Biracial Children Learn To Self-Identify

An installment of Tell Me More's weekly parenting segment focuses on the new book Mixed. It's a collection of photographs of multiracial children that includes stories celebrating their heritage. Host Michel Martin is joined by the book's author, Kipp Fullbeck, as well as authors Peggy Orenstein and Heidi Durrow, who discuss their own experiences living in multiracial families.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their comments and some savvy parenting advice.

In today's conversation, though, we want to tell you about a new book that just hit the stands. It's called "Mixed," and it's a compilation of photographic portraits of children of mixed heritage.

Joining us to talk more about this is its author, Professor Kip Fulbeck of the University of California Santa Barbara. Also with us is author Peggy Orenstein. Her most recent memoir is "Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents." And Heidi Durrow, she's co-host of the award-winning podcast "Mixed Chicks Chat" and the author of a new novel, "The Girl Who Fell From the Sky." And I welcome you all, and thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. PEGGY ORENSTEIN (Author, "Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents"): Thank you.

Professor KIP FULBECK (University of California Santa Barbara): Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Professor Fulbeck, we don't often talk about books of photographs just 'cause it's kind of hard for listeners to kind of understand what we're talking about. But the book is very it's just hard to put down. And I wanted to ask what made you want to do this book.

Prof. FULBECK: Well, thanks. Basically my wife and I had a baby boy last year and he was the impetus. He's a mixed race child himself and I wanted him to grow up in a world that was different than the world I grew up in as a mixed race kid.

MARTIN: And what was that world?

Prof. FULBECK: You know, unfortunately it's still around a lot where we have these questionnaires that force us to pick one box, when it to me it was like asking me to pick my mom or dad. I think wasn't a fair question for a kid. So this book is about addressing that.

MARTIN: Your previous work was called "Hoppa," which was about?

Prof. FULBECK: That was a book about people that were mixed race, part Asian or Pacific-Islander. And all the photographic books are the same in that they basically have photographs of the people, but then they have hand-written statements by the subjects themselves answering questions. So for the mixed kids book, the kids are answering the question: Who are you?

MARTIN: Who are you? And Peggy, you've written about your experiences raising a biracial daughter. Your little girl is - well, I guess she would be a Hoppa if she...

Ms. ORENSTEIN: She's Hoppa.

MARTIN: She's Hoppa.

Ms. ORENSTEIN: Hoppa power.

MARTIN: Yeah. To describe herself that way.

Prof. FULBECK: Absolutely.

Ms. ORENSTEIN: We're all about the Hoppa power.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit about what you've learned raising a multicultural family.

Ms. ORENSTEIN: Well, it's really interesting because it's often cast as a problem. And I think that it's also an opportunity for some really wonderful and rich aspects of identity and culture to come together and spend together. And my daughter I've talked about how as soon as I leave California, people used to ask me where I got her when she was a baby. And my kind of stock reply was from my uterus, you know. Is she Chinese or Korean? She's from my uterus. It always worked.

But Daisy, my daughter, is growing up in a really different world, I think, than Kip and Heidi did. And she's in Berkeley. I think I counted yesterday eight of her classmates are mixed race. Her teacher is mixed race, our rabbi is mixed race. So while she is definitely busy negotiating things - she's seven years old - she also isn't doing it in isolation or as an anomaly.

MARTIN: Now, Heidi, one of the reasons we wanted to talk to you is that, well, Kip has particularly talked about how different things were for him growing up and how he hopes the world is different. So I wanted to ask you that. Do you think the world is different?

Ms. HEIDI DURROW (Author, "The Girl Who Fell From the Sky"): I it's changing a lot. And I think it has a lot to do with the way that we are finding each other as mixed people and mixed families. One of the things that has been really great not only for me and for my co-host, Fanshen Cox of "Mixed Chicks Chat," is that people talk to us. They tell us stories. And the more that you get to tell the story about your family, as opposed to just checking the box, I think things do change.

MARTIN: Well, some people think that one of the things that's super-exciting about the era that we now live in is the president, Barack Obama, who is biracial. And his sister wrote the forward for Professor Fulbeck's book. But it was noted that he checked on his census form black. And I wondered if any of you have any thoughts or feelings about that. And Kip, I'll start with you. What do you think? Does that bother you?

Prof. FULBECK: Absolutely, it does not. I think he has every right to pick whatever he wants to pick. That is my main point with my book, so that identity is something which is a really personal process. And no one gets to tell you who you are. And that's completely what we do as a society. We're always trying to box people into these boxes, whether it's in terms of race or sexual orientation or ethnicity, et cetera, when in reality, everyone's African anyway. There's biological basis to race whatsoever. So I think it's totally his call.

MARTIN: Heidi, what about you?

Ms. DURROW: I'll tell you, I struggled mightily with that census form. And I sat with it for a couple days before I actually chose both. And I'm with Kip. I absolutely believe in self-identification. And I believe in something else, also, that you get to be organic in your definition of yourself. So some days, I'm a mixed chick. And some days, Im half-black. And sometimes, I'm African-American and Danish. And I think I get to say whatever I want to say because I'm not trying to make other people feel comfortable.

That's what the box is all about, I think, that other people feel uncomfortable. They don't know what they're dealing with. The reason I get to say whatever I want to say is that I get to tell all of who I am. And that makes it a better relationship, I think, ultimately, when I'm talking to people. Just - go ahead.

Ms. ORENSTEIN: Just wanted to say something from a parent's perspective, since this is a parenting show, that it's really important to allow your child to have that fluid identity and make those choices and not get uncomfortable when they start sort of going one way or another. You know, we try, in our family, to really have aspects of both our cultures, both our identities. In my case, I identify more as Jewish than, I guess, as European or Caucasian. So we really try to celebrate all of who we are and also look at things like - I mean, Kip's book "Hapa" has been a tremendous resource for our family.

MARTIN: One of the things, though, that Peggy, I was interested in, you wrote a piece for Parenting.com called "Where I Got Daisy." And you write in the piece: I often contemplated how to raise a daughter with a healthy sense of female of identity, but I believed matters of race were my husband's job. He, after all, was the person of color. I was wrong. For my child's sake and my own, I needed to understand what it meant to be a multicultural family in a world that doesn't always see the shades of grey among the shades of brown. I needed to know how to answer the question.

But I am interested in that how much conversation is appropriate, necessary. And Peggy, I'll start with you, just because we started talking about your piece.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ORENSTEIN: I forgot I wrote that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. FULBECK: Good piece.

Ms. ORENSTEIN: Thank you. You know, it's interesting, being the white parent in this equation because it really - you change, or at least I changed. Even if you are a person who thinks he's worked these issues out, that is very conscious and all of that, when your child is not Caucasian, when your husband or wife is not Caucasian, you relate to issues of people of color in a completely different way. And race is a constant conversation in our house, because it just is. It's an issue in the house. Kids don't really develop a consciousness of skin difference till they're about five. But between, like, five and eight, they're really interested. They ask a lot of hard questions. So it's got to be an issue.

MARTIN: I think it's different in when kids develop a color consciousness, depending on what color they are...

Ms. ORENSTEIN: Is that right?

MARTIN: ...quite frankly, I do believe so. I think that African-American children notice a bit younger, because I think...

Prof. FULBECK: Depending where they are.

MARTIN: Depending on where they are.

Ms. ORENSTEIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, Kip, what about that? Same question to you. I notice in the book that some of the kids list - you know, five different ethnicities. And I wanted to ask where we're drawing the line between celebrating a diverse heritage and perhaps obsessing over race and ethnicity.

Prof. FULBECK: Well, I think, you know, from a parent's point of view, it's really, really important to discuss these issues of identity really openly with your children, because they've got to know that these external definitions are not absolute and they're not finite and they're not beyond question. Because even if we take the census, if you look at that, you can't check Jewish because that's not a box. You know, why isn't Hispanic a race? Why isn't this a race? Because there is no such thing. We're making these arbitrary boundaries, and so that kids have to know that their identity is really fluid. They can be something one day and something the next day.

I was a white kid when I was growing up because I had an entirely Chinese household. I was the white kid, until I went to school, where I became the Chinese kid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DURROW: I have a nephew who is half-black and half-Filipino, and we used to watch "American Idol" together. And there was a contestant on who was a light-skinned, mixed guy, I assume, who had light eyes that looked me - curly hair like me. And he kept referring to him as the Danish guy because he thought of me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DURROW: I must be Danish because I spoke Danish and I taught him how to make Danish foods. And so it can be really confusing for kids, because they identify these kinds of differences - curly hair or light eyes and things like that - and they think they know what they're getting out of thinking about race, but they really don't. I mean, we really do have to have the conversation with them.

MARTIN: How much talk is good, in your view?

Ms. DURROW: Well, I think the more, the better. I have another niece, she's six years old. And I think she thinks she has Auntie Heidi hair, as opposed to having curly hair, and that actually, a lot of people look like her in the world and there's something going on there that's not just related to me in particular. I think it's super important, especially to talk to kids about the fact that there's a whole population out there of mixed kids, and that's why I love Kip's book so much. And I also think it's important to tell kids about history of mix-ness, that it didn't just happen in their family, and it didn't just happen 20 years ago when - well, not 20 years ago when I grew up. I grew up 40 years ago. That's when I was born. Oops.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DURROW: I was trying to get away with something.

Prof. FULBECK: Well, 40 is the new 20.

Ms. DURROW: Yeah, there you go.

Prof. FULBECK: (unintelligible)

Ms. DURROW: But I think it's also important to talk about the fact that we've been mixed for a very long time, and it shows up in different ways in different people. And so it has a history and it's historical in some way, and it's not a new fad. It's not the Obama age. This has been going on for a long time, and we're all part of this blended family together.

Prof. FULBECK: Centuries.

Ms. DURROW: Yes.

MARTIN: Kip, how do you hope your book will be used?

Prof. FULBECK: Well, one, I would hope I live in a world where I didn't have to make a book like this. That would be the ultimate goal. But since we live in a world that is really framed in our country about separating people, I think it had to be done. So I want this book to be used in a positive way to let conversations start and to keep them going. I agree with both Heidi and Peggy. I don't think there's a wrong way to ask: What are you? I think it's an okay question. I just have two caveats with that: One is that it's done with respect, and two, that the person asking me is willing to answer the question themselves and that it's not that I'm some exotified specimen that's just to be asked questions to.

MARTIN: Professor Kip Fulbeck teaches art at the University of California Santa Barbara. He was kind enough to join us from Chicago, part of his book tour in support of "Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids." Peggy Orenstein is an author. Her most recent memoir "Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents." And she joined us from the U.C. Berkeley of Journalism. And Heidi Durrow is a co-host of the award-winning podcast "Mixed Chicks Chat" and author of the book "The Girl Who Fell From the Sky." And Heidi is also on book tour, and she joined us WDUQ in Pittsburgh. And I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Ms. DURROW: Thank you so much.

Ms. ORENSTEIN: Thanks for having us.

Prof. FULBECK: Thank you.

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