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What Not to Say to a Multiracial Child and Their Family

"Establishing relationships with people of color is important, but so is how you do it."

Published on: September 05, 2018

Me and my sister, Gigi, at the Tulip Festival (we are 6 and 4 years old here, I think)
The author and her sister. Photo courtesy: Sophia Stephens

As a Japanese Greek American raised in a small Eastern Washington town, I learned early that I was not white. I didn’t need my parents to explain it to me — other people took care of that for them. 

The looks and questions my white Greek father, my Japanese mother, and my mixed race sister and I got whenever we went out together made clear that we were not part of the status quo, or that we were a “normal” family. On a regular basis, our differences were identified in ways that ranged from mildly uncomfortable to downright strange.

There were the people who didn’t believe my sister and I were our parents’ children: “I know what it is like to adopt: It’s like they are truly your own once you let them into your heart, but it is still different. But really, though — points at my younger sister — where did you get her from?” 

There were others who immediately honed in on our racial identity as a topic of conversation: “Your children are so exotic-looking!” “What are they?” “They turned out beautifully — what a great mix!” I learned how to keep a smile on my face, even when I felt like a mixed-breed puppy being evaluated by a leering potential owner. 

Still more openly sexualized my sister and I because of our ethnicity. Glances repeatedly at my father, then me, then my father: “Ah, you like ‘em young, don’t you? Is this your wife?” 

I was 12. 

All I’ve ever wanted is that people first see me and my family for who we are, not what we are.

No matter how politely people tried to present their queries and comments, the message was the same: Seeing a mixed-race family — and the proof of miscegenation in my sister and me — made them uncomfortable, and that discomfort was always crystal-clear, no matter how well-guised or well-intended.

As we were constantly identified as a glaring, fundamental difference by the people around us, we often felt uncomfortable and surveilled simply because of who we were as people. There were many times where I wanted to speak up, but didn’t feel safe to, or feared jeopardizing my family’s relationship or standing in the community by “pulling the race card.”

All I’ve ever wanted is that people first see me and my family for who we are, not what we are.

To white parents and families: Color consciousness does not mean ignoring racial difference, but rather to witness us without immediately categorizing or investigating our identities. While it is important to create connections with people who are unlike yourself, it’s also important that those relationships are created in a way that prioritizes the well-being of the other people involved. 

When you regularly affiliate with people who look and act like yourself, of course there is a natural curiosity about people who are visibly different. However, would you feel comfortable immediately disclosing your family history, ethnic identity or other racial demographics to a stranger in your very first conversation? For many families of color, this is a topic that we are expected to freely and comfortably share on a consistent basis with complete strangers. 

One quick way to check yourself on whether your question or comment is harmful: Ask yourself, “Am I actually asking about the person, or am I demanding that they identify themselves/their children to me?” 

Establishing relationships with people of color is important, but so is how you do it. If your first comment or topic of conversation is related to our ethnicity, you’re indicating that you are more interested in our differences than what we share in common with you. Identifying a difference that we are already aware of — and have as a part of our lived experience — only serves to further remind us of our otherness, not our potential for connection and friendship.

Get to know us for who we are, not what we are. 

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