Raising biracial kids in 2013: The challenges and the opportunities for the African-American community

The black community may need to become more flexible in its definition of "blackness" as time goes on. Biracial and multiracial people may make up more and more of what could become a flexible, mutable African-American identity.

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Here is a true story from what I call my “Bizarre and Ridiculous Adventures With My Biracial Children.”

When my son was just a baby, we were living in Rome. (My husband is Italian.) As I sat nursing tiny J in the lush splendor of the botanical gardens, an older woman approached. She looked at me, looked down at my son and asked, “E’ tuo?” (Is he yours?) What did she think I was? Some kind of wet-nurse?  I snapped back, indignantly, “Certainly he’s mine!” Every parent of a biracial child has at least one whopper of a story—even as America’s population is fast becoming increasingly more multiracial.

According to Census data, the population of multiracial children in the United States has grown from approximately 500,000 in 1970 to more than 6.8 million in 2000. The number of people of all ages who identified themselves as both white and black has soared by 134 percent since 2000 to 1.8 million people.

Yet, despite these statistics, the controversy surrounding mixed race families is still alive and kicking. When an innocent ad for Cheerios raised ire among blacks and whites alike, it was a sign that we have a long way to go towards accepting what is a powerful trend. Many people decried the commercial, which featured a biracial daughter of a black male, white female couple, while others created media in reaction to the backlash to show their support for the growing number of interracial families.

The black community may also need to become more flexible in its definition of “blackness” as time goes on and biracial and multiracial people make up more and more of what could become a flexible, mutable African-American identity.

Multicultural families educate through patience

Sebastian A. Jones, co-author of the just-released children’s book I Am Mixed, is himself an exotic blend of English, Indian, Portuguese, Dutch, African, Irish and the blood lines of several more nationalities. Raised in England, he now resides in the United States. Growing up overseas, Jones was taught to answer nosy questions about his heritage, “quickly, with fists. I thought that was the way, but you can’t now; and that’s not what I teach my son,” he said.

“I teach him to remain positive,” Jones continued about his child, whose mother is Peruvian and Cuban.  “When people ask, we tell our child to say this, ‘I am a happy mix of Cuban, Peruvian, English, Indian and black.’ People can be ignorant, but you can remain positive, and see it as a chance to enlighten and educate, and for those who don’t want to, they will remain ignorant, so just keep it moving.”

Actress Garcelle Beauvais, also the co-author of I Am Mixed, is the mother of three sons, two of whom are biracial.  “I always try to come from a place of joy,” Beauvais told theGrio. “When I meet someone like that, I view it as a chance for me to enlighten them.  For instance, since my son Jaid is lighter then Jax, I often get asked if they are both mine.  I don’t take offense to it.  I use the question to open a conversation about how unique each mixed child is and how they can take both sides of the parents.”

Dr. Jeffrey Gardere, assistant professor of Behavioral Medicine at the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City, said that such comments should definitely be met with patience — especially if they come from within one’s extended family.  “For family members who make cutting comments, or even make stupid comments such as, ‘this child has good hair, or pretty skin,’ we should gently correct them with the proper terminology. But whatever we do, we should not make a big deal of the situation.”

As more African-American women are considering marrying outside their race than ever, and 25 percent of black men married interracially in 2010, issues relating to how their children will be treated and perceived are paramount.

What does raising a biracial child mean now?

“It certainly is much easier raising a biracial child today versus several years ago,” Dr. Gardere continued. “Back then the issue was that a biracial child, if he or she were part black, was still considered to be ‘black’ by identity. However, being biracial these days there is more of a struggle and a legitimacy to being considered ‘other.’ For the child, that means being a race that is a combination of the parents, but that does not fit any existing category other than the ‘other.’ The issue in their mind is how do they fit into a race called ‘other.’”

Suzanne, an African-American independent bookkeeper, whose daughter Olivia is biracial, agrees that times have changed. Yet to her, things are more comfortable for mixed race children than ever.

“I think it’s very different today than, say 40 years ago. Being biracial is less of an oddity,” she said. “It doesn’t feel as necessary to identify with one group or the other.  I remember, many moons ago, when biracial kids often complained about being ostracized by both white and black groups.  Olivia has always mixed comfortably with both, and I’ve seen many other biracial kids mix comfortably with both.  Maybe living in New York City has colored my opinion. There’s such diversity here. I think racially mixed children will become more the norm as America continues to grow.”

Ann Marie, a white attorney who lives in Manhattan with her black husband Vince and three sons, ages 16, 12 and 10, sees things a differently.

“It is still an issue raising a biracial child in America,” she told theGrio. “Things have only changed so much in this country.  A biracial child, especially one who is half African-American, is still black in America.  But they are also subjected to the further prejudices of being the child of a mixed race union. These prejudices are still alive and well and it takes a lot of work to protect children from the nuances of this prejudice.”

Jason, a white man married to a black woman with a biracial son, added that one of the most fearful aspects of raising a child of color is determining how can we can keep them safe, particularly young men of color who are also biracial.

“It’s an interesting moment to consider issues of raising a biracial son…” the Urbana, Ill. native told theGrio, referring to the many shooting deaths involving young, black teen men that have made national headlines.

Issues such as racial profiling, gun violence and Stand Your Ground raised in the aftermath of these cases have led Jason to state, “I believe raising a biracial child in America unfortunately remains an issue.”

I would certainly agree. Telling my lovely and peaceful son that he might be perceived as a threat by others, and having to recite for him the “if-a-cop-stops-you-make-sure-they-can-see-your-hands-at-all-times” black mother mantra, was one of the most painful lessons that I had to teach him.