Becoming White: The Experience of Raising Biracial Children
How the racial identity of white mothers is shaped by parenting biracial kids.
Posted Feb 23, 2018
Over the past few months, I have been exploring parenthood through the lens of white mothers who are raising biracial children. As a therapist in San Francisco who specializes in working with individuals who straddle cultural, racial and economic worlds, it has been my pleasure to go back to the beginning, so to speak, and have conversations with the mothers of children who may one day sit across from me as they seek to understand how the patterns established in their youth are playing out today in their personal and professional lives.
I’ve been most surprised to learn about the ways in which becoming a parent to a child ‘of color’ has caused these mothers to re-conceptualize what it means to be “white.” While many of the women I interviewed have thought about their racial identity in passing, it wasn’t until they experienced race first hand through this unique lens of parenthood that they really began thinking about the nuances of race relations in America. For many of them, they became aware that they had been thinking of themselves almost as “neutral,” or the “default,” that is, lacking a racialized body—until they had children of their own.
With a thoughtfulness that inspired me, these mothers were willing to reflect openly on the ways they had unwittingly participated in racist systems. The act of having a biracial child shed light on aspects of their own identity that had previously been locked away.
For many of these mothers, the toddler stage of childrearing brought a painful awakening about what it meant to be a person "of color" in America. While many moms became aware of societal biases even when their children were infants, the introduction of toddlerhood meant they could no longer protect their children from the wider world. Like many of the parents I spoke with, Bridget* was all too familiar with this reality.
“There was a time when she was little,” she says, speaking of her biracial daughter, "and we were getting our car washed and this woman yells out, ‘Is she adopted?’ and this other man yelled at her, ‘I don’t think you should be asking that,’ kind of standing up for me. And I was just exhausted. You just don’t yell that at a child and parent that you don’t know. I’ll be out in the world, holding my four-year-old daughter and people come up and say, ‘What is she?’ and I’m like, ‘She’s a child.'”
The toddler themselves quickly gained an understanding that they were not “neutral,” that, in the societies they were being reared in, they were “other.” Almost as soon as they could speak, these children began making observations and asking questions that the mothers themselves never had to confront at that age.
We learned of Jessica Hetcher’s shock and confusion, when her four-year-old, biraicial son boldly announced, “‘Mom, I don’t like people with dark brown skin.” Like many white mothers, she had never imagined the ways her child would internalize racism at such a young age. She also never imagined the ways she would be forced to confront her own biases, the surprise she felt when it became clear that her husband and son received very different treatment out in the world than she herself had ever experienced.
According to sociologist Joanne Britton, “Whiteness is described as an empty category, socially and politically constructed as having no content and therefore unseen.” In an article she wrote, Britton explores the ways white parents of biracial children come face to face with the ways they’ve been active participants in racist systems by virtue of viewing whiteness as neutral (Britton, 2014). It isn’t until they have children of their own that they realize that this lens blinds them to power structures that will shape the course of their own lives, a structure that sends them down one road and their children down another.
As sociologist Alastair Bonnett of Newcastle University describes it, “It is argued that much of the power of whiteness lies in its ability to escape definition, while systematically defining the ‘other’ at the same time. (Bonnett 2000)”
Margaret Viejo wrestled with her own privilege when her daughter, Sam, turned three. Margaret became starkly aware that her own experience of growing up as a white person in a white community was very different than the experience that her biracial daughter was having, growing up in a similar environment.
“I began confronting, I don’t know if it’s denial, confronting my privilege because there’s a part of me that’s like, ‘My kids are so awesome. My kids are so great. They’re not going to have those kinds of challenges.’ It’s not a reality for me in my growing up narrative, so there’s a confronting happening. There’s sadness tied to that. F--k, I don’t know to what degree this is going to impact her and her experience. How do I help her be as solid in who she is and as prepared as possible in a way that I don’t know that I have the tools for?”
Margaret paused, thinking: “Now comes these larger questions around what is it for me as a white person to raise a person of color in a world that I can’t curate for her.”
Bridget, too, has become painfully aware of her own biases. Even though she has done a lot of work in marginalized communities and has faced her own share of discrimination as a lesbian from a small, Midwestern town, she struggles with her own shame about the ways she remains unconscious about her privilege.
“In all honesty, I have racist parts of myself,” Bridget tells me during the interview. "I’m not actively trying to hide something, but growing up in this country, that has to exist in me even if I don’t want it too. Being a parent of two multiracial kids, I have seen it in myself. I do and I don’t want too.”
But Bridget described the importance of being open about the ways her own racism comes through—honest with herself and when speaking about the experience of being a white mom to biracial children. She sees this honesty as a necessary act. “I think it has to be, I feel like it’s one of the only ways our country can change—if white people can be more transparent about their experience with race.”
Research shows that white parents of multiracial children are often, for the first time, thrust into the realities of racism, are subject to an experience from which they had previously been immune. Where they had once had the privilege of invisibility, white mothers who were raised in homogeneously white families may now face racism from both the white communities who had once embraced them and from "communities of color."
In one study that looked at white mothers of children of African descent, it was found that the black family members perceived the mother as “unable to empathize with their children and incapable of dealing effectively with the children’s experiences of racism.” (Twine 2000). Based on a series of studies dealing with perceptions towards white mothers of biracial children from white communities, Britton surmises that, “The socially valued position of ‘good mother’ is understood to be less available to women who are seen to have deviated from or transgressed dominant social norms (Britton 2014).”
So, while these moms are doing the rewarding and difficult work that is a normal part of parenting, they are also navigating a world of race and culture previously unknown to them, while also stepping into an entirely new understanding of their own identity, examining what it means to be a “white” person in America. All of this, while wrestling with external and internal biases and systems of oppression.
While it could be easy to read this article as an over-complication of issues that are no longer relevant in a post-Obama America or an article that is itself a racist exaggeration in a post-racial world that puts blame on one side or the other, I invite the reader to consider the real experiences of the mothers interviewed for this piece and the real experiences of the multiracial adults who step into my office.
These issues aren’t going away. An ever-growing population of biracial individuals means that binary categories of race and the lack of critical thinking that come with those binaries will no longer suffice. I am grateful to the mothers of biracial children who demonstrate the courage to eschew problematic oversimplifications like, “I don’t see color,” when raising their children. I applaud these mothers who are willing to dive in and explore their own racial identities, to educate themselves about the historical relationship between their race and that of their child’s and to challenge the systems that come out of that history and continue to impact American policy today.
Bonnett, A. (2000). White Identities: An historical and international introduction. London: Harlow/Pearson
Britton, J. (2014). Researching white mothers of mixed-race parentage: The significance of investigating whiteness. New York: Routledg
Twine, F.W. (2000). Bearing blackness in Britain: The meaning of racial difference for white birth mothers of African-descent children. London: Routledge