Race and Identity: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

I’m mixed blood Native American and white, like my friend Leslie, who was adopted by a Japanese American father and a Caucasian mother who valued her racial make-up, and understood that she needed to see herself reflected in community throughout her growing-up years. Many of my close friends are mixed race like I am, and their children, like mine, grew up surrounded and influenced by people of color.

My group of women friends also include adoptive mothers who are white women with Asian children, like mine are. They also understand their children need to see themselves reflected in community, and to be with people of color on a frequent basis in settings where dark skin is the majority and Asian eyes are the norm, and to have plenty of opportunity to be in places where people of Caucasian ancestry are the minority.

Actions speak louder than words. We participate in our children's racial/ethnic community because we value diversity, and recognize how we live shapes our children’s identity and their relationships with people of color. We don’t have racial and ethnic community involvement just for our children’s sake; we take interest because we are a multiracial family.

“And just when I thought I had it all figured out,” my friend Terri said, “We adopted two more kids.” Terri had a son and daughter who were both teenagers adopted from Korea, and when she decided to add more children to her family she chose domestic adoption within the United States and became the mother of a sibling pair who are white.

It didn’t take long for my friend to figure out her new children had been raised in environments that did not respect people of color. She was faced with teaching them about her own racial values beginning immediately. But she also discovered that while her newly adopted kids were making good progress at home with their Asian siblings, they were fearful when away from home, afraid to venture with their family into the Asian community or to go anywhere that was not predominately white.

What my friend experienced is similar to what I often find when I’m invited to speak on the topic of race and transracial adoption. Usually I meet white adoptive parents, who have adopted children of color, and the family is living in a predominately white area of town, and they want to begin making changes to bring racial mixing into their lives. However, recently an adoptive mom and dad who are raising a family of all white children sat in on my session and wanted ideas on how they could begin to embrace a more racially diverse lifestyle.

When kids have been coached to feel safest within the confines of white culture, within Caucasian boundaries, they can be afraid of change, just like we adults sometimes are. What can we do to increase their comfort level and expand their mindset? Normalizing race and culture happens best when there is an inheritance of ideas and attitudes conveyed from family or the people we choose to become friends with, and invite into our home. Usually I tell those who ask for my advice to begin with baby steps. 

First become a tourist in your own town. View your surroundings with new eyes. If you suddenly realize that you live in an all-white area, begin to look for ways to step out of your comfort zone, and add one new thing you can do each week that will bring changes so that you and your family will have the likelihood of being around people of color. Children learn about life from watching their parents interact with people, it has a direct impact on how they view themselves, and where and how they find their identity and racial comfort zone level.

Kids also need to see people of color working as professionals on a regular basis, instead of only in service jobs. Yet make sure they understand that blue collar and white collar jobs deserve equal respect, and are not defined by a person’s race.

If someone makes racist statements in your presence disrupt the offensive joke. If your child is present and you stay silent you are teaching your child it’s okay to make fun of people of color. How we respond will shape our children’s values.

How do I know? My earliest memories encircle me; watching Grandma sew beads on Uncle Elmer’s deer skin leggings. Realizing that I’m white and American Indian and what that meant. By observing that I am treated differently depending on if I was with a group of all white, or with all Native people. Figuring out that it was important for me to know who I am, and not to let my skin color define me. Not to let it define the way other people perceive me when they don’t know my story. Yet I can only speak from my own experience.

If you are a white person understand that you receive white privileges that people of color do not have. Help other white people understand their privileges. While I never deliberately try to pass or cross over, having light skin means that white society automatically grants me white privilege, something denied to my darker skinned family members and friends who are never mistaken for white.

It takes years to begin to understand a racial group of people that we were not born into. Don't buy into racial stereotypes. Accept that others may stereotype you. Do your best to acknowledge your own prejudices and work towards loosing them.

If you live in an area without racial diversity and can’t consider moving, then travel and spend vacation time in ethnic locations. Teach children not to judge others. Help them learn to value difference. Let them see there are many ways of living and being and to appreciate a multiplicity of unique ethnic characteristics. If money does not permit you to travel, then travel from your armchair. Watch films with your children that will bring racial diversity into your lives. Subscribe to magazines that offer photographs and articles with an ethnic point of view. Eat ethnic foods regularly. Let your kitchen be filled with a variety of scents and flavors, and allow those flavors to influence the music you listen to.

Talk with your older children frequently about world current events and what’s happening outside your hometown. Give your children permission and the freedom to think about someday going away to college in the city of their choice, and let them know that it’s OK to outgrow the racial limitations currently imposed on them. Consider the idea that your child might some day date or marry or partner with a person of color.

ALL families benefit from racial diversity. Yet some people minimize the importance of race and therefore fail to reduce racism in their own communities or within their own family. 

Living racially diverse is as important as a good education, because it is an education, yet fusing a multiracial way of feeling and being does not happen with a few social outings; it’s a life process, a series of small steps gained over years. 

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