Race is supposedly something objective, even biological, that we're ascribed at birth and marks us through our whole lives, assigning us to a group that separates us from others. But for many people race is ambiguous, complex, and uncertain. I've never understood my race or that of my children. And for the newest babies in my extended family, it's not clear at all what their race is supposed to be.
When my niece had a baby, a beautiful boy, everyone oohed and aahed when they saw the cute little guy. One of his cousins glowed, "Oh he's so cute!" But suddenly a puzzled expression came over him and he looked at the baby's father, then at the mother, and back at the baby and blurted out: "Wait.....they had a white baby?"
When I heard this I thought, "Oh, it’s started already." People see colors and label according to what they see. The little cousin saw white and labeled the baby white. But mom is Japanese, Irish, and Scottish. Dad is African American, American Indian, and Irish. The baby therefore inherits all of these. But he is already being labeled by a single category, a race. And people aren't sure, is he white or is he black?
He is already being looked at in relation to his family. The little cousin was intrigued because to him, mom is probably white and dad black, so put black and white together and what do you get? A white baby?
If all that was involved was the child’s innocent fascination, there would be no problem. But it doesn’t stop there. Soon people will classify him by his skin color and hair texture. Social judgment will kick in. People will make different assumptions about who the child is if they see him as black than they would if they see him as white. They will treat him differently, including or excluding, rewarding, privileging, shunning, denigrating, or punishing. The child will absorb all of this and the way he sees himself, his identity, will be heavily influenced.
One day the white saviors may come running to help protect him from the black man beside him (his father) who they think is his kidnapper. They might assume the darker skinned older women with him (his grandmothers) are his nannies. If he is with a darker skinned kid (his brother), will they be asked if one of them is adopted?
The little boy’s reaction is natural. His perceptions and thoughts are simple. But as we grow older we hopefully learn that families are complex. Genetics are complicated. Families are also made up of people coming together in many different ways, including remarriages, adoptions, donor sperm and eggs.
As adults we show our ignorance in simplistic judgments about families and their members. Some of these judgments are disturbing, some are hurtful, some are dangerous. I hope that in this baby’s future he encounters people who are quickly self reflective, who recognize their own limited judgments and worldviews and stifle their ignorant comments. May he not be bound by irrational and oppressive social conventions and restrictions that tell him who he is and who he isn't, and that he feels the freedom and agency to be authentic, to self-define and tell others who he is. I trust that he will understand and accept himself as a child of multiple heritages that all come together in him as a mysterious, beautiful and unique creation.
Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu teaches psychology at Stanford University and Fielding Graduate University and is the author of When Half is Whole, Multicultural Encounters, and co-author with Richard Katz of Synergy, Healing and Empowerment.
© 2014 Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint