My bi-racial son’s racial identity
This post is being re-posted as part of a week-long series highlighting supporters of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), both in their parenting of race-conscious children and their activist work for racial justice. SURJ is a national network of groups and individuals organizing White people for racial justice. For more resources and information check out SURJ’s website.
My husband and I started talking with our son about race when he was three. My husband is Vietnamese and I’m White (Irish and Russian). We’d read a chapter about race and kids in Nurture Shock and talked to parents who said that it was a good idea.
We also realized that our son didn’t know things that we took for granted he did know, but didn’t talk about. For example, my husband speaks Vietnamese with our kids, and our son understands the language, though he responds mostly in English. At his daycare, they learn a few words in other languages like Spanish and Japanese. One day, he insisted:
“Me and my poppa speak Spanish.” It seemed like he thought that any language that wasn’t English must be Spanish, because we’d never explicitly said: “We’re speaking Vietnamese.”
In starting to talk to him about race, we talked about how he is White and Asian, and that is really special. He wiggled in his chair in excitement, and kept repeating “I’m White and Asian” in a really proud way over the next few days. We felt pretty proud of ourselves, thinking that we’d given him an experience of seeing his culture in a positive light.
One day though, he came home to tell us that he talked to his friend and told her “I’m White and Asian and you’re not.” It was a little like ‘nanny, nanny, boo, boo.” (I think she is Latina).
This was a real face palm moment, where we felt we messed up. I was embarrassed, thinking about the impact on the other kids, as well as the African American day care providers witnessing that conversation and what they might have thought we were teaching our son.
Since that time, we’ve changed how we talk about our family’s race and other races a little. We say: “You and your sister are Asian and White.” (Somehow that feels like we’re giving Asian more weight). We tell him: “This is very special, but other people are different and special too, and that is a good thing. Wouldn’t it be boring if we were all the same?”
It feels like we try something out, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t quite work, and we try again, or try to correct something that is more complicated than it seemed at first. Every time we get another bite at the apple we try to do it a bit better. We’re really figuring this out as we go.
Julie Roberts-Phung is a long time community organizer turned consultant and coach, and a member of SURJ. Through her business, Empower Together, she coaches change-makers on a variety of topics, including leadership and career issues. Julie is mom to two children, a four-year-old and a one-year-old.