What ARE they?

I wish I’d read Does Anybody Else Look Like Me? A Parent’s Guide to Raising Multiracial Children three years ago when it was published; or better yet, that it had been published sometime between 1996 & 1999 and I’d read it then. The book contains a lot of good information about how children process racial concepts through the various developmental stages, and describes the stages a multiracial youth goes through to develop a healthy and fluid racial identity. It’s provoked a lot of thought for me, but what doesn’t these days?
“Over time, our daugther has developed a kind of public shell she retreats into when others approach. She refuses eye contact, sucks her thumb and puts her head against my side, her arm grasping mine. How much of this sudden shyness, when we are out and about, is due to innate personality, and how much of it relates to having to squirm under each stranger’s magnifying glass, we’ll never know.”
You may recognize Halle in this passage… or recall me having complained about how being ‘petted’ by strangers was affecting her. This ‘zooing’ is something I’ve always felt was somehow invasive and inappropriate, although all I could really chalk it up to was that it’s an invasion of privacy. Donna Nakazawa put my feelings into words perfectly,
“Perhaps when people encounter a biracial child they often are compelled to look, and look again, in order to figure them (and their family situation out), yet at the same time they feel awkward staring without saying a word. In order to mask their discomfort, they may overreact, touching our child’s hair or commenting repeatedly on how beautiful our child is.
 
Even though our child is getting the verbal message that he or she is beautiful, by being repeatedly singled out, she is also getting the nonverbal message that she is different. And whenever children receive mixed messages, it tends to cause them inner anxiety. This combination of being treated more like an object than a person and receiving mixed messages, explains psychologist Willie B. Garrett, “is so damaging to the child because over time they’re going to internalize these unpleasant feelings, which take the form of the child thinking of themselves as unattractive.” They ‘get it’ that their appearance falls outside the norm.
This section goes on to say,
Garret talks about counseling parents who often get into “these types of conversations explaining the intimate details of their adoption or their interracial family with a complete stranger, and that’s another violation of the child’s world. If the parent is colluding with strangers by discussing these issues right in front of their kids, then the child becomes accustomed to not having their boundaries respected.” Later in life, says Garrett, that lack of respect toward a child’s needs may contribute to “setting a child up for a pattern of allowing themselves to be mistreated by others who also don’t respect their boundaries.” Garrett also believes that not protecting our children from stranger interactions can hurt the parent child relationship itself.” A child expects their parent to protect them any pain or discomfort. Yet when strangers are intruding and parents aren’t saying anything, the parent isn’t protecting them from that situation. Which is why I advise parents: Always remember, your child is listening and watching. You should not feel you have to explain the circumstances of having your child.”
Which helped me better understand the animosity I feel towards people who start quizzing me about the kids, and less ‘guilty’ about the attitude I get when people walk up and start making a big deal out of the kids’ appearance. I know people mean well and I don’t want to appear ungrateful, and of course I think they’re incredibly beautiful children… but basically, these strangers are objectifying my kids. They’re not dolls, or puppies, or billboards on display for anyone’s viewing pleasure. So I felt less bad, about feeling so spiteful about people going overboard in complimenting the kids.
 
But then I started thinking about what I wrote recently, about how I’ve always expected Halle to be vain about her hair, but she’s expressing insecurity about it, started rattling around in my head. My response to the overwhelming petting Halle gets, in large part over her hair, has been to avoid making a big deal out of it myself. I’ve tried not to compliment her on her appearance too frequently, instead focusing on other qualities like kindness and generosity, her intellect, her imagination, and music/dance talent. I do compliment her appearance, but I don’t express it anywhere nearly as often as I think it. I’d always felt that the constant petting and praise she receives from others was ‘over’ validating her. But what if that validation from strangers creates more negative feelings than positive ones, by making her feel like an ‘other.’ If Willie Garrett is right about the conflict and anxiety those interactions create, it isn’t so surprising that Halle is expressing insecurity and a lack of confidence in her appearance. I’ve also mentioned to people, how disturbing I find it that Halle is so concerned about whether her friends will like her hair. I think some of that stems from the fact that I consciously withdrew from validating her physical appearance… and not only because others tend to remark on it so often, but also because I don’t want her to define herself by her physical attributes.
 
The other day I picked Tyler & Halle up first and then backtracked to pick up Daija. As we were walking through the parking lot, another family was leaving. The daughter, who looked older than my kids, pointed at Halle and yelled,
Look, mom… she’s so pretty!
Halle didn’t look flattered. She had this stunned look on her face, as if she’d just been cat-called.
 
I’m realizing that it’s not the validation that she gets from outside our home that will make her confident… that’s clear. I need to work on making sure that how beautiful I find her is reflected more often, and I also need to do better about deflecting the stranger comments. I’m good about shutting down any “What are they” conversations pretty quickly, but I tend to suffer through the gushing compliments.
 
I asked Tyler and Halle if anyone ever asks what they are, in terms of race. I know Tyler’s mixed race had been a brief topic in about second grade. Halle said she’s never been asked, but Tyler has continued to get occasional questions. He says other kids ask him if he’s black, white, or mixed. He told me he responds mixed, if he answers, but sometimes he doesn’t, especially if it’s someone he doesn’t like, and he doesn’t like to give ‘free information’ about himself to people he doesn’t like. He also said he thinks it’s rude, and he gets tired of being asked about it. Thankfully, so far no one’s tried to challenge his answer or push him to be one race or the other.

“What ARE they?” – CURLYGURL’s MySpace Blog

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  1. September 2, 2010 at 6:15 AM

    When I was a little girl I used to get asked what I was. But they wanted to know if I was a boy or a girl. I was a very feminine little girl. But my mother liked to dress me in boyish clothes and crop my hair short for her convenience. It made me very self-conscious. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone for any reason.

    But “what someone is” is so none of my business. It’s their identity, not mine. Do I have to have that information in order to categorize them and put them in a little box in my head? No, I really don’t.

    As for the objectifying…they do it to my kids, too. And I’m pretty protective. Not only do I not want them feeling like dolls or puppies, I also don’t want them getting the idea that their worthiness comes from being physically attractive. I want them to have some character. That thing that will stay with them when beauty fades.

    • September 2, 2010 at 7:51 PM

      Anne, that’s exactly what I saw happening to Halle in the years that I felt obligated to act appreciative of people’s interest. She was worried about whether or not her friends would like her hair in Kinder, and would hide behind me when stranger’s approached.

  1. October 15, 2009 at 6:25 PM
  2. October 20, 2009 at 11:40 AM
  3. October 26, 2009 at 12:14 AM
  4. September 1, 2010 at 6:26 AM

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