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    July 03, 2013

    On biracial children and being a girl

    For all the existential handwringing I did over issues I might face raising biracial children, it never once occurred to me that effusive compliments from older Asian ladies would be a source of stress and confusion. But, there you go! Once again intense worry leaves me woefully unprepared. 

    For the record, as their mother, I think my children are freaking gorgeous. As a mother does. I would describe my son's eyes as the darkest brightest eyes I've ever seen, which makes no sense. My Molly has the sweetest face, so pure and darling, with absolutely no trace of her mother's giant schnozz. My baby has the best smile, huge and joyful, and her whole face scrunches up in this perfectly wrinkly way. And when Older Asian Ladies smile at me and tell me in their broken English that my kids are beautiful, it's hard not to say, "AREN'T THEY?!" 

    Those comments, however, are often (always?) attached to additional observations. All of them are beautiful, yes, but Molly is inevitably singled out as "more Chinese" or "more like Daddy" and Emma is singled out as "more white" or "looks like Mama". Jackson, they feel, is a good mix of the two. The ladies who push the carts at dim sum will stand there and marvel over my children to an uncomfortable degree, as they did this last weekend when we went out with my in-laws. It's all meant as friendly, kind, and complimentary, and I'm determined to take it as such. Whether or not one of my kids has "such big eyes!" says more about the commenter than my child. 

    Grocery store checkers, restaurant staff, distant aunties, grandmas at swim lessons, they've all made a point to coo over the kids' mixed race-ness. I have a standard response now when I go to Safeway - "yes, their dad is Chinese." I am happy to satisfy their curiosity and thank them for the compliments, even though I'm often thinking to myself: "We live in SEATTLE. How novel can white/Asian kids possibly BE?"

    All that to say that even though the compliments and/or curiosity can be uncomfortable, I'm not offended by these statements. I'm not really frustrated either, and I have absolutely no intention of coming up with a smart retort or pointed response that displays my disapproval. That would be rude, disrespecting my elders, and unkind. So that's not what I'm trying to figure out. 

    But for the first time this weekend, when other people labeled one daughter Chinese and one daughter white, in front of them, aloud, publically, I worried. 

    They may be saying those things in Mandarin and Chinese, they may nothing but complimentary, but one of the girls they're referring to is nearly five and she can hear them. She knows what they're talking about. God knows what she's learning, thinking, feeling, internalizing. If she's not doing it already she'll be doing it soon, and what will it mean to her to be "the Chinese one"? What will she understand about people observing that her sister has "big eyes"? 

    Right now all my kids understand about race is that some of their family members are Chinese and some are not. Being Chinese comes with different languages and different food. White and Chinese are neutral in their eyes, as far as they are anything at all. And it's not that I'm expecting one to become better than the other. I have no idea what values my kids are going to assign to their ethnicity or comments about their appearance. I'm not worried about Jack (which probably isn't right or fair.) I'm not worried about Emma because she doesn't yet understand. But I'm worried about my big girl, who already pays so much attention to the way she looks. Right now she thinks she's a pretty princess. What will she think later?

    This particular one is a racially charged discussion, but this goes for any label. The Smart One, the Pretty One, the Fat One, the Talented One, the Outgoing One. I definitely know how I see myself in comparison to my sisters and my friends. I know my daughters will do this too. All girls learn to stare at themselves in the mirror and criticize. But I don't want that to happen yet. I don't want Molly's picture of herself to be influenced by even well-meaning comments from family members she barely knows.

    But there's only one thing I can think of to do about it, to stem the tide of self-criticism that comes with being a girl. And that's somehow intentionally and positively addressing the issue. Maybe after one of the aunties inevitably compares the kids to each other and their parents at the big family gathering we're headed to in a few weeks, I can whisper to Molly, "You are my perfect beautiful girl and I love you." I don't know! What do I say?! "You are exactly the way God made you to be." "I think you're beautiful inside and out." 

    I don't know if this is paranoid or pointless or what, but if there's ANY way I can impact or influence how Molly sees herself before other people get to her, I want to do it. If there's any way I can shape her self-image before SHE does, I want to do it. It feels worth it, even if it also sounds... I don't know. Oversensitive. (That's my middle name.) 

    As I sit here, age almost 34, ashamed and fearful over the fact that I've gained 10 pounds since last summer, feeling like The Fat One all over again, I want better for my girls. As much as I know I can't really do anything about it, I want to TRY. I want to do SOMETHING. I honestly have no idea how those comments will affect my girls, negatively or positively, or what they will understand about themselves. But I know they will understand SOMETHING and I want to try my hardest to give them a good and true foundation for doing the understanding. That they are fearfully and wonderfully made, that they are beautiful, that they can be nothing more spectacular than what they are, that what's inside matters most. 

    I've tried to write this post for a few days now and I'm positive there are things I'm leaving out. This is stressful. I feel like this is a big idea and I want to get it right, or at least explain my perspective correctly. I think this is my best effort. I've talked about it with my Asian girlfriends, with my husband, with white friends. It's a thing that translates - wanting to protect your daughter. Let me know if you've figured out how to do it. 

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    I'm The Smart One and The Selfish One and The Klutzy One, and all of those affected how I see myself. But they also affected how my sister saw herself -- especially the smart label. And I'll never forget my aunt saying in front of us, "Hillary's pretty. Sister is just cute." I felt pleased, but also a little ashamed and guilty and sad for my sister. Sometimes adults seem to forget that children hear and understand.

    I don't know what the solution is. I chided my husband just the other day for calling Beastie the outgoing one -- and yet I called The Boy the cautious one the next day right to his face.

    But I do think that just the fact that you're thinking about it is a good start.

    I was always The Good One, and my sister was The Rebel. It really bothered my sister. I don't know.

    I think my sister thinks I was always The Smart One, but I never felt that was my label. She's really defensive about proving how smart she is to this day.

    Labels matter. But I have no idea what to do about it. Aargh.

    My mom and I don't look alike, particularly in skin color so when we would go out, they would ask if my dad was Caucasian. It was very common for looks and weight and skin color to be openly pointed out and discussed, good or bad, especially bad, oh and especially if it concerned weight. I see how my sister is raising her girls back home and I love how she praises them for having substance, not just good looks. I don't know what the solution is, but I love that you are even thinking of this.

    OHHH yes, I feel this uncertainty, too. Mostly about body size, and for my under-sized boy as well as my girl. While the kids were eating lunch last week, my Dad said, "we don't want any SKINNY kids!" and I nearly reached across the table to throttle him. I'm hopeful it didn't even register with my son, but it might have. He's 9, after all, and very aware of being the smallest kid in his class. VERY. Urgh. It's not an issue for the grandparental generation, though - they don't even think about that stuff.

    I don't know how you talk about things like this when kids are that little, though. Just like you suggest, I think: You're beautiful inside and out. Or my standard: God makes people in every shape and size.

    (Apologies in advance for the length. I probably should have just emailed you.)

    I am the biracial daughter of a white mother and hispanic father. My parents divorced when I was little and I was raised by my mother. I was ALWAYS aware that I didn't look like my mom, or the rest of my family, at first glance. My mom is blonde and has blue eyes. My half sister is blonde with green eyes. I was very aware of this all on my own, even without other people chiming in (which they did, of course.)

    I grew up in a town that was very difficult for me. It seemed like everyone was the same. Wealthy, thin, smart, blonde. And I.....wasn't. It was really hard for me in those tween/teenage years. I was well liked and all that, it's not like I was being picked on, but I KNEW.

    When I was pregnant with Hayley I was THRILLED to know I'd finally have a family member in my daily life that looked like me. And by that I meant was darker skinned like me. Then she was born and....she's not dark. She's quite pale, actually. My little Snow White- dark and light all at once. But! She's gorgeous to me. She's my daughter, and her brother is my son and I wouldn't change a single thing about either of them. Yes, they didn't get the skin color I'd always dreamed my children would have, but who cares? It took them to teach me to give the middle finger to anyone who thinks they have the right to judge me, or my children, on appearance. Or on personality traits. Or anything else.

    With my own mixed race children, I've tried to normalize the thought of people being "different". People are different shapes, colors, personalities with different voices, beliefs, and families. And that's awesome! That's what makes life so interesting! I actually go out of my way to point out differences. As a society we often are so focused on similarities (Find the two that are exactly alike!) that I think in some small ways it sends a poor message to kids. Apples and oranges: tell me all the ways they are different and why they're better for it! That may be extreme, but, eh. It can't hurt.

    When someone comments on how Damien may look so much like Geoff I say, "Yep, both my kids were lucky to get the best of both parents!" or maybe I'll tell Hayley, "Your hair is so perfectly you!" when someone comments on her ringlets. I guess I focus on them being who they are-and that I wouldn't want them to be anything else and then I pray that they grow up believing the same.

    Yay, I'm so glad you wrote this post!

    I can understand why you worry about your girls in particular -- in our society, a girl's appearance is so highly valued -- but I think this applies to boys as well. At least, I have this concern for my boys.

    My boys are different in lots of visible ways (biracial, off the charts small, precocious), and I am the sort of person who likes to blend in anywhere I go (hello, white girl privilege!). I do tire of the comments from other people, even when well-intended, though curiously, now that we live in the midwest (instead of NoCal), we get fewer comments. It's true that the older Chinese ladies aren't shy, however. (Side note: the person who has most recently been commenting on my younger son's "big eyes!" is my mother-in-law...)

    My approach has been to try to redirect from appearance/size to other characteristics, or to cheerfully disagree, but always publicly. That is, my comment is not addressed to my child, but to the speaker. Most people take it well. (As an example, one man said to us, "Biracial children are the most beautiful children!" My response was "Oh, I think all children are beautiful!") I think it is important to send the message to my children that they do not have to sit silently while other people judge them (though in this case, I am the one who is speaking up for them, since they are just 2 and 4).

    Likewise, I think it would not be at all disrespectful for you to say, "She is exactly the way God made her to be," or "We think she is beautiful inside and out," back to whoever is speaking. If you are cheerful and polite, it is completely acceptable to disagree.

    Of course, my comments above reflect my best days -- on my worst, I am tongue-tied, stay silent, and think to myself, "Gack! I should say.....something!" But I find it helpful, at least, to have a framework to work within, even if I don't always succeed at it.

    Maggie, even though I don't have biracial children, I could relate to your sense of wanting to protect your child from the world and helping her have a positive view of herself. (And Jackson and Molly and Emma are all PERFECT! People are so...ugh.)

    Between two and four months of age, Sophie gained five pounds and our pediatrician got all over me about her weight. I had to cut her formula and wait for her height to catch up and even out her weight.

    Since then, at every well child appointment, Sophie has been in the 90s or over the 100th percentile for height and weight. At age 2, she was wearing size 3 clothes, by 4 she was wearing size 6. She just keeps growing! But I was very concerned because the pediatrician kept hounding the point with me about controlling portion sizes and making sure she was getting exercise and looking at her BMI! And Sophie was getting to the age where she was going to be aware of what the doctor was saying and I didn't want her to develop a complex.

    So at our 4-year appointment, when she mentioned that Sophie was in the 100th percentile and above on both height and weight again and started to elaborate, I just cut her off, firmly, and stated "Obviously, she is just off the charts. The charts are designed for the majority of children and she is not the majority. She's a healthy eater, gets plenty of physical activity, and continues to grow at a steady pace, so you can't judge her by your charts." And then I gave her a firm look. And she conceded that I was right, so hopefully, it won't be a discussion next month at the 5-year-old appointment! (She's now wearing size 7-8 at almost 5 and comes up to my ribs!)

    To me, she's perfect, she's tall and healthy. I'm tall, my husband's tall, she's going to be tall and her weight is proportionate to her height. While I struggle with my own weight, I've made a concerted effort since her birth to not criticize my own weight or appearance around her. And I do tell her she is beautiful, not to give her a false sense of self or make her vain, but to combat all the voices in her future who will tell her otherwise. I try to focus on how smart and creative she is also, but I believe girls need to hear positive messages about their appearance as well.

    I should've emailed you too...we're all passionate about our kids! Sorry for the long post.

    I know I tweeted you about this but I have to say I love the comments above. I do want to agree that labels are forever. We can all identify ours, especially the negative ones or the ones that set us apart. I try to remind my sister of this and I do think that me being the "smart" one (smart but lazy was my label) has impacted her to this day. Although she is the one that graduated with honors. It's really just sad and I applaud your efforts to stop it before the labels stick to your kids. They are perfect gifts from God.

    I going to ask my best friend about this. She's the "white" sibling and looks more like my family than her Filipino family. Her dad is snowy white French Canadian. Incidentally her bro has a bunch of blonde kids with his blonde wife. I can't wait to see her and discuss. If she has any good ideas I will follow up. Your children are quite amazing and I am guilty of marveling at how Emma resembles you. I think that finding similarities thing said above is legit. We all want people to be like us so we can "understand" them even though we don't. To sum: labels are forever and I have no answer.

    I read your blog & you inspire me with all your honesty. I'm the youngest of 5 girls (same parents, catholic parents). To me body issues are not a current issue, health is.

    This was really interesting. We don't have the biracial issues to discuss here, but I am really bothered by what people talk about in front of my children. I cannot get my mother and sister to stop talking about themselves as fat in front of Elizabeth. (And neither of them really are and that bothers me even more because not only are they making weight into this big thing, but they are also doing it unrealistically.) I will even correct them and my mom will say "oh, I don't mean that I'm fat, I mean that I am overweight and I need to go on a diet." MOM. THAT IS THE SAME.

    http://www.rolereboot.org/life/details/2013-06-when-your-mother-says-shes-fat#.UdDDOkzN5W8.facebook

    Jen, I am so glad you mentioned the "fat" issue. I just ran across the above today and I want to share because I can remember vividly my mother doing this and them she got all huffy when the weight watchers commercial came on and I told her about it. She didn't think I understood what she was saying. She still does this by the way. Anyway, I thought the article was good. Fwiw. Hope that's a good link, I never trust it from my phone. Meghan

    (Jen, by the way, I follow you on twitter and you have know idea why. It's all Maggie. I enjoy your posts. :))

    Late to the party, but chiming in anyway. I relate to this, both for my bio look-like-me kids and my born in SE Asia kids. And FWIW, in Vietnam they nicknamed my son "big head" - because he had a big head as a baby - they say it lovingly or whatever, but that's what they do, nicknames about traits, so I'm not surprised you get those sorts of comments. When people point out how small my daughter is, I try to chime in "small but mighty!" because (1) it's true and (2) I don't like the negative implication of "small". I wish we could protect our kids from thoughtless comments - including the ones I make. Oh how many times my older daughter has chided me for looking in the mirror and calling myself "fat"! Now she is similarly sized to me and thinks she is too heavy and I say "no! you are perfect!" and she doesn't believe me, and it's my own fault.

    My mother was always INSANELY careful to never give us kids any labels. However, thanks to our different characteristics, we ended up either labeling ourselves or each other. Labels always come from somewhere- a teacher, their friends, siblings, "well-meaning" relatives, even themselves. Its what you do with those labels that matters. If your young child hears a label applied to them, its good to sit down with them and discuss what they heard, what they think it means, and if they agree with it. There's nothing you can do to erase what they've heard, but you can help them to apply it beneficially. For example, if someone comments for the jillionth time about how your child's ears are obnoxiously large, a blanket statement like "God made him just how He wanted him to be!" most likely isn't going to help your child at all (unless he's a saint). If find out by talking to him that he doesn't like how large his ears are, he's not going to magically stop thinking it. There's always going to be something about your kid that your kid doesn't like about himself. You just have to teach your child that that's just a part of life. Tell him that everybody has something they don't like about themselves, and that's okay. He may not like how large his ears are, but he might like what a pretty color blue his eyes are, or that he always gets straight A's in math. Help your child learn to think about the good things about himself that he likes, and he won't be so concerned with bad things he might hear :)

    My 6 year old nephew (mom is mexican, dad is white) says of his maternal grandfather as we are getting in the car the other day, "He's Mexican so he doesn't have to wear his seatbelt." This story is not helpful to you, but struck me as hilarious.

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