Blessed, Challenged: Dads With Multi-Racial Kids

Host Michel Martin discusses the challenges of raising kids who do not look like their parents with Kurt Streeter, an African-American journalist who has written that his son is fair enough to be mistaken as white; Jay Rapp, a white educator and dad of a black daughter and a biracial daughter; and David Youtz, a white man who adopted four daughters from China.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

And we've talked before in this segment about multiracial and blended families and how they sometimes have to work harder to fit into our society's idea of what makes a family.

Previously, we've talked with a group of moms about this and, actually, we've talked with a group of kids. Now, it's the dads' turn, especially because we saw a recent column in the Los Angeles Times that caught our eye.

Journalist Kurt Streeter, who is biracial, but for all intents and purposes, looks black, as he says, writes about his and his wife's surprise over how fair their son's skin was at birth and continues to be. He looks, for all intents and purposes, white. And, in the column, Streeter reflects on whether his hard earned life lessons on moving through the world as a black man are even relevant to his son now.

So Kurt Streeter is with us to talk more about this. Welcome, Kurt Streeter. Thanks so much for joining us.

KURT STREETER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And your son is now a year old?

STREETER: Uh-huh. Fifteen months.

MARTIN: And I'm sure cute. Fifteen months and, I'm sure, cute as can be.

STREETER: Oh, he's great.

MARTIN: And also with us once again is Jay Rapp. We've spoken with him before about his journey as an adoptive dad of now two - with his partner - of two African American daughters. He and his partner are both Caucasian and they have an eight year old who is visibly African American and a four year old who is visibly biracial. Welcome back, Jay. Thank you for joining us.

JAY RAPP: Thank you having me.

MARTIN: And also with us for additional perspective, David Youtz. He is the dad to seven year old triplets - hats off to you - and a 16 year old daughter, who are all adopted from China. Welcome to you, David. Thank you for joining us.

DAVID YOUTZ: Thank you.

MARTIN: So let me just start, Kurt, with the column that kind of caught our eye, really caught a lot of us, just really made a lot of us think. And you said that, when he was born - your son was born - that you and your wife both chuckled, but you said that, we had thought our newborn would have skin more like mine. We also figured I would teach him the lessons my parents taught me as I grew up in the 1960s and '70s. Be proud of being black, but be ready because you will always have to find a way around barriers, large and small. My son won't need those lessons. He'll have what I can only imagine: white privilege.

So, Kurt, did it fundamentally change your idea of your job as a dad when you realized your son looked so different from you?

STREETER: Well, I think, you know, I'd been holding onto an idea that I would have to teach him those lessons and I was really looking forward to it, in a way. You know, I was - you know, I'm very proud to be who I am and to be a black man and I wanted to pass that along to him.

But, immediately, when we saw him, we saw that he was quite different looking than we expected and it was sort of a jolt, but it's immediately, I think, brought me back to what's most important and that's my essential humanity and I just flipped the switch right away and said, okay. He's not what we expected and I'm not going to have to raise him the way that I thought, but he's wonderful just the way he is and I love him, you know, more than life itself. So...

MARTIN: Jay - well, of course you do. Yes. Jay, we talked before, though. When, initially, you adopted your first child, you just wanted to be a parent and you really didn't think that much about race. But you do think a lot about race. You know, you're an educator. You've worked in multiracial and diverse environments and you do think a lot about what it is - what's your job to teach. Right?

RAPP: Right.

MARTIN: So how does that play into how you see yourself as a dad?

RAPP: That's a great question. My partner and I have gone back and forth and really feeling a strong sense of responsibility to prepare our children for the things that they're going to experience as they grow up and get older. And we both know that they're going to experience some sort of prejudice at some point in their life, some sort of racism.

But I think that the other part of it that we really struggle with is, by bringing these things up, are we actually planting the seed in their minds so that they're expecting certain things? So, for example, if they don't get the job that they're seeking, is it because of their race? If they don't get into the college of their choice, is it because of their race? Type of thing.

And so we really struggle with that balance and - is that even true? So we know that those obstacles are out there but it's, you know, we want to prepare them. It's our responsibility to do that. But I also don't want them to sort of - and Kurt alluded to this in his article as well - you know, do they begin thinking about - they begin automatically going to that when something doesn't go their way.

MARTIN: Well, there are conversations that you find yourself having and David; I bet this happens to you too, that you find yourself having that people don't have. Like for example, when you go into the same say, gym, OK...

JAY RAPP: Right.

MARTIN: ...for, you know, years. And people continually ask like where is the mom or they speak to another parent and assume that that parent is your child's parent. Even though you've been there for however long and you have to continually remind them, excuse me, no, thank you, I am the dad. And that she can't help but notice that. How do you deal with stuff like that, Jay? And then David, I'll ask you the same question.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RAPP: That's a very good question. I think that each time it happens it's sort of a new experience for us. Not necessarily should be, but you're never really prepared for it when it happens. And it sometimes happens in the strangest places. We reinforce with our kids that we are a family, that we are going, that we look different, that people are going to perceive us different, but that there are all different kinds of families. And when we're out in public we make a point of making sure that we say, look at that family, you know, they're different as well. Look at the family sitting over there, you know, they're made up of two moms or whatever the case may be. So when those things happen then they are prepared. They know that not everybody sees us the same way we see ourselves.

MARTIN: Now David, you and your wife were already engaged with China and Chinese culture when you adopted your first child, 'cause you were living in Hong Kong. So it seems - as you said - it was a no-brainer, I think to when you were exploring adoption to adopt, you know, children from China. But even with that, how often does race and ethnicity come up as part of your family conversation?

YOUTZ: Well, it's really interesting. We are, of course, a biracial family. My wife and I are European-American and are white, and we're outnumbered by our four Chinese daughters. At home, I mean there's a very interesting dichotomy here. At home we're just four kids and two adults; we're the individuals we are. My older daughter is a vegetarian. She's the teen in the family. The kids have decided which one is the funny one, and then another one loves pink. But when we go outside the door we seem to be something else to the outside world. We're a biracial family. And as you mentioned, we have triplets, so there's all kinds of things going on. I sometimes feel like we're a sort of parade for other people we don't know. And people do come up very frequently and ask sometimes intrusive questions. I recognize their very well-meaning but often they are things we have to deal with.

MARTIN: Like what? Like, give me one?

YOUTZ: Well, I'll give an example.

MARTIN: Yeah. Do you mind? Yeah.

YOUTZ: Not too long ago we were at a picnic, and so we were just a family out having fun amongst lots of other families at the picnic. And a stranger came up and started chatting with us in a friendly way, and then quickly headed off on kind of an anti-China tangent. And he had apparently had a lot of anger and politics inside him. This had to do with China's human rights problems, the Chinese taking jobs away, and then he gratuitously threw in with my kids right there that, you know, those Chinese, they don't care about their daughters. They throw them in the trash. You know, this was an awful thing. So we tried to just stop the conversation. And then, of course, we were left with some stuff to talk about with the kids. So fortunately, you know, these kinds of things only come up in that big a way from time to time. They're usually much subtler and smaller issues but we try to make sure that our kids already have a very happy confidence and grounding on what it means to be Chinese, and we think their ethnicity is wonderful.

MARTIN: Wow. We're kind of taken aback here. It's taken us a moment to respond because we're all kind of speechless. But...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

YOUTZ: OK.

MARTIN: But...

YOUTZ: It can happen.

MARTIN: Yeah. Was there any lingering effects from those conversations? I mean I don't know if the girls even really heard what he was saying. But what did they draw from it? Did they talk about it afterwards?

YOUTZ: Well, it's interesting. Very frequently your kids don't really talk to you about it and so I don't think they necessarily raised questions. But my wife and I were mortified and assumed that, you know, some kind of lesson has been picked up here. So I think we raised that kind of thing. I mean I gave you a great big example but little examples like that happen frequently. And I think every adoptive parent, especially when you're sort of an obvious visible adoptive parent like ours, and like many of ours here on the panel, you get used to the little comments. And so I suppose our way of dealing with it as a family is that we always try to think about our kids first. And so we tell them that. When we chat about an incident afterwards we say, you know, well, how did that feel? You know, that was a stranger. You know, we don't agree with that. And then we just try to make sure that the way we handle it always has to do with the kids first.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with David Youtz. He's a dad of four daughters who are adopted from China. Jay Rapp, who along with his partner, has two adopted daughters who are African-American and a different race from him. And Kurt Streeter, a columnist with the Los Angeles Times and wrote a recent column about his reflections upon being a dad who has a son who resembles him - who doesn't resemble him as closely as he had thought that he would. And we're just talking about what are some of the challenges and interesting conversations that arise from that in this new era of having blended and multiracial families.

You know, Kurt and Jay though, we were talking about - and David, you kind of alluded to the positive stereotypes, even though they are still stereotypes that you have to deal with about having children or Asian or Asian-American, now the assumption that they would be good in math or with this gentleman's views about China.

But then with Kurt and with Jay, is it this because you're men and when you're men with your kids that there is a - you know, one of the moms who was on our panel talked about how irritating it is to her when people - because she is African-American and her son is biracial - they assume she's that nanny and they ask her, you know, how much she charges to watch him and things of that sort. And that gets on her nerves. With men sometimes that there's this kind of implied threat. Like, and I was wondering, Jay, maybe I'll start with you, does anybody ever like question you, like what you doing with that little girl?

RAPP: They do. Actually, I had a very interesting experience. It happened to me when my oldest daughter Kendall was just four years old and was in a parking garage, actually in Bethesda and she was acting out and refusing to get in the car. And I was sort of chasing after her and had to physically pick her up and then try to put her in the car. And a woman, a white woman stopped and actually asked me what I was doing with that child. And I understood from her perspective it may look strange. And so I had to actually convince her that this was my child, that there wasn't - that she was acting out; that this was not I was not abducting her. But it scared me. And I can remember that was the first time that I thought, wow, this could be a really bad situation.

But luckily I mean nothing happened as a result, but it does happen. And then there are more subtle things that we constantly get is, especially being two Caucasian men carrying for African-American girls. There are all sorts of comments or looks that we might get, if our daughter's hair isn't a certain way or if we're not taking care of things the way other people think we should. And I greatly appreciate - we greatly appreciate the advice and people's care and concern. But those are things that you get.

MARTIN: And people are sometimes adamant about what you should be doing...

RAPP: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...because they feel like they are the authority and you're not in a way that they wouldn't take liberties. Well, they actually might take liberties, actually on the hair piece.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: People might have something to say about that. Well, Kurt, let's a little, we been talking a little bit about sort of the challenges. Well, why don't we just in the couple of minutes we have left let's hear from each of you about the perhaps the unexpected blessing - if I can use that word - of having a family that doesn't necessarily look like everybody else. And Kurt, you want to start?

STREETER: Well, I think I alluded to it a bit earlier. I think that having Ash in our lives has reaffirmed particularly I think to me just sort of the way that in a way race doesn't matter, in a way the connection that all humans should have in a sort of I guess it's kind of cliche, but a sort of oneness, you know, in having him, looking at him every day, this little white or some people think he's racially ambiguous. I don't know. Having a little boy that doesn't look like me has really made me feel that connection. And aside from that I just think it's just a - I think having a child that doesn't look like you, I think it's a wonderful conversation starter and it's a wonderful way for - I like talking about these issues and I like being out with my kid and having other people sort of kind of look at us a little bit and wonder because I like kind of pressing that issue. And I think that we as a society need to think more and more deeply and more intelligently and sensitively about these issues. So I think it's a wonderful thing overall. I haven't had any really bad experiences so far.

MARTIN: David, why don't we go to you next because you're kind of our senior thought leader here, since your daughter is the oldest and you've been down this road the longest of the group here.

YOUTZ: Right. Well, I mean I would thoroughly agree with Kurt. Just being a dad, having these amazing children in my life is such a joy everyday. That completely puts in perspective any of the challenges that do come up. One of the wonderful benefits we've had is that there's this tremendous community that's formed itself - just kind of grew organically - of families who've also adopted from China. There's an organization called Families with Children from China - FCC - and there are about 100 chapters across the country. For us as a family, we've actually found a lot of our best friends through that community. There are a lot of gatherings that we go to. I've learned a tremendous amount about being an aware, sensitive parent and about what it means to be a dad because we are this unique kind of family.

MARTIN: And Jay, final thought from you.

RAPP: I don't know if I could say it any better. But it's just having both girls in our lives is a huge blessing and we're extremely grateful. But one of the things that I think it's done for us is made us more sensitive, caring, empathetic people in general to issues - to diversity-related issues and really, really making us more aware.

MARTIN: And you have really learned to do hair?

RAPP: I have really learned to do hair. Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Jay Rapp is a father with his partner of two daughters. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Kurt Streeter is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He was with us from NPR West. And David is Youtz is a dad - oh sorry - Kurt has a son, as we mentioned, who's 15 months old and as cute as can be. And David Youtz is a dad of four girls, three of whom are triplets and he was with us from NPR's bureau in New York.

Gentlemen, thank you all so much for speaking with us.

YOUTZ: Thank you.

STREETER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been

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