What I’ve Learned from My Mixed-Race Children by Marilyn Hilton
When I was dating my now-husband and our relationship had become serious, a few well-meaning people asked me, “What about the children?”
I knew what they meant: I was white and my boyfriend was not. What they meant was, have you thought about what the children will look like, how society will treat them or whether they will be confused about whom they are?
I brushed off their concerns because after all this was the 1990s in California’s Silicon Valley, one of the most diverse areas of the United States, and no one cared about those things anymore.
So with confidence I answered simply, “Our children will be beautiful and deeply loved.”
A few years later we were married and had three babies—all beautiful and each deeply loved. They were half him and half me, with threads of our ancestors woven in, but all them. I marveled at their vast beauty and perfection delivered in such tiny packages—her dark mop of hair, his ripe-peach skin tone, the delicate charcoal smudge of her eyebrows. I never thought of them as multiracial or mixed-race; they were my babies whom I loved for doing absolutely nothing but being on this earth.
But as my babies grew, small, subtle things caused me to rethink my response to “What about the children?” As they toddled farther away from my protective sphere, I began to have glimpses of the world from their perspective, and they taught me some lessons about being a person of mixed race.
Children notice differences, but they do not judge.
My husband and I didn’t talk to our children about race. We wanted them to see and value a person’s character, not his or her physical appearance. But children naturally do see differences, and as our children made new friends, they’d refer to them as “the boy with the oval hair” or the “the girl with the brown skin.” And just as I’d hoped, they made no judgments.
They may be blind to appearances, but the world is not.
We humans are wired to sort and categorize, and it bothers us when something doesn’t fit neatly into place. And I soon discovered, as I was out with my children, that other people needed a name for them.
People often looked at them curiously, and sometimes asked questions like “Is your husband from another country?” or “Are you the nanny?” Most came out of curiosity—though sprinkled with a lack of sensitivity—but I never thought they were meant to be unkind.
Other questions bordered on rude, like were my daughters from the same father. To these, I’d smile awkwardly, sputter something polite and then change the subject.
Now that my kids are older and I’m no longer their gatekeeper, though always their fierce mama, they’re often asked what was probably on most people’s minds when they were babies, “What are you?” But it’s their choice whether to reply.
They will seek out their heritage.
We raised our kids the only way we knew how: the way our parents had raised us. We had family dinner every night, we went to church, we practiced good manners and we celebrated holidays with family. But other than annual visits to my family back East, where my kids ate lobster and learned to say “Ahnt,” and more frequent visits with their California grandparents, where they ate Japanese and Southern foods and heard their grandpa’s stories, my husband and I didn’t make any extra effort to expose them to all aspects of their heritages.
Now that they’re older, our children are digging into their roots and discovering the myriad parts of themselves by studying Japanese, asking their grandpa about his North Carolina boyhood and asking questions about my family.
My children will explore their identity.
When my daughter started middle school, she quickly made friends with several Asian-American girls and boys. At the time I thought she was identifying with her Japanese heritage. But then she pointed out that she and her friends identified as multicultural. Among many common interests and skills—like tennis, animated movies, or AP history—the shared feeling of being multicultural was one of their strongest bonds.
And that doesn’t mean they reject me.
This is their life, their challenges and their choices. We may be on the same journey, but sometimes we need to take different paths.
They will learn life skills I can’t teach them.
I can teach my children how to call 911 in an emergency, how to cook a meal to keep them from starving and how to get from one end of the city to the other. But there are other things I can’t teach them because they will experience life very differently than me.
I will never be asked “What are you?” My friends will never introduce me to new people with “Guess what she is?” I will never have to “out” myself around people who refer to my heritage pejoratively. I will never be so unnerved at the sight of a police car that, though I’d done nothing wrong, I’ll want to run, when running could be fatal. No one should have to bear this pain.
I admire my children more than I thought possible.
Because of their experiences, my children and others like them see beyond a person’s physical appearance and seek instead to understand, know and love a person’s heart. They will explore their own country and its subcultures and then discover the wider world with empathy and compassion because they know how to walk in another’s shoes.
My kids and those like them are going to change our scattered, polarized world. This mixed-race, multi-heritage generation will bridge the cultural, religious, ideological and political chasms and mend the brokenness like no other generation before them has.
Years ago, when I was asked “What about the children?” I couldn’t have imagined the lessons I would learn. Now I step in my children’s footprints and celebrate them with awe, pride and deep love.
Marilyn Hilton is the author of two novels and two nonfiction books — including her latest book, Full Cicada Moon. She has also published numerous articles, devotions, short stories, and poems in literary and consumer magazines, and has contributed to various compilations. Her work has won several awards including the Sue Alexander Award for 2011.
As a freelance editor and a frequent contest judge, she enjoys helping other writers develop their gifts. As a speaker, she enjoys encouraging her listeners. As a writer, she enjoys telling “stories that stick” to readers of all ages.
So insightful and beautifully written. Enough said. Thank you for touching and pulling on my heartstrings.
I’m glad that your children are comfortable with exploring their identity! My kids are mixed race also but all Asian (Chinese, Japanese and Korean). My 8th grader is a little aggressive in celebrating the richness of her heritage by thinking those who are not mixed race are missing out! 🙂
She was certainly successful in telling us a “story that sticks” with this post. Thanks so much for sharing it.
What a beautiful, beautiful post. And you know how I feel about your glorious book. Thank you for this and for being an advocate for children.
It’s so beautiful and so deep, Marilyn. May your words be heard beyond these borders.
An important, heartfelt post. And Full Cicada Moon is such a beautiful book. Thank you!
I love this article. I have cousins and students who are multi-racial. I want them to be proud of who they are. I also want my son to be proud of his heritage which includes Cherokee, Creek, British, Scottish, Irish, German, and French. Knowing who you are helps you appreciate what an amazing creation you are.
Goodness, it’s a shame you decided that colorblindness and not particularly helping your young kids explore their heritage was the way to go. I’m sorry your children had to learn how to navigate the world with their parent’s colorblindness, but it sounds like they found people and are doing okay. Also, I could absolutely tell a white person who hadn’t really unpacked their whiteness was writing “Full Cicada Moon”.
PS please don’t leave it solely to us mixed-race kids to change the world, because we actually have to fight for a lot of things while not having as much power (because mixed-race = not white = can’t get full access to sweet sweet white privilege). And we could sure use help from more white adults who actually have structural power and can change systems a lot better’n we can. Thanks much. Also, for goodness sake, a quick google search on “mixed kids will save the world” would have netted five different articles on why this is based on some misguided ideas of how racism works: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/03/08/519010491/why-mixed-race-americans-will-not-save-the-country
PS Also please google why statements like “We humans are wired to sort and categorize, and it bothers us when something doesn’t fit neatly into place.” is one example of some solid racism and unexplored white privilege. Or, here, I’ll do this work for you, too:
Finally, a link to some Blasian youth voices, directly, for all of y’all: https://afropunk.com/2017/01/blasian-narratives-film-explores-how-race-identity-and-heritage-impact-everyday-life/