White Dad Wonders How to Raise His Biracial Kids
Race Manners: African-American culture will always be there for them. His job is to teach a healthy outlook.
“My wife and I have been married one month (to the day) and been together for about four years before that, so naturally the subject of kids has come up. She is mostly black, and one-quarter Cherokee, while I’m as white as Wonderbread, with mostly Scottish and German ancestry.
We’re excited to introduce our future kids to things we love about my heritage, like the Scottish games and Oktoberfests (my wife has a fondness for bagpipes that confounds me), as well as the various science fiction and fantasy TV shows, books and games for which a mutual love was the introduction of our relationship.
But the part of me that nags at the back of my mind can’t shake the idea that it’s an unbalanced cultural education that ignores a fair portion of our kids’ ethnic history. And then the other half of my brain kicks and starts worrying I’m being racist for thinking I need to ‘raise my kids more black’—as opposed to just sharing the activities and culture my wife and I enjoy.
I’ve brought this up with my wife, who tells me I need to relax. I guess I’m just hoping for a matching second opinion.” —Worried by Whiteness
In fretting that you won’t be able to deliver a sufficient black “cultural education” to your future kids, I think you’re stressing yourself out by thinking too narrowly about what counts as African-American culture and who gets to access it.
So, exhale as you read this: Despite what Saturday Night Live tropes, McDonald’s Black History Month commercials and Tyler Perry films might have you believe, there’s not actually an agreed-upon, inflexible, checklist of “black” ways to behave, places to go, foods to eat or music to listen to.
Maybe you sort of know this already. After all, you say half of your brain is bothered by the very idea of going out of your way for more “black culture.” Perhaps that’s because in some way you sense that much of the information you have about what that means reflects an oversimplified and outdated caricature of real people.
That’s not to say there aren’t certain unique cultural touchstones that are totally homegrown by African Americans. There are. There’s the music and dance that everyone wants a piece of, leading to ongoing debates about appropriation. There’s the black church experience that can’t be re-created. There are the culinary traditions that came straight from slaves’ ingenuity and miraculously survived to become sentimental parts of many people’s upbringings. Which is why this happened on Twitter when I publicly confessed to a cultural blind spot — seeing sweet potato and pumpkin pie as pretty much interchangeable:
Today’s black culture has room for a president who was raised by his white mom in Hawaii, for the children of immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, for families who live a multicultural life in California or an Afrocentric one in Philly. It makes space for members who are Jewish, who are vegans, who are atheists, those who think blackness is defined by achievement and respectability and those who think it’s honored by pushing for broad social justice.
And guess what? I’m confident that some part of that culture will be accessible to your kids—who will welcome them, even—when and if they want it. Even if you do nothing at all to push them in that direction. That’s what one white father of adopted black children experienced when he realized they were “asserting their blackness in a black environment” for the first time and said he felt “a bit proud of their budding racial independence.” There’s a good chance your children—like these children, and like many Americans of all colors—will feel the draw of what Rebecca Walker called Black Cool in all its manifestations.
That’s why I’m not that worried that if you fail to balance your Oktoberfest celebrations with their black cultural equivalent, your children will be permanently deprived.
But here’s what I am worried about and where I think you shouldn’t relax at all.
First, even if you never get out the Kwanza candles, and even if you regularly shun soul food for German cuisine, make sure you don’t leave a void in your kids’ upbringing when it comes to how to make sense of being black. If you do, the world will be quick to fill it in for you. And, unless things change dramatically between now and when they’re conceived, it will say loud and clear that their race makes them unattractive, not smart, not worth protecting and inherently threatening. In other words, that it makes them problems.
You don’t want them to end up like the biracial girl who felt she had no choice but to change her name from Keisha, or the many adults who welcome the assurance that they’re “not like other black people” or go out of their way to be condescending to prove their difference.
How do you do this, as a “white as Wonderbread” dad? If music, food, religion, literature and traditions aren’t in your cultural wheelhouse or your wife’s, forget them. Here are the tools you must give your kids, though: media literacy and critical thinking to help them filter the messages they receive. Confidence that will make them brave enough to explore new atmospheres. Curiosity about how history informs the world we live in today. Cynicism to question everything from statistics to stereotypes. Whether or not you’re talking specifically about their African-American heritage, these should be everyday, ongoing lessons.
Second, when it comes to the activities that you and your wife love and plan to share with them, don’t make them feel unnecessarily like outsiders or interlopers because of their race.
Will they be among the few brownish faces at Oktoberfest celebrations? Probably, and that’s OK.
But when but when it comes to science fiction and fantasy, there’s no reason they should feel like they’re betraying or negating or ignoring their blackness by being interested. To get this across, maybe you need to rethink some of your own assumptions about what interests and activities are inherently nonblack.
There are people who are into all this stuff who look like your future kids, just like there are people who look like them in the formerly lily-white fields of tennis, golf, gymnastics and ballet. Check out the Black Science Fiction Society, Black Girl Nerds and Africomics, just for a start. Tapping into resources like these will be one good way to ensure that they don’t feel unnecessarily isolated in these worlds or conflicted about enjoying them.
It’s possible that this—an expanded, modern, flexible and evolving view of what constitutes black culture—might take some work and some reprogramming of your own thinking.
Luckily, the kids aren’t even here yet. So you have plenty of time.
The Root’s staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.