A century ago, no one would’ve guessed the United States would have a biracial president. Many thought mixed-race people were destined to lead tragic lives, fitting into neither the black world nor the white one. What became known as the ‘tragic mulatto’ myth served as a cautionary tale to deter whites and blacks from developing relationships across the colour line and condemning any resultant children to a lifetime of misery.
The world has become a smaller place since 19th century America – the advent of technology and cheap commercial travel mean we’re more comfortable around people and cultures from all parts of the world. Tourists scale the heights of Macchu Picchu and Taktsang and even at home, we’re exposed to other cultures through TV and the internet. Hell, maybe we’ve even matured a little. The modern world is still a place of opposing races but underlying it all is a smorgasbord of similarity if memes and viral videos are anything to go by: the mass appeal of ‘gangnam style’ and lolcatz speaks to a global commonality.
Nowadays it’s generally understood that bi-racial teens experience no more or less difficulty adjusting than say, someone whose parents are divorcing or who is exploring their sexuality. And did anyone stop to consider the possibility that society’s view and treatment of those early bi-racial kids had an impact on their development? Hello? Self-fulfilling prophesy anyone?
Examples of successful bi-racial people abound – Halle Berry, Bob Marley, Keanu Reeves, Steve Jobs, Naomi Campbell and Barak Obama among them.
But let’s not get carried away. Pockets of prejudice still exist, as shown most recently by the furore over the Cheerios commercial, and parents of biracial kids have to help them build strong enough identities to deal with that. So how do you help a biracial child grow into a well-adjusted young adult?
1. Explore/celebrate mixed heritage
The best place to start is at home. Teach your children about their own cultural backgrounds, the things from their heritage that make them feel special. My kids love that they were born in different countries, it gives them a sense of individual pride. But they’re united in their love of spicy food, eating with bread and fingers, wearing traditional South Asian clothes on special occasions and teaching Urdu words to their friends.
2. Choose a school that nurtures diversity
Young children are ultra-sensitive to being the ‘odd one out’ and their mission in life is to blend into their peer group. You can help them by giving them access to a peer group that’s just as diverse as they are. Role models, friends and mentors shouldn’t be confined to one culture. The more varied the world reflected in the classroom the higher the chance everyone will feel included. Encourage your child to have interest in everyone’s heritage not just their own.
3. Live a multi-cultural life
Travel, watch foreign films, learn languages, read literature from around the world, experience world cuisine. In our house, spicy Pakistani dinners are tempered by tea and traditional Irish soda bread for breakfast, but we also enjoy food from other countries, anything from fajitas to sushi. We read stories from around the world (Tales Told In Tents, Goodnight Stories from the Quran and anything by Roald Dahl to name a few), sprinkle our conversation with Urdu and talk about life in other countries.
4. Point out the similarities instead of the differences
Life is all about finding a balance between fitting in and being true to yourself. A cultural identity can never be the sum of a person. As much as we want to belong, it must never be at the cost of our personality. As well as celebrating and cherishing our cultural differences it helps to remember that, fundamentally, people are all the same. We remind our kids that whatever a person’s skin colour, language, dress or behaviour, they all eat, fart, laugh or cry. We tell them if they treat others as they would like to be treated, they can’t go far wrong.
My children are still young – between the ages of three and eight. As they get older I know we’ll face new challenges, even as the world and attitudes change. If you have any tips or advice I’d love to hear it – be sure to leave a comment below and share your knowledge.