The objectification of multiracial youth

my kids are people not pets

my kids are people not pets

 

 One of the things that disturbs me about the infamous “What are they?” questions from complete strangers, or the “Oh, just look at hair hair!” exclamations, where people are not complimenting “her” so much as they are talking about her like she’s not there or can’t hear them, is not that I think the people who initiate this kind of dialogue are ill intentioned… it’s the objectification and the sense of “otherness” that comes with it. Even though the oohing and aahing is intended to be a compliment, and maybe for the parents it is… it’s an affirmation that we are accepted… a soothing balm for those of us in multiracial relationships who have experience rejection in some fashion… perhaps just from thoughtless comments made by strangers, and in some cases, rejection by friends or family members.  I know people who have been the recipients of outright hostile stares to people who have been disowned from their families.    

We anxiously anticipate the day our children will be subject to racism and prejudice, and at first this fawning and zooing seems like a sign that all is right with the world, that times have changed for the better, and the world will love our children as much as we do. Speaking from my racial perspective, which of course won’t apply to every white mother of biracial children… I experienced a loss of some of that white privilege when I started dating interracially.  It was immediate and pronounced… so I can see how it might be tempting, after experiencing that loss and rejection, to want to bask in that acceptance.   

But from the perspectives of our children, what is it like for them to be asked or to overhear their parents being asked (with whatever frequency) to justify their existence?  Quoting from Does Anybody Else Look Like Me?, psychologist Maria Root says,   

“It is the combination of inquisitive looks, longer than passing glances to comprehend unfamiliar racial-ethnic features… and comments of surprise .. along with disapproving comments and nonverbal communication that begin to convey to the child that this otherness is undesirable or wrong.”   

This is, of course, a sensitive area in our home right now, where one of my three children is expressing unhappiness with her appearance, with her ethnic name, and questioning whether or not she belongs to me, in terms of whether or not I really gave birth to her.   

I find myself wondering more and more, about how this affects children.  In Hate Hurts: How Children Learn and Unlearn Prejudice, the authors write,   

 “Often, our children find themselves fed up with being the “answer-givers” – with having to serve as the cultural educators.  This is particularly the case when your child is one of only a few like herself (or the only one) amid a larger populating of people who share a common race, culture, or religion.  This frustration is very real.  As educators in classrooms across the country can attest, some kids are asked the same question umpteen times a day by their peers, adding up to an incredible number of times they are forced to give the same answers over and over.”   

This is something that my 10yo son has expressed – he indicates he is frequently asked by friends, including his closest friend, about his race.  Part of me resents society expecting my children to educate a racialized society.  Yeah, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to be in a multi racial/cultural/faith relationship… didn’t expect that raising multi racial/cultural/faith children was going to be a walk in the park.   

But that doesn’t mean that I signed myself, or my children, up to carry the collective racial baggage of American history, or to somehow heal society with our existence.  My family is not a traveling educational exhibit.  My children are not part of a petting zoo.   

Rather than intrude on my privacy, usually because I caught them staring (which was considered rude back in my day), by pumping me for personal information… if a complete stranger really wants to learn more about multiracial children, why not walk up and ask me if I could recommend any books or internet sites?  Are the personal and individual combination of my children’s ethnicities, relayed in 30 seconds or less, really going to truly give this stranger a better understanding of race relations, where we are, how far we still need to go, or what it’s really like to be a “racial other?”  One can mask it as an attempt at understanding, but it’s just as likely to be morbid curiosity or an attempt to fit my children into a preconceived notion… aka a stereotype.  Why should my children be singled out as ‘others’ just to appease the need of a stranger to fit them into a category, and apply whatever internalized stereotypes they have about [Africans, Muslims, white women/black men who date outside their race].   

Bill of Rights
for Racially Mixed People

By Maria P.P. Root I HAVE THE RIGHT…
Not to justify my existence in this world.
Not to keep the races separate within me.
Not to be responsible for people’s discomfort with my physical ambiguity.
Not to justify my ethnic legitimacy.
 I HAVE THE RIGHT…
To identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify.
To identify myself differently from how my parents identify me.
To identify myself differently from my brothers and sisters.
To identify myself differently in different situations.
 I HAVE THE RIGHT…
To create a vocabulary to communicate about being multiracial.
To change my identity over my lifetime — and more than once.
To have loyalties and identification with more than one group of people.
To freely choose whom I befriend and love.
 

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  1. missprofe
    May 4, 2007 at 8:02 PM

    You captured what it was I was trying to say in my blog post re: the student and the teacher. Thank you for providing the link to your site and to this post.

  2. September 19, 2009 at 7:47 PM

    OK, I know that this is a really old post, but I’m just about nodding my head off my neck! YES! I hear you! I agree. My sons are all teens and handle most of this without my even being involved, but yes, this is just how it happens.

    And one place that multi racial youth are objectified, unfortunately, is in our UU movement. My oldest has been deeply involved, and is often asked to speak for “youth of color” with no nod to the inherent white privilege he holds because he is hapa. He’s cognizant of it, and often declines speaking for the whole of “youth of color” in the UU movment, but should that really be up to a 16 or 17 year old? No. Adults need to shake themselves awake and figure this out!

    Thanks for a great post.

    • September 22, 2009 at 10:12 PM

      Thanks, Kari… it may be an old post but it’s good to know we’re not alone in our experiences. I’ve experienced objectification in our congregation as well. It took me a long time to fully see it, probably because I naively thought it wouldn’t happen there given the long history UU’s have with the civil rights movement. It’s also something that’s been very hard for me to write about, but it’s part of the reason I took a two+ year “break” from services. I met with our newly settled minister and finally let it out about this time last year, and she really validated my feelings and helped me put it in perspective because I really thought I was crazy or hypersensitive or… whatever.

  3. Karen
    October 23, 2009 at 7:51 PM

    Great post! Thanks for dropping the link in the ARP comments in response to my comment. I’ll definitely be exploring your blog and subscribing.

    • October 23, 2009 at 8:46 PM

      Thanks Karen… I’m really glad you stopped by & hope you find this a good resource, if for nothing else than to know someone else has been there!

  1. September 1, 2010 at 6:26 AM

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