Multiracial families redefine concepts of race, family and identity
Written by Lisette Austin
It was when Brendan started going to middle school that the questions
began. "Who is that white woman picking you up? How can that really be
After a while, Brendan, who is Thai and Vietnamese and adopted at birth by two Caucasian parents, stopped wanting to explain. He started avoiding having his parents drive him to school and stopped inviting friends to his house. He finally came home one day and announced to his mom that he didn't want her to be white anymore.
"I felt like I was out of place, especially with my friends of color," says Brendan, now a freshman in high school. "Like I didn't fit in."
More children than ever face the same potential challenges. While America has had a long history of racial diversity, a growing number of families are creating their own racially diverse landscape. Transracial adoption is increasingly common, with roughly 20,000 transracial adoptions in the U.S. each year. Interracial marriages are on the rise and as a result, so are the numbers of multiracial children. In cities on the West Coast, including Seattle, as many as one in six babies born is mixed race.
Although they are clearly changing the racial face of America, multiracial families often realize that being on the frontlines of change in a color-conscious society can still have its challenges.
In the following sections, local families share their personal experiences with living life between races.
The Gurtiza Family, Edmonds
When Richard and Susan Gurtiza decided to get married, they met almost no opposition from their respective families. There were some adjustments, however -- mostly for Susan. "I grew up in mainstream society, so I was used to her culture," says Richard, who is Filipino-American. "But she had to learn about Filipino customs and cultural practices."
Susan, who is Caucasian, remembers how learning culturally appropriate ways to address members of her husband's large family made things easier for her. "I was meeting tons of people," she recalls. "The respectful titles were sometimes easier to remember than all the names."
Only Susan's mother was hesitant about their marriage, worrying that being mixed race would be hard on their children. But Richard and Susan weren't concerned and soon had two daughters, Kelsey, now 15, and Karisa, 12.
So far, their experience has been a good one. They chalk it up, in part, to the climate around them. "We feel lucky to live in a diverse area like Seattle," Susan says. She recalled traveling to a rural Midwestern town and having a woman exclaim "what a lovely adopted daughter!" when she saw Susan with Kelsey. "It never occurred to her that she was my biological child," she says.
Kelsey and Karisa, who identify as Filipino and white, both feel accepted for who they are. Although Kelsey sometimes gets attention from the Filipino community for being tall and both of them sometimes field "what are you" and "why does your mom look so different" questions, they say they don't mind people's curiosity and enjoy being mixed race. "I think it's great because you get to try new things," Karisa says.
Richard and Susan feel their daughters have benefited from being very exposed to both Filipino and white communities. "Part of it is the parents' willingness to immerse their children so they feel comfortable with who they are," Richard says. He also taught his daughters to not worry about what other people think and to speak up for themselves. "Instill in your kids a good sense of self," he says. "That's what's really important."
The Beauchamp Family, Seattle
For Sherry and Bruce Beauchamp of Seattle, race was not foremost on their minds when they domestically adopted their two children, Jenny, now 20 and of Scandinavian-German descent, and Brendan, age 15. They encountered few issues when the children were small. "Sometimes people were surprised when they saw Brendan with us," she explains, "but there was very little negativity."
She never thought to discuss with her son that people might react negatively to him because he didn't look like his family. "I had an idyllic view," she admits.
That bubble was popped when Brendan started having trouble at his predominantly white school. His parents could see that he was being treated differently, not only by his friends, but also by teachers who seemed to single him out for punishment more than white students. At one point, Sherry was told by a counselor that the reason Brendan was having trouble focusing in school was because "Asians learn differently."
"When I first came up against these problems, I thought it was an anomaly," she says. "But as Brendan gets older and I talk to his friends, I realize it's not an anomaly. There is prejudice out there."
The Beauchamps took action. Brendan began seeing a therapist who was also transracially adopted and understood the issues. He started spending more time with his biological family, whom the Beauchamps had been in contact with since Brendan's birth. He attended summer programs with ethnically diverse students and teachers, and is now attending a different school. Sherry joined a multiracial community group to get support and education.
"It sounds trite to say it takes a village to raise a child, but kids need a lot of support," she says. "The more people you bring into your child's life who understand them, the better off they'll be."
The Pineiro-Hall Family, Bothell
Esther Pineiro-Hall knew from experience how the outside world could focus on racial differences instead of family cohesiveness. Esther, who is Puerto-Rican, and her husband Keith, who is African-American, had encountered some difficulties as an interracial couple living on the East Coast. Now raising their three biological daughters and one adopted son of Mexican/African-American descent in Washington state, they felt it was important to prepare them for other people's reactions.
As soon as their children were old enough to notice their parents looked different from them, they began talking about race. "Some people say they want to be colorblind and not discuss racial issues with their kids," Esther says. "It's a nice concept, but then their kids hit their teens and the issues hit them in the face."
This ended up being true for their daughter, Kiani, who didn't run into identity challenges until junior high and high school. "A lot of kids would assume that I would walk a certain way or dress a certain way because of the way I look," Kiani explains, now 22. "I dealt with a lot of ignorance from both the white and the black communities -- since I didn't really fit any stereotypes."
When in college, she found that many Hispanic students discounted her Puerto-Rican heritage because she looked black and didn't speak Spanish. "That's how it is with being mixed," she says. "People expect you to pick just one part of you when you can't."
The Pineiro-Halls tried to counteract the pressure to identify with only one race. "When I had to check only one box to identify my children's race at school, I would just write both of them in," Esther says. "How dare they tell me what my kids are?" The family also joined a church in Seattle that included other multiracial families.
"Developing real relationships with families, organizations and communities that reflect your children's backgrounds and cultures is so important," Esther says.
Their efforts have paid off. The Pineiro-Hall children, ranging from age 16 to 22, are mostly able to laugh at other people's ignorance and enjoy the complexities that come with being multiracial. "The concern (of others) was that our mixed kids would be mixed up," Keith says. "But I think we helped bring clarity to who they are."
A growing awareness
Mainstream society is just beginning to acknowledge that multiracial individuals and families even exist. "It wasn't until Census 2000 that Americans could check off multiple races to describe their heritage. Before then, mixed-race people were required to deny parts of themselves," says Matt Kelley, founder of the MAVIN Foundation, a Seattle-based non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about mixed race issues.
"Although multiracial families have always been a part of our society, it's only now when we are experiencing a multiracial baby boom that we're realizing this is a community with unique needs that should be addressed," he says.
MAVIN Foundation is one of many new organizations nationwide trying to address those needs. MAVIN has dramatically influenced the list of available resources by providing workshops, support groups and publications including the Multiracial Child Resource Book, a collection of chapters written by experts in the field. MAVIN also recently received a City of Seattle grant to assess the needs of multiracial people and families, and to collaborate with parents, schools and agencies to create a model of support.
Kelley encourages parents, in particular, to seek out resources and people that their children can relate to, and cautions them not to impose their own views of how their child should identify. "Parents themselves often don't understand the experience of being multiracial or transracially adopted in our monoracially-biased society," Kelley says.
Multiracial families are an inherently diverse population who will have different experiences based on their age, cultural viewpoints and geography. But whatever their experience, it is clear that they are shattering traditional concepts of race, identity and family. And for many of the young people in those families, this means learning lessons that will serve them well.
From his experiences, Brendan now has advice to give other multiracial or transracially adopted kids. "Really get to know who you are," he says. "Find out who your friends are and talk to them. And look at things on the positive side -- not what's against you, but what's pushing you forward."
contributes to local publications on a wide range of topics, including
the multiracial experience. Multiracial herself, she lives in Seattle
with her husband and son.
- MAVIN Foundation
Seattle-based national non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about mixed-race issues. www.mavinfoundation.org
- Multiracial Interracial eXperience (MIX)
Seattle social and support organization for multiracial people and families, interracial couples and transracial adoptees. www.mix-seattle.org
- Association of MultiEthnic Americans (AMEA)
Educates and advocates on behalf of multiethnic individuals and families. www.ameasite.org
- Adoptive Families
National magazine about and for adoptive families. www.adoptivefamilies.com
Multiracial Child Resource Book: Living Complex Identities
Maria P.P. Root, Matt Kelley, Eds. MAVIN Foundation, 2003
- What Are You?: Voices of Mixed-Race Young People
Pearl F. Gaskins, Ed. Henry Holt & Company, Inc. 1999
- Love's Revolution: Interracial Marriage
Maria P.P. Root. Temple University Press, 2001
- In Their Own Voices: Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Stories
Rhonda M. Roorda, Rita J. Simon, Eds. Columbia University Press, 2000
- Black is Brown is Tan
Arnold Adoff, Emily Arnold McCully. Harper Collins Children's Books, 1992
- Families are Different
Nina Pellegrini, Holiday House 1991
- Is Your Family Like Mine?
Lois Abramchik. Open Heart, Open Mind, 1996
- The White Swan Express: A Story about Adoption
Jean Davies Okimoto, Elaine M. Aoki, Meilo So. Clarion Books, 2002
- You be Me, I'll be YouPili Mandelbaum. Kane/Miller Book Publishers, 1990.
Suggestions for Parents of Multiracial Families
- Expose your child. Expose them to their racial/cultural heritages in ways that move beyond reading books. Live in an ethnically diverse area, attend cultural events, join organizations. Be willing to be out of your comfort zone.
- Don't make assumptions about identity. Don't assume your child's heritage won't be an issue. Talk to your child about his/her identity. Be prepared to support whatever racial identity your child chooses, and not take their choice personally.
- Find similar families.
Let your child know that there are other multiracial and transracially
adopted children out there. Multiracial community groups can also
provide resources and support for
- Educate yourself.
Many parents do not have first-hand experience of what it is like being
multiracial, or of a different race. Explore resources that speak to
multiracial and transracial adoption
- Provide resources. Provide your child with developmentally appropriate books that include multiracial families and children
of various racial backgrounds. MAVIN magazine is a great resource for teens and young adults.
- Educate others. Unkind statements or unwanted questions can be an opportunity for education. However, you don't "owe" a response to intrusive questions. Advocate for your child at school. Join efforts with organizations that are seeking to raise awareness in the community.
- Keep a healthy perspective. Find a balance. Although it is important to explore and discuss these issues, remember that the main goal is to raise a healthy, happy child who knows race doesn't have to be the defining factor of their life.