Becoming White: Raising Biracial Children, Part 2
What parenting biracial children taught one mother about her white identity.
Posted Jul 10, 2018
Jennifer described herself as being “ignorant” of her identity as a white person – that being white is a category that came with privilege — until she had her first child. Unlike many of the mothers I interviewed for this series, Jennifer was unique in that she only become aware of herself as a white person after becoming a mother to her biracial children. This awareness opened her eyes to a new world in which social forces, to which she had previously been blind, would have outsized impacts on her kids.
And she’s right. Jennifer recently read a study which took a look at upward mobility among individuals of different racial backgrounds. This study found that African American men born in families that were solidly middle to upper middle class were much more susceptible to downward mobility than their white counterparts, despite growing up in the same neighborhood. She was caught off guard.
“I think this whole journey that’s been one of my biggest…” Jennifer begins to cry. “I knew I was going to get emotional - just how unaware I was. It makes me feel very guilty.”
I asked her why her emotional response to this emerging awareness was guilt.
“I feel guilty that I unwittingly clung go the norm,” She responded, her voice wavering. “The norm being unconscious bias and institutionalized racism that surrounds us every single day — especially thinking about how that’s going to be my kids' normal and I could be largely unaffected by this.”
While this structurally reinforced intergenerational disparity is a reality that many African American are in constant dialogue with, for many people of white, these facts are completely out of their consciousness. For them, there is nothing to know, nothing to see.
This is a fact that haunts Jennifer now that she is the mother of two biracial children deeply impacted by these statistics.
“Understanding the institutional racism in schools has been very shocking for me,” Jennifer tells me. “And the data showing black children are disproportionately punished for behavior that is consistent to the behavior demonstrated across the entire class.”
This research, which supports observations that many families of color have been privy to for generations, has led Jennifer to start thinking about what it means to parent her children in ways that her parents never had to consider. Jennifer leans heavily on her African American mother-in-law to learn about the ways she spoke with her son, Jennifer’s husband, about race in America. Jennifer is, for the first time, thinking about the concept of racial relations in terms of survival for people of color.
“She told her son never to hang out in the mall. I never had to think about that.” Jennifer says, her voice breaking. “It makes me sad that it has to be taught in the first place and it’s frustrating that I don’t know how to teach it. It folds into the mom guilt of wanting to provide the best that I can for my kids. And because my kids are people of color, they’re going to have to fight harder. I need to learn to help them fight that fight. And I don’t know how to. Yet.”
White mothers of biracial children, those who are aware of the fact that race plays a pivotal role in the trajectory of their children’s lives, are often at a loss about how best to address issues of race. This is especially true for moms who grew up in majority white towns without even noticing the lack of ethnic representation.
For mother’s like Jennifer, helping their children develop a strong sense of self and ensuring future success becomes a priority. According to the study above, there are two primary factors that improve success rates for African American boys. The first is being raised in neighborhoods with low levels of racial bias among white individuals, combined with high rates of African American fathers as a presence.
Jennifer takes these findings extremely seriously. Unlike many mothers, she is putting her proverbial money where her mouth is. She and her husband are in the process of moving to a neighborhood that is much more ethnically and socially diverse. Jennifer also takes her commitment to marriage that much more seriously because she deeply understands the importance of having black male role models in the home, as well as in the community.
“I read a study that showed the financial trajectory of black boys compared to white boys and it was shocking to me how discrepant it was.” Jennifer tells me with conviction. “In that study, actually this was my clincher, diversity has to be the number one thing we consider when we move, and we’re staying married come hell or high water.”
She is also exploring what it means to be “white as other.” So very often, people of white consider themselves the “norm” and look at non-white people as the deviation. Jennifer is working hard, consciously, to shake that perspective.
When asked how she thinks about herself as a white person, Jennifer was thoughtful. It is clear that she is doing the work.
"I have an awareness of being white now, which I didn’t really before and everything that comes with that. I try to explain to my husband and it’s so hard to explain. I didn’t really understand white privilege until recently. I didn’t get it before. I think a lot of people don’t get it. We have an advantage in life, professional mobility and social mobility that doesn’t have anything to do with wealth. I used to think it had to do with wealth alone and that’s not it at all.”
For mothers like Jennifer, becoming a parent to children of color can open them up to an alternate universe, a parallel world that they have been operating in and impacting, but with a complete lack of consciousness about their role.
According to social scientist Chris Knaus, who has spent the entirety of his career studying this issue, the number one thing white parents of biracial children can do to increase their success is to move to diverse neighborhoods where the children can see themselves mirrored in a diverse range of ethnicities, skin tones, cultures, and professions. Many white parents of biracial kids are unwilling to take this leap — uprooting themselves and their families, going to a place that may initially feel uncomfortable, become part of a community that challenges their status quo — it all feels too hard to justify.
But Jennifer is not most parents. “Awareness is a huge factor and being proactive in having the necessary conversations,” she says of her parenting priorities. “Setting the necessary foundation and learning to take advantage as much as possible of people’s who’ve had this path already and reaching out to people and creating and using a network of people who can help me.”