On a recent visit to Houston, my wife and I were reintroduced to a wonderful couple, Pat and Wolf. We first met this couple in Kansas City, when our children were very young and we were struggling to decide how to raise healthy biracial children in a society fixated on race.
Wolf is from the East German city of Dresden. He came to the U.S. with what remained of his family immediately after the war, setting up in one of the Dakotas, and then joining the army. He now works for veterans in the state of Texas. He met Pat in Chicago. Pat is a gifted music teacher from Louisiana, and an outspoken, articulate southern Black woman.
We met Pat and Wolf shortly after my oldest daughter, then 5 years-of-age, had an argument with a young child who had recently emigrated from Mexico. As children this age do, they got into an argument. However, in the heat of the argument, the little boy declared to my daughter, “Well you are Black and I am not”!
“How come I am Black and he is not, when he is darker than me?” my daughter asked in bewilderment” (She could also have asked, “and why did he feel it was important to tell me in an angry voice that I am Black and he is not? What relevance is this to our argument?”) How do you explain the one-drop rule, and entrenched societal racism, to a five year old? It then became very apparent to my wife and I that we needed to have a clear idea how to develop in our children a healthy, accurate and positive view of their complete racial identity. It was also clear to us that we needed to start early, before our children were five-years-old, as clearly young children pick up and express the racism of the society around them. We had not understood this important point before this incident.
But how should we do this?
My Children are German
Wolf is a large, ex-military man, with a quiet but powerful presence. When asked about the identity of his four biracial children, he automatically and intuitively replied, “My children are German!” At a dinner we had with Pat and Wolf’s family, Wolf selected a variety of sweet, German white wines, and described to us the finer aspects of good German wines and how to select them. At the same meal, as I recall, Pat prepared a wonderful Louisiana dish. Pat was equally adamant that her children learn about her proud Louisiana background, along with her husband’s German heritage. Not only did she see no contradiction in this view, but she also saw it as an expression of her deep belief in human equality. To her, society requires that people should be respected for who they are, and no-one has a right to tell others who they can and should be. Her society – the one she grew up in – celebrated and honored the value of each individual, and empowered each individual to be what they wished to become; not what others wanted them to be. In fact, Pat’s own self-image is such that the views of other people really do not matter!
Thus Pat and Wolf raised their children as German, Louisianan, and American.
Pat and Wolf’s children were older than ours. Thus, their family became a wonderful role model for our children. Wolf is German; I am English. Pat is an African American from Louisiana; Ruth, my wife, is an African American and Chickasaw Indian from Kansas City and Oklahoma. Pat has a master’s degree in music education, and Ruth has a master’s degree in special education.
While we were struggling to decide how to support the unique racial identity of our children, we talked to a variety of experts, read journal articles, and did extensive research. The pervasive view we heard then (1978) was that society sees our children as Black, so we should raise them as Black. My favorite response was from an expert who said, “We really don’t know the best way to raise biracial children, so I suggest you wait!”
At that point we had three children. We also were not comfortable with the idea of raising our children according to society. First, who exactly is society? Second, society then – as now – had a fairly negative view about Black people. Did this mean that we had to raise our children with a sense of inferiority and subservience? Finally, I grew up as someone different from the surrounding society. Both my parents rejected a comfortable middle-class background in England by joining a very poor, alternative communal society on a farm in the border country between England and Wales. They choose to raise their children differently than the typical English child, and I do not feel my upbringing was somehow less, because society didn’t like it!
The other pervasive view then was that if you raised a child as both White and Black, the child would become very confused. We heard a lot about how confused and messed up our children would be, and how selfish we were for wanting them to be biracial. As the White parent, I was expected to feel guilty for not allowing my children to be raised as Black. None of this made much sense to either of us. If children who grow up in an interracial family and are raised as biracial are confused, then the obvious response is to make sure they clearly know who they are! So, as we raised our children, we made sure – through books, discussions, visits to museums, travel, celebrations, cultural events, teaching their teachers and peers, and exposing them to a rich variety of other experiences that showed them that the world is not just Black and White – our children knew they were biracial, and they were not confused. But at the beginning we listened to the experts, and like most beginning parents, we were unsure of the direction we wished to take.
Biracial – and Bicultural
Thus it was very refreshing to meet Pat and Wolf, and to see their clear and unequivocal view of the importance of raising biracial children with such a strong understanding of both of their parents’ heritages. The positive and affirming example of Pat and Wolf was a great reassurance and support of our own disagreements with the views that had been presented to us, and an affirmation that our children would be OK being raised as proudly biracial and bicultural. Pat and Wolf demonstrated to us how to be proud, assertive, and competent about our choice to marry and to raise our children as biracial.
In a way we had an advantage over other interracial couples, because not only did we come from different races, but also totally different cultures: European and American. This made it much easier for us to expose our children to both of our backgrounds, and to integrate these diverse backgrounds into our family’s experiences – traditions, celebrations, histories, and values. Unfortunately, interracial parents in the U.S. are bombarded with negative opinions, comments, and criticisms, freely and assertively expressed by total strangers and supposedly knowledgeable academicians who have never struggled with raising multiracial children in this society, including accusations of being disloyal to their race, repeating the history of rape of Black slave women by White slave-owners, being ashamed of their Black children, and selfishly sacrificing the welfare of the entire Black race for the self-esteem of their own children. Interracial parents also have to put up with the total ignorance – when it comes to racial identity – of teachers, school administrators, social workers, diversity specialists, and others who work with children and families. So, when it came to celebrating cultural differences, we did not have to tolerate that kind of stupidly. We did not have to hear that we should only expose our children to their Black race, due to prejudice, discrimination, racism, the history of slavery, guilt, power, white privilege, and so on. Because of the role of the melting pot in the history of the American society, Americans of all racial backgrounds understand mixing traditions and cultures much more than they understand – and accept – the mixing of races!
When a curious stranger asked, “Well, what are they?” it was much easier, and far less frustrating to answer, “They are British and American”, rather than, “They are Black and White”.
This appreciation of cultural differences led me to teach my children about a great-grandparent who was a pioneering member of the Labor Party in England. He was an important socialist who was instrumental in passing the first child labor laws, and who supported the building of hospitals for people with disabilities. I could also proudly relate to my children the stories of my relative enjoying hiking in the British countryside – as I like to hike with my children – and his reputation (similar to my own) of taking ‘short cuts’ and getting lost! I was proud and comfortable presenting my White relative as a critically important role model to my biracial children.
Pat and Wolf’s children are now grown, with families of their own. They have successful careers, including a telecommunications executive, teacher, councilman, and college administrator. One of them, in fact, is a member of the Prometheus society, which is a far more restrictive IQ group (requires a much higher IQ score) than Mensa. Pat recounted to me that when this son was at a recent Mensa society gathering, a little old White lady asked him to get her some coffee (assuming he was a worker in the hotel). He said he would gladly do so, but then quietly informed her that he was a member of the Prometheus society, as well as her lowly Mensa group! Clearly this young had no problem with his self-image!
None of Wolf’s and Pat’s children are in jail; none are in mental institutions. All are successful contributing members of society. They are not confused because of their mixed heritage; they are not ashamed to embrace their full and rich racial and cultural heritage: Black, White, German, American, Louisianan, and so on. In fact, I would argue that one of the reasons they are so secure in their identity is because of the clear and powerful role models of their two parents.
By the same token, my four children all have college degrees. All have jobs. One is married with two children; another will marry this spring. By most traditional accounts they are successful, contributing members of our diverse society. Each embraces his or her full heritage, and is very comfortable with a world view that says humanity is not divided into distinct racial groups, but rather is made-up of a rich continuum of fluid and ever-changing racial and cultural identifies. Further, individual identity to them is not solely based on group belonging and loyalty, and on what others think of the group; it’s also based on individual attributes, behaviors, and individually integrated and synthesized backgrounds
We Made the Right Decision
It was a delight to reunite with Pat and Wolf. It brought back those early years in Kansas City, when we were struggling with a young family, and wrestling with the question of how to raise confident, secure and healthy biracial children in a society fixated on race and racial differences. Pat and Wolf assured us that we could raise our children as confidently biracial. It prepared us for many of the struggles we were to encounter as our children were growing up, such as the time the father of my daughter’s best friend said to my daughter, when her friend invited her to her home, “You cannot come into my house until you wash the dirt off your face”; the teacher who insisted that, even though the federal school form explicitly stated, “check the most accurate response”, insisted on her checking only one option (she refused); and the teacher who told my daughter she could not be part Chickasaw because she was Black (her mother is an enrolled member of the tribe), to the constant misidentification (of both parents and children) and the incessant question, “well, what are you, anyway” that we continually experienced. I am so grateful that we met them when we did.
Francis Wardle, PhD in education/human development, has written extensively on interracial families and multiracial children, in books, journals and magazines; and has given conference presentations on this topic in the U.S., Canada and Brazil.