Should You Hide Your Heritage?

Many parents raise kids who are loud and proud of their heritage. But some have a different approach. Writer Alina Adams is Jewish and her husband is African-American. She says that in some situations, her kids are better off hiding their race and religion. Adams speaks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our moms' conversation. Every week we turn to a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. Today we have a conversation we are pretty sure is going to push a lot of people's buttons. The conventional wisdom is that it's important to teach kids about who they are, where they come from, that they should celebrate their heritage at every opportunity.

But writer Alina Adams takes issue with the idea that being loud and proud about your background is always a good idea. She is Jewish. She was born in the former Soviet Union. Her husband is African-American and raised in Harlem and she is raising their three children with the understanding that sometimes hiding your heritage is the better choice.

She wrote about this for the Jewish parenting site Kveller, and Alina Adams joins us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

ALINA ADAMS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: There's a picture of your kids with your essay and you wrote this about the way they look, and I doubt that most people would disagree. African-Americans recognize they are black. Hispanics tend to think they're Hispanic, and white people assume they're white. We've also been asked whether they might be Greek, Romanian, Pakistani, Israeli or Turkish. In other words, my kids could pass - that's in quotes - for pretty much anything, and that's a good thing, and that's a bad thing.

So first of all, let me ask you, what made you think about this in this way? What gave rise to this essay?

ADAMS: Well, the fact is this is an issue I have been dealing with since my oldest son was born. I had a child who is African-American, who had an African-American father, who was clearly that. There is no question about it, but he didn't look that way in an obvious manner. People who just see him casually on the street won't necessarily make that connection.

And it's set me to wondering as to whether this is something that he should be making clear at every opportunity. Right now he's 13, so he's just entering into his teens, where the issue might become pertinent, but I really did start thinking to myself, is this something that a child should be responsible for from a young age? Should he always be declaring who he is or should he just let that pass because a lot of the time it just isn't relevant to the situation?

MARTIN: Well, part of it is, though, you both talk about your husband and your personal history and you're writing this in the first person, but I do want to say your husband agrees with you, presumably, about this. Would that be accurate or not?

ADAMS: Let's just say that we agree more than we disagree on the aspects of this topic.

MARTIN: OK. Well, let's dig into that a little bit, but you talk about the fact that from a standpoint of personal history and the history of your own people - if I could put it this way, you say that both you and your husband, growing up very differently - your husband being African-American, growing up in Harlem, you growing up as a Jew in the former Soviet Union - were taught that you have to be twice as good to get half as far.

You also talk about the fact that there are places in which, you know, heritage can really be determinative. You say that there's a saying - a popular Russian saying was they don't punch your passport, they punch your face. So...

ADAMS: Yes.

MARTIN: So there are places and times, and of course people remember, you know, Rwanda, the terrible genocide there, where heritage becomes determinative, and it makes sense, if you can.

But other people would argue that that's actually the opposite, that what you really need to do is be out, loud and proud because that is the thing that creates safety and the space for people to be who they are, to not get your face punched. What about that?

ADAMS: First, we can talk about situations sort of going from the trivial to the non-trivial. Let's start with something simple. The fact is, we live in New York City and New York City has a not undeserved reputation for the fact that cab drivers don't like to stop for black people. This is relatively well-established, so if we as a family need to take a cab, you know what? I'll stand at the curb and I'll hail it and my husband and children will stay in the background and then we'll get into the cab.

Now, we could try to make a political point every time that we need a cab or we could get where we're going, so it's one of those things where it makes more sense to just do things efficiently.

On the other hand, we can talk about more extreme situations, not that it has ever happened to us, not that I expect that it will ever happen to us, but the fact is, in the past, prior to 9/11, when planes were hijacked and hostages were taken, especially in places like Entebbe and others, they sorted the passengers. The Jews would go to one side. The non-Jews would go to another side.

We have a very clear understanding with my husband that if we're ever in that situation, he is going to take my children and he's going to take them with him and they will stand in another line and they will pretend that they never met me, because that's just the safe way to do it.

Now, as I said, do I think this will happen to me in my lifetime? Probably not, but that's the attitude that we sort of apply to a great many things. You can make a political statement or you can live your life. We have...

MARTIN: How do you talk to your kids about this? Because both the examples you're talking about are some pretty strong stuff. I'm sure other families have had conversations along different lines after 9/11. I'm sure lots of people had conversations that they never thought they were going to be having. Right?

But your kids are of an age where they're noticing who gets the taxi and who doesn't get the taxi. That's the kind of things kids tend to notice. Do you talk to them about this? How do you talk to them about it?

ADAMS: We definitely talk about those things. You know, it's very interesting. If you read general studies they say well, small children aren't aware of race. The fact is if you dig a little deeper into those studies and you read what they actually say is that what they mean is small children who are of a dominant race don't notice race. Children who are of a different race do notice race. I believe it's mentioned in Po Bronson's book "NurtureShock." He actually talks quite a bit about that. And the fact is being who we are as a family, living where we live, it comes up very organically in our home. It's not that I go oh, it's 3:30 PM. Children, sit down, we're going to discuss race now. It's just it's a part of our lives. It's the way that we discuss anything else that pertains to them. And I'm really a big believer in the fact that you can pretty much talk to children about any issue as long as you try to phrase it in words and examples that's appropriate, that's developmentally appropriate, to their age and to where they are.

So yes, like your example with the taxi, that's something that we tell them flat out. We would tell them this is the situation. We discuss perhaps why the situation came about. And then we tell them how we choose to deal with it and why we are dealing with it in such a matter now.

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about raising multiracial kids. We're having our weekly parenting conversation. Our guest is Alina Adams. She wrote about this for the Jewish parenting site Kveller. She talked about whether it's always a good idea to tell kids to highlight their heritage.

This is going to sound harsher than I mean it to, but there are those who will feel that if you don't choose to affiliate with this group, or to make your association clear, then you're really abandoning the group. And that...

ADAMS: Yes, I'm very familiar with that phrase.

MARTIN: So what do you think about...

ADAMS: It comes about statistically. It comes about from voting demographics. It comes about for the census. So I've heard it come in many, many different ways, both practical and...

MARTIN: So let's set - yeah, let's set aside the idea of, you know, the terrorist attack on the airplane piece because I don't think any reasonable person would disagree that your job is as a parent is to save your child's life. Let's just talk more broadly. You know, you hear people talk about stories, you know, where racist things are being said or anti-Semitic things are being said, and one could choose to say I'm a part of that group or affiliate or not choose to. And I think members of that group sometimes see it as an abandonment or as a privilege to choose to or not to. And could you just talk about that, how you talk about that, how you think about that?

ADAMS: Yes. And in fact, when you asked me at the very beginning about what made me think about this issue it did all stem from the fact that especially my oldest son, and my younger ones to a smaller degree, would have to make those choices. Because the fact is if someone is going to be making say a racist joke and they look around the room and someone looks very much like the group that they are about to insult, unless they're doing it deliberately, odds are most people will not do it.

My son does not automatically look that way, so exactly, it was the issue that you brought up that first got me on this whole line of thought about the entire issue. And, yes, I have definitely heard from people who would take the stance that you are always obligated speak up because by being silent you're just encouraging that sort of behavior. And I can say that in theory let's just say that I would agree with them most of the time. But my concern as a mother - since this is a parenting segment - and what you said earlier about a parent's obligation is to protect their child, is I don't know if I would necessarily encourage my children to look for trouble regardless of the situation.

If it's something harmless, if it's somebody has made a crack and it's either someone you know or the situation is relatively benign, then yes, perhaps you should speak up or make some sort of the comment. Although, honestly, I can't tell you what the appropriate comment would be. I don't know what the answer to that is. But you also have to be able to assess the situation. And that's really what my husband and I are trying to teach our children most of all, is to be vigilant and to be aware and to be able to assess a situation to be able to make an intelligent decision as to whether or not you wish to speak up. Because the fact is there are some circumstances where speaking up will do more harm than good. If speaking up will get you attacked, if speaking up will get you physically hurt, then no, I don't think there's anything to be won by standing up and saying I am A, B, and C and getting pummeled for it.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, what reaction are you getting to the piece?

ADAMS: You know, I'll tell you what reaction I'm getting. Most of the comments were from people who are Americans. And I love Americans. I'm very proud to be an American - as is my husband. But here's the thing. Most of the people who wrote I would never ever, ever hide who I am are people who never really had a reason to. And I don't mean to be condescending, because the fact is people have a variety of experience. But the fact is both my husband and I come from a very different background than most of the people who were commenting on my article.

Myself, having come from the former Soviet Union, and I was a child so I certainly didn't experience the massive anti-Semitism that my parents did, but I grew up hearing about it my entire life. My father couldn't become a doctor because the Jewish quotas had been filled at the universities. You know, World War II, everything, that's just a part of who I am. And my husband, having grown up in Harlem and his father, having grown up in Virginia in the 1950s. I just feel that people who say I would never ever, I'm sorry, that does not say much for your imagination because I can imagine quite a few situations where it would be really, really, really not a good idea to be out, as you said.

MARTIN: Alina Adams has written a piece for the Jewish parenting site Kveller. It's called "When to Hide Your Race and Religion." And she was kind enough to join us from member station KQED in San Francisco.

Alina Adams, thanks so much for joining us.

ADAMS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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