, with the intention that it would remain accessible and free, so here it is in its entirety (with the title they gave it):
‘Blind Spots’ and Other Problems in Globally Blended Families
When the parents are in the majority and the kids are in the minority
By Tracy Slater
Perhaps your child, like mine and many others in globally blended families, belongs to the world’s growing mixed-ethnicity population. The World Factbook finds a countable percentage of mixed-ethnicity people in almost a quarter of its 236 countries and territories. Among western nations, England’s and the U.S.’s mixed-race populations are increasing faster than any other minority group.
Mixed-ethnic children often face very different experiences than their parents, a point stressed by many studies tracking this population’s growth. But within multinational families, there is a unique generation gap. My daughter may be mixed, but she has two biological parents without much clue about what it feels like to be a minority as a kid. I’m a Jewish American, raised with all the cultural privileges afforded to whites in the U.S., her father is native Japanese, and we live in Japan. She is only two, but as she grows she will likely experience the joys and struggles shared among many children in global families—yet absent from recent conversations about mixed-race kids.
There is a growing body of English-language research about minority kids with parents who grew up in the majority, although much of it focuses on transracial adoption of monoracial children. Sharon H. Chang, author of the book “Raising Mixed Race,” cautions against applying this research to families like mine. The experiences of monoracial minorities and mixed-race people, she explained by email, are like “apples and oranges. Monoracial people have not lived the experience of mixedness, no matter their minority or majority status.
Moreover, globe-trotting, multicultural couples who grew up in the majority and give birth to mixed-race children may show a particularly complex set of tendencies, combining an openness to cultural differences and an understanding of how it feels as an adult to stand apart from the norm, with a blindness to the way race can play out within families and the broader community, particularly for children. They are frequently aware of racism as a concept, but many still lack a deeper understanding of its felt truth during a child’s formative years.
American Eliaichi Sadikiel Kimaro, director of the award-winning documentary on mixed identity A lot Like You, said “race just wasn’t a factor” for her mother growing up in Seoul or her father in Tanzania before they moved to the U.S. as adults. “My parents infused me with the belief that I had to work harder, over-achieve and out-perform my white counterparts in order to be seen as equal,” she explained by email. But they also had “blind-spots when it came to race” that limited her own “understanding of the reality, the truth” of how racism would impact and shape her life.
Samuel Ahovi, raised in France by his white mother and Togolese father, said by email that the hardest part of growing up mixed was not fitting easily within the ethnic identity of either parent. But he admitted that the majority-minority generation gap also mattered. Both Ahovi and Hilary Duff, whose mother grew up in China and white father in Canada, said that parents in global families should be careful not to ignore ethnic differences. “My parents didn’t focus at all on my cultural identity. I suspect this was because they wanted my brother and I to think we would be treated like any other kid,” Ms. Duff said by email. But “we didn’t look like any other kids, and this affected us whether they wanted it or not.”
For Mr. Ahovi, the biggest regret involves his inability to speak Ewe, the Togolese language. “I think parents should work hard on transmitting their own culture to their children,” he said. “Maybe if I was able to speak Ewe, if I were at ease with Togolese culture, I could be assimilated as an African, and finally feel 100% part of something.” Ms. Duff urged globally blended parents to “embrace the duality of their child,” and teach them about their background. “Even if kids don’t entirely understand, they’ll appreciate it later.”
Not everyone agrees that the majority-minority generation gap matters in multinational families, although race plays an important factor here, too. According to mixed-race American Nilina Mason-Campbell, in her father’s native Jamaica, black people are both in the majority and “secondary in their own country” to white and light-skinned people. “I haven’t personally seen a connection between whether a parent was raised as a minority or not making a difference,” she said in an email.
Despite these differences, most stress the benefits growing up multinational, mixed-race, and first-generation minority. For British blogger Philip Shigeo Brown, even as a child, “it was always somehow especially nice to meet other half-English, half-Japanese kids that you could relate to on so many levels, often without anything being said,” he wrote in an email. For instance, someone might ask, “’Shoes on or off? ‘Definitely off!’ everyone always agreed!”
According to Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, a Stanford University psychologist and author of the book When Half is Whole, his mixed heritage—from his Japanese mother and Irish-American father—has provided lasting positive impact despite the “sense of isolation” he said in an email he experienced occasionally when young. As he wrote in an article for Psychology Today, “I tolerate inconsistency and dissonance rather than trying to resolve differences and needing to decide which way is right and which is wrong. I embrace complexity and ambiguity, balancing these diverse and even seemingly conflicting culturally learned perspectives.”
Overall, mixed-race children of multinational couples said they expected an even brighter future for kids from families like theirs. Many pointed to the internet as vital part of that. As Mr. Brown put it, “The world is getting smaller and more connected, facilitated hugely by social networking.” This helps kids combat isolation and forge “communities to talk to, share and learn from.”
Tracy Slater is an American writer living in Japan. She was recently interviewed about her book, The Good Shufu: Finding Love, Self & Home on the Far Side of the World.
Many thanks again to all who offered quotes and helped me write this piece!