There are certain things not to say to the parent of a biracial child. These are comments or questions that are insensitive, because the person asking usually isn’t considering (or doesn’t care) how the person being asked is going to experience the question. I can’t speak on behalf of all parents of biracial children, but I feel safe saying these comments run a high risk of be perceived as rude, making the parent uncomfortable, or even really offending someone.
When it comes to race, I’m reluctant to tell someone not to say something. When people avoid talking about race it shuts down dialogue, which is invaluable when it comes to changing attitudes and disputing stereotypes. So I’d like to explain why the following comments could be insensitive:
I wonder what your baby is going to look like.
Mixed babies are just so cute.
These are all things that people have said to me personally. The one I haven’t experienced first-hand but is often heard by parents of biracial kids is some variation of: Is she adopted? Is he yours? Are you the nanny?
Each time I was pregnant and after my boys were born, I was very protective of my babies, like any mother would be. My boys are unique and perfect and beloved… like any child is to his or her parents. When people made comments like the ones above, the focus seemed to shift from my babyto his race. I felt a bit like the sideshow in a circus, especially when these comments came out of the blue or were from people I didn’t know very well. These comments objectified my babies. And though I’m not the type of person who starts fuming at insensitive remarks, they do make me feel uncomfortable and put on-the-spot.
Being in an interracial marriage and having biracial kids is definitely a part of who I am, and I’m happy to muse about it with friends who have a genuine interest in understanding our experience, with other multiracial families, or in a situation where I go in expecting and wanting to talk about that part of my family. I blog about it, so obviously the topic isn’t off-limits for me. But multiracial families don’t want to be singled out by strangers. We don’t want the focus on our family or children to be about race. We don’t want to feel we must defend or explain ourselves. Like most parents, we just want people to see our family as beautiful, happy, healthy, and strong.
That’s the general explanation of why comments like the ones above can make me feel uncomfortable or defensive. Now I offer a breakdown of each question, just to satisfy any lingering curiosity.
I wonder what your baby will look like?
This question always came from people who knew my husband was black, but didn’t know us well. The underlying question was clearly: I wonder what color he’ll be? How “black” will he be?
When I was pregnant, I wondered this too. It’s fine to wonder, but it’s not necessary to ask. See reasons above.
|Musing Momma’s Bee, 8 months
Mixed babies are so cute! Aren’t all babies cute? I’ve never, ever heard someone say “White babies are just so adorable,” so why would a person specify “mixed babies” are so cute? On the surface, this comment may seem like a compliment. It may be an effort to be supportive or show the parent how liberal one is (Hey! I’m down with mixed babies!), but instead it takes my unique baby, an individual, and focuses on his race as what makes him cute. Just tell me how adorable heis. (Side note: Personally, I strongly prefer the term biracial to mixed.)
Why is he so light? Wow – now how should I answer this? Every time I’ve been asked this, I’ve wanted to say “Shhhh, don’t tell my husband, but this is really the cable guy’s kid.” But I’m only a smart-ass in my head and too nice to be one out loud. Asking a parent why his child is so light is asking him to justify or explain something that has a very straightforward answer. Here it is: My child is light because he is light. It’s genetics. It happens for the same reason two brunettes can have a child with blonde hair. Remember that biology lesson on phenotype vs. genotype? Biracial kids who are black/white vary widely in their skin-tone, hair texture, and the extent to which they look like the template people have in their heads of what a black person “looks like.” When people ask the question, it is probably because they don’t realize that every black person doesn’t look like the image they have in their mind. I am sure this question is driven by curiosity, but asking why my child is so light suggests that my child doesn’t look the way he “should” and that there must be some intriguing explanation. (This reasoning applies to any question about why a biracial kid doesn’t look more like one of their parents.)
Can I touch his hair?
At first, I wondered if I was just being overly sensitive when I felt uncomfortable with this question. Maybe it’s a common question when kids have gorgeous curls. Since my (white) niece has a head full of ringlets, I asked my stepsister if people ever ask to touch her hair. Nope. They may comment on how beautiful
her hair is, but they don’t ask to touch
it. To me, this is a matter of boundaries and appropriateness. Wouldn’t it seem just a little weird and awkward if a stranger started feeling up your head? Also, it’s important to consider how the child will experience this question and, over time, how he’ll feel about being singled out for physical traits. Check out the book DoesAnybody Else Look Like Me?
by Donna Jackson Nakazawa for a great description of how the attention paid to biracial kids for their “unique” features can make them feel uncomfortable.
Is he adopted? Is she yours? Are you the nanny? Like most people, when I see a family that doesn’t fit the “mold” in my community, one of my first reactions is to wonder what their story is. But then I remind myself families come together in many ways and I move on, because it’s not my business to ask. If the person asking doesn’t know the family well enough to already know the answer, she probably doesn’t needto know the answer. It’s a personal question. If the child isn’t adopted, it’s awkward to be asked this and again the parent is being asked to (unnecessarily) explain his or her family. And if the child is adopted, why does it matter? The answer may be long and complicated and unless you are close friends (in which case you probably already know the answer), expecting the person to explain is very intrusive. For more about how this question affects the person or family being asked, check out these great posts:
Have biracial kids? I’d love to know what is on your “don’t ask/don’t say” list.
Ellie lives in the Northeast with her husband and two amazing, very active boys. In a former life she worked as a child psychologist, which was great preparation for motherhood but still no guarantee she knows what the heck she’s doing at any given time. You can find her writing about parenting, marriage, and raising biracial kids on her blog, Musing Momma, and on Facebook.
Edited: Check out More What Not to Say to Parents of Biracial Children