NPR logo Alison Checks In: On Being Biracial

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Alison Checks In: On Being Biracial


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I once overheard a woman ask her friend, "Why does Obama identify himself as black when he is half white?" Their discussion ranged from how Barack Obama's appearance led to assumptions about him, to how choices were made for him based on his looking like a tall skinny black guy, to the way race has historically been determined this country.

My husband and I discussed all of these above as we awaited the birth of our son, Isaac. How will we make sure he feels secure about who he is? Will he be clearly identifiable as either white or black? Will I have to wear one of those "I'm not the nanny" t-shirts? Will he have a bar mitzvah?

As he gets older, Ike is looking truly bi-racial. After seeing a recent photo, a 50-something friend of mine who is Japanese and Black said he was hopeful Isaac won't have to endure the difficulties he faced as a child. My friend wrote, "This is our time. Barack. Tiger. Halle."

Considering it was only eight years ago that the U.S. Census allowed you to check more than one box for racial identity, I can't help wondering what challenges lie ahead.



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yours is a beautiful story...and i'm hopeful that as americans begin to awaken to more beautiful stories... on the morning after the election in november...president obama will continue to make isaac's life "a peace of cake" when it comes to racial bias. he's gorgeous!

Sent by janet | 7:00 AM | 7-3-2008

It has always bothered me that people seem to foist a minority racial identity on biracial people. To me, a person gets to define their identity for themself. But in my experiece, others, usually whites, tend to think of someone who is white and another race as their non-white race. It's as if they have a higher standard for whiteness than for membership in another racial group.

I hope those attitudes change before anyone tries to tell Ike who he is.

Sent by Maura | 7:32 AM | 7-3-2008

Isaac is lucky to have two parents who are very intelligent and are able to look at life with a great deal of humor. He'll undoubtedly inherit those qualities from mom and dad, and I think he'll be well able to deal with anything that comes his way. And, hopefully, attitudes are changing, and the world will treat Ike well and just let him be...Ike.

Sent by Cinder Conlon | 8:46 AM | 7-3-2008

I would hope that we will learn that our skin color doesn't determine our ethnic history. I have a rich multicultural history, but I a never treated any differently than what my skin allows others to determine. If they can only remember that it's pigment not my history.

Sent by digitalsista (shireen) | 9:22 AM | 7-3-2008

Maura: there's a word for this fallacy, it's called the "one drop theory" and dates back to the time of legal slavery in this country, when one drop of African ethnic blood made a person black, and liable to being enslaved.

Small wonder so many Americans continue to stubbornly resist the self-evident fact of evolution - it points directly to the conclusion that we *all* have a few drops of "black" blood in us, however attenuated, and thus are all (by that archaic definition) "black".

Sent by Kasreyn | 10:06 AM | 7-3-2008

Texas still doesn't allow more than one race to be identified when you enroll you child. We are told it is because test scores have to be reported in subgroups that include race and they haven't figured out how to do that if a child is identified with more than one race.

Then every year we have a "how safe do you feel at school" survey. One of the questions asks the child their race. Every year my students are offended at the choices. Even when I don't have a biracial/multiracial child in the room, the kids protest the choices as being anything from lame to bigoted.

I know that the state and district are looking for patterns of discrimination both in test scores and the survey. Still if 10 - 12 yo have figured out this is wrong - it is time for the politicians to figure it out.

Sent by Kimberly Herbert | 10:08 AM | 7-3-2008

Growing up biracial in these times won't too tough on him. I know three multi racial babies now. It was a minor harrassment to meas a kid and still is at times. As a child in California I guess I looked Chinese. The kids at school thought I knew kung fu and said thing like,"Ching chong ching. What does that mean in CHina?" These days everyone thinks I speak spanish. I've been lectured at the bus stop about "forgetting my motherland,I think I'm all white because I know english all good." Ya, dude, whatever. Who asked who for the time?

He may have to answer a lot of questions about his heritage. Where is your mom from? Where is your dad from? How did they meet? They seem really intrusive but people are honestly really curious. On the other hand, he won't have to stand in the school office om the first day while some administrator slowly shouts, "DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH? WHAT DO YOU SPEAK AT HOME?" Ya, lady, whatever. My mom probably speaks better english than you do.

As for Bar Mitzvah, my Jewish friend married a half black Buddhist woman. They go through the motions of Judaism with Granma. The kid is only two so my friend figures he has time to think about it. But my friend pretty much just goes through the motions himself.

The best was winning bar bets with my dad. We do look alike if you get past the skin color. Maybe because the lights were so dim at the bar we won round after round to next new sucker.

Sent by amy | 4:26 PM | 7-3-2008

When my son was born, I was worried that my son would be as pale as I am. Fortunately, his color has come in. My son looks like a like-skinned --one might say high-yellow-- African-American. He does, however, have my round face and my light brown hair. So, I don't think either my wife or I will have any problems picking him up from school.

While my wife and I get the occasional sideways glances from old White couples trying to figure out whether our son is "more White or more Black," and while my wife gets piercing stares from African-Americans for "selling out," we don't have the "Are you the Nanny" mentality here in San Diego. San Diego is a military town. Interracial marriages are more common in the military than in the general population. While not ideal, we don't seem to have it as bad as it sounds like in New York for you and Isaac.

As to this "half white" thing, our cultural heritage is not a pizza, with half this on one side and half that on the other. My son won't stop marching in the St. Patrick's Day parade at the halfway point because he's "half" Irish-American. Neither will he stop rooting for the Kenyan Rugby 7's team at halftime because he's "half" Kenyan. He's Irish-American and Kenyan. Neither one replaces or mitigates the other.

As to Isaac's religious heritage, if he's already had his bris, why shouldn't he have his bar mitzvah? My son's baptized; if he wants confirmation when he's a teenager, that's his right.

Sent by Matthew C. Scallon | 1:12 AM | 7-4-2008

My friends include people from the following groups: Indians, Afghanis, Koreans, Ismailis, Chinese, Mexicans, Columbians, Nigerians, Rwandans, French-Canadians, Anglo-Canadians, Egyptians, Irish, Scots, My American husband, Ukrainians, Poles, Norwegians, Danes, Lebanese, Punjabis, Tamils, South Indians, and Japanese. You can imagine what a party at my place looks like! When you have a group of 20 and 30-somethings all together, you are going to get inter-racial relationships, and therefore marriages and/or children. As the world moves house from the rest of the world to North America, we will have more and more inter-racial relationships and therefore more bi-racial babies of every imagination. I myself are part of a half-Danish posse (which includes a guy who is the tallest half-Danish half-Philippino gay Canadian you will ever meet in your life!). Bi-racial babies are beautiful because of what they represent- the meeting of two people who saw beyond skin-colour and cultural difference to recognize each other as part of the most important race- the human race!

So, Ike, enjoy being in your daycare/kindergarten class with all the other "half" children that will be part of your cohort, and learn that it's the celebration of our diversity that makes us whole!

Sent by Juli | 2:03 PM | 7-4-2008

I agree with all of the above- but I really, really need to add- IKE IS A DOLL.

Sent by Carol | 12:07 AM | 7-5-2008

OMG....what a beautiful little boy.

Sent by Julie in North Carolina | 10:45 PM | 7-6-2008

I think a lot depends on what Ike looks like as he grows up. My family is from central america. I am black. I don't like to tell people that my family is from central america because they tend to treat me differently. It shouldn't make a difference where I am from. I am who I am. When people look at me I am still a black man (even though my culture is rooted solidly in a latin culture instead of a black american culture). Ike will be who he is, no doubt a smart, good looking man who loves sports. It is my hope he will be judged by his characteristics rather than by his color, but look at Barack. He is viewed as a black man even though he probably has more in common with traditional white america.

Sent by Jim Trenton | 1:01 PM | 7-7-2008