We parents of mixed children spend a lot of time talking about how we hope to teach our children to value all of the cultures that make-up their identity. But the question of exactly how we accomplish this mission gets far less discussion. Usually I hear and read the same suggestions: making an active effort to teach children African American history, to develop good relationships with African American family members, to encourage kids to make friends with children who have two black parents, to join in activities with other similarly situated.
While I think all of these are good ideas, and all of them are a part of my own plan for Lil Bit, they leave out what to me is the larger question, and ultimately the most important one. It is simply this:
What does it mean to be a black American? Or stated another way, what will it mean to be a black American when our children are adults? And finally, one last formulation: what should it mean to be a black American when our little mixed ones are adults?
To some, these questions may seem to have obvious answers, but to me, defining black identity is the ultimate question. With a definition, we parents of bi-racial and multi-racial children can develop a real action plan for insuring that our kids have an appreciation of their black identity that is sincere, not surface.
It turns out, that in attempting to define black identity we often come face to face with our stereotypes, our limitations and our indoctrinations. If "blackness" is more than a genetic connection to an African phenotype, what are its indentity characteristics? Will it make our children more "black" if they:
Follow a certain religious tradition?
Speak a certain way?
Like certain foods?
Listen to certain music?
Move a certain way?
Of course not. These are all silly and superficial criteria—and yet it's amazing how many black Americans use them as markers for who is authentically black and who is not. Some of our kids will be challenged by black Americans because they don't seem "black enough" for those who define blackness according to speech patterns and music and such. This stuff to me isn't really a problem. It's uncomfortable sometimes, but it's also easy enough to imitate (and plenty of black folk "play" these roles in contexts where they seem required)—or ignore. One of the best responses I've heard to the comment that "black people don't _______" (fill in the blank with your favorite: like country/rock music, eat sushi, travel the world, play chess, whatever) was this:
"They do, because I'm doing it!"
If blackness is something different than adopting superficial behaviors and tastes, does a personal connection to our history make one a "real" African American?
While it's certainly true that a child who is part-black should have knowledge of the history and experiences of African Americans in this country, this is something that we should aspire to for all children. I'm sure we know plenty of children who have two black parents who don't know much black history. Similarly, I know people with two white parents who know plenty of it. That's because Black history is American history: it is as integrally a part of the fabric of this nation as the Pilgrims and Christopher Columbus, as the Native Americans and the waves of Chinese immigration in the late 19th century. Appreciation and understanding of the contributions of people of all different backgrounds to the unique melting pot of American history is everyone's responsibility—and it's critical. It's one of the things that helps to build tolerance. It teaches that struggle and aspiration—as well as cruelty and greed— are part of the human condition, regardless of race of country of origin.
So, if not even history gives a person a black identity, what does creates black identity?
I've been giving this a lot of thought, and I think I've reached an uncomfortable answer, but one that I really believe is the hard truth.
What really solidifies the understanding and appreciation of a blackness for our mixed kids is…
Whiteness—and being treated and perceived as non-white.
Being perceived as black—treated as a black American-- is ultimately what creates a sense of black identity. It's the thing that makes mixed kids seek to learn more about their African American heritage. It's the experience that causes mixed kids to attempt to fit in to one racial group or the other. It's what makes them choose to embrace one identity and erase another.
Kids learn to be black the first time they are treated as "not white." Whether that experience is overtly racist (like being called the n-word, or being excluded from activities on the basis of skin color) or more subtly (in the daily striving to resist negative stereotypes, or feeling invisible) mixed kids "know" blackness in every occasion where they are not perceived as white.
As their parents, this is difficult. It is difficult because we struggle to create environments for them where they are embraced for their combination identities. It is difficult because it goes against our hopes that our culture is slowly evolving past these distinctions. But mostly it is difficult because racism hurts. When these experiences come, they are painful. As parents, we want to protect our children from pain—and we can't. It reminds us of our relative impotence against a world that still not only sees color, but makes harsh judgments according to it.
When racism slaps our mixed kids in the face is when all of our history lessons, all of our field trips, all of our cultural education and family support comes to bear. That is the time when both the white parent and the black parent need to be fully engaged in teaching, explaining and listening—because these are the experiences that teach black identity and link our kids to the black experience more than music, dialect or any superficial test ever could.