The Full Version…
A modified version of this article appeared a while ago in the Wall Street Journal‘s Expat Blog, but I had to cut some important quotes and content, including some advice from interviewees that felt really helpful as a parent in a majority-majority couple raising a mixed child. So here’s the full piece as I originally wrote it:
Perhaps your child, like mine and many others in globally blended families, belongs to the world’s growing mixed 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.
The “experiences and attitudes” of mixed adults “differ significantly,” finds the Pew Research Center, particularly given race and community context. But one key difference between many children of multinational families and other mixed people has remained largely unmentioned in English-language media and research.
My daughter may be mixed, but she has two biological parents without much clue what it feels like to be a minority as a kid. I’m American, raised with all the cultural privileges afforded to whites in the US, her father is native Japanese, and we live in Greater Tokyo. She is only two, but as she grows she will likely experience joys and struggles shared among many multinational children yet absent from recent conversations about mixed-race kids.
“OUR CHILDREN FACE BULLYING AND EXCLUSION A LOT MORE THAN WE DID.”
Shweta Kulkarni Van Biesen, an Indian expat raising a family in Belgium with her native Belgian husband, expects her kids’ experiences to be “very different…Our children face bullying and exclusion lot more than we did.”
A growing body of English-language research does exist about minority kids with parents bred of majority privilege, although focused largely on transracial adoption of monoracial children and single-parent multiracial families. While these studies may offer important insights for families like Van Biesen’s, their relevance remains limited.
Sharon H Chang, author of the book Raising Mixed Race and the blog Multiracial Asian Families, says the experiences of monoracial minorities and mixed-race people are like “apples and oranges.” “Monoracial people,” she stresses, “have not lived the experience of mixedness, no matter their minority or majority status, and therefore cannot claim to know it.”
Like many mixed-race kids—regardless of how their parents identify—Samuel Ahovi, raised in France by his white mother and Togolese father, says the hardest part was not fitting easily within the ethnic identity of either parent. But their childhood majority-privilege also mattered. “The role of parents,” he says, is to protect “their kids from everyday life obstacles, thanks to their [own] experiences. But being a minority…is something they never had to face as children.”
Chang found similar challenges within Asian-American families. Parents who grew up in Asia, like their white American counterparts, “often lacked a well of critical knowledge to navigate the…difficult webs of U.S. race and racism.” Alternately, parents who were minorities as children “were more likely to have… a critical analysis and tools for resilience” to pass along.
As Ahovi says, his parents “were giving us the best advice they could,” but “discovering it as they were giving it to us.”
“IT AFFECTED US WHETHER THEY WANTED IT TO OR NOT.”
Globe-trotting parents in multinational couples who grow up with majority privilege and then create mixed families may project a particularly problematic blend of tendencies, combining an openness to cultural differences on one hand with a blindness to the way race can play out both within families and throughout a broader community.
Hilary Duff, whose mother grew up in China and white father in Canada, cautions against ignoring ethnicity. “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. [But] we didn’t look like any other kids, and this affected us whether they wanted it or not.”
IT’S A VERY MIXED BAG.
As with mixed-race people in general, experiences vary widely for children of globally blended couples—particularly given the wide range of races, cultures, and resources among the approximately 232 million people living outside their country of origin, as noted previously in the Wall Street Journal. Mixed-American Nilina Mason-Campbel says, “having a parent of color is…an important resource,” but in cultures like her father’s native Jamaica, black people, although technically majorities, are “secondary in their own country to white people…or those that are light-skinned.”
Others stress not just negatives, but also benefits of growing up multinational, mixed-race, and first-generation minority—another angle parents used to majority privilege might miss. (As I did: When I began this piece, I wondered only about the challenges facing my daughter. I soon realized one of the greatest might involve this slanted preconception.)
British blogger Philip Shigeo Brown recalls, “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…’Shoes on or off?’ someone might ask. ‘Definitely off!’ everyone always agreed!”
American Eliaichi Sadikiel Kimaro, director of the award-winning documentary on mixed identity A lot Like You, says “race just wasn’t a factor” for her mother growing up in Seoul or her father on Mt Kilimanjaro. Her parents “had blind-spots when it came to race” she explains, “that both helped and hindered my own understanding…of racism’s impact on my life.”
Brown and others see a positive future for mixed children of multinational couples who grew up with majority privilege. “The world is getting smaller and more connected, facilitated hugely by the Internet and social networking,” he says, combatting isolation and forging “communities to talk to, share and learn from.” In a sentiment echoed by Brown and others, Duff urges globally blended parents to “embrace the duality of their child, and…teach them about their background[s]. Even if kids don’t entirely understand,” Duff urges, “they’ll appreciate it later.”
Still, others caution against expecting a one-sized-fits-all answer. Of his experience being an Asian-American child of white parents through adoption, author Matthew Salesses says people often look for universal “steps [to] follow to make everything turn out okay. There aren’t.”
The same may be true for mixed-race kids of many multinational couples. But surely beginning a conversation is a good place to start.