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What Color Am I?

Posted by Patience on November 27, 2009 at 7:00 AM in Bicultural Families
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It has happened with each of our children around the age of four.

"Papa, you are brown!" Lucy proclaimed while she stroked his arm the other day.
"What color are you?" he asked.
"I don't know..." she giggled. "I'm cream." she finally replied.
"You aren't brown?" he returned playfully.
"No, I'm cream." she decided.

We looked at each other from across the room, the same look of surprise it was happening again. When Josiah was four, he lamented that Jorge wasn't gray like the rest of the family.
We chuckled over the color gray and tried to figure out where or why he came up with it.
He seemed genuinely sad over our differences in skin tone.

I have felt a little more uneasy each time it has come up wondering if we have failed in helping our children identify with the beauty of our bicultural family and more importantly, their Latino heritage. Was their interpretation just a literal observation completely appropriate in their development or was there more to it?

My obsessive parenting brain went straight to analyzing. We moved from Miami when Josiah was only 8 weeks old. We left an extremely diverse area with full immersion of the language and culture that had been so familiar to Jorge and I for so long. We found ourselves in the place that was the capital of the confederacy, north for us yet so more the south than we had ever experienced in our lives. Sunday dinners of our favorite Nicaraguan food from the fritanga and greetings of kisses cheek to cheek were very much over. While Jorge spoke some Spanish to our kids here and there, but with no local family to help fill in the gaps it was hard to keep the bilingual train going. Even with all the excuses, it just came down to a lack of intention and effort to stay connected to all the parts of who my children and husband are.

How much does our cultural identity shape us? What happens if we lack the exposure and immersion of a particular heritage? So here we are, brown, gray and cream, wondering what to do next. Is it too late?

If you are part of a bicultural family or of a different race or culture, how have you preserved your roots? Even if you are not, what are your thoughts or suggestions on the subject?
Please share in the comments.


Sugar Jones writes...

Sadly, my Hispanic heritage has slipped away. My older children vaguely remember loud parties filled with people and lots of food and great music, all very Mexican. My younger children are learning Spanish, but there's no culture behind the lessons. We just don't live that life any more.

Part of me is sad that my children aren't experiencing that multicultural upbringing, but the another part of me thinks that it's better than being set apart like when I was a kid.

PatienceAuthor Profile Page writes...

I hear you, it's hard sometimes. Thanks for sharing your story!

jennifer writes...

My daughter is almost two. She is biracial and bicultural. We live in France and I'm African American and her father is French caucasian. We read your article and laughed. In our home, it is a mini America. We ate American food and speak English. She speaks French with her father and English with me. She is both and has the best of both worlds. Now, the area we are living in is not that multicultural. The French are very xenophobic in certain ways and we fear it. So, we tell her daddy is pink and mommy is light brown and Eva is beige. We get a kick out of it. Try introducing Spanish again. Your children seem to be integrated so you should make sure they become bilingual. It will come back to them so easily.

PatienceAuthor Profile Page writes...

Thanks for your encouragement Jennifer! It's good to hear experiences of others in similar situations.

JAK writes...

I'm a bi-racial woman (Black/White). I'm in my mid 30's. I describe myself as a mixed or bi-racial person when asked. I will also further define myself by adding that I have a "Black" experience due to my mostly African American features & life experiences that mirror those of most other African Americans. I grew up partly in L.A. in the late 70's & early 80's. I was always proud of my Mother (who was white) and was never confused about who I was. I was more confused that "other's" seemed confused about who I was. Most times I was mistaken for Puerto Rican or some other hispanic background. Living in L.A. it was a more diverse experience. Then I moved to Des Moines Iowa (rolls eyes). Often I was the ONLY Black person. On top of that having to explain to ignorant people my bi-racial background became nightmarish. I am so blessed that I was raised to be proud of both my racial backgrounds. That my mother provided me with the knowlegde and enough self worth to never doubt who I was & to be proud of it.

I now have 2 children (Boy 8yrs & Girl 5yrs). My children's Father is from New Orleans & is creole. This only adds to the rich mixture that is our family. I have taught both of my children about their heritage. I have explained to them that if someone asks them "What are you?" (in regards to their race) tell them you are "creole." Which truly is the best way to describe our family.

The skin tones in our family range from the very light/fair skin African Amerian to the very dark skin African American. My son is on the very fair spectrum (like myself, his Grandmother & Aunt). He was convinced that he was "white" for YEARS! Going so far as to say that he felt sorry for Blacks during the civil rights movement & saying that "I'm glad I'm not Black!" ROFL. Now at 8yrs he knows who he is...he is creole. My daughter, at 5yrs, KNOWS she is BROWN...and her family is BROWN. And you can't tell her otherwise.

Anne writes...

When I was little my grandfather used to try to teach me words in his language (he called it Albanese [al-ba-na-za], a dialect of Italian). I only remember three words, that he used to sing to us. My grandmother was from Naples and she used the language in everyday speech to us, so I remember much more of that Italian. But unfortunately for me, it was their passing that made me yearn to have learned much more about them and their lives as 2nd generation Italians in this country. All that is left to my sisters and I are the food traditions, so hard to carry on in this age of "healthy" cooking. However, I am teaching these traditions to my son along with stories that I remember about our family. I found your conversation about color so very interesting, because even though we (my son and I) would be classified as white, our actual skin color is the warm gold-olive tone of my Italian ancestors AND white means WASP to me, which we are definitely not, the cultural difference is so pronounced between my husband and I (he definitely qualifies as WASP). I have begun to feel lately that to be classified as "white" erases my cultural heritage, and it makes me sad.

Liz writes...

I can't really comment on the bicultural question, as both my husband and I are white. But when my daughter was 3 and entered a very mixed pre-school, she started referring to her own color as gray (as opposed to her brown classmates). I guess it was just her opinion of her (very pale) skin tone.

Susan writes...

I am biracial: Chinese and white. Growing up in the South was difficult for me and my siblings, as we had no real place within either black or white culture. Now I live in Hawaii, and for the first time in my life, I am around thousands of other "hapa" people who look like me. I am no longer constantly asked, "What are you?," and have found a sense of "fitting in" that I never had before. What a wonderful feeling! I only know a few words and phrases in Chinese and celebrate my roots by participating in holidays, like Chinese New Year. I don't do much to celebrate the white side of my heritage, which is English and Irish. As society has mostly identified me as non-white, I identify more with my Asian side.

CHP writes...

My children are bicultural; my husband is Polish. We live in an area that is multi-cultural (70% white, the rest from Asian, middle eastern and European descent. My husband speaks very little Polish but embraces his culture. We have involved our kids in cooking Polish meals and encouraged them to study and do school reports on their Polish heritage. The culture is very much a part of our life because of my husbands family values and his work ethic. We teach them to have pride in who they are and to appreciate the multicultural country they live in so full of opportunity. As for skin color, it doesn't matter. I have one daughter with dark olive skin and the rest of us are fair. Her Polish G'pa is dark like her but G'ma is fair. They have asked about why some of us are light and some of us are dark. Our response, "that's genetics."

Rachael writes...

We have one son, who just turned 8 today, adopted from Guatemala. My husband is Puerto Rican American, and I am Polish American. My husband and I are both light skinned with blue eyes, our son a lovely brown with dark hair and eyes. His self portrait from kindergarten had blue eyes. I guess he saw himself by looking at us...? He has since corrected his eye color in his self portraits.
He knows where he is from, he has a brother who lives in Ireland, adopted by another family, who he longs to see again.
We don't have many obvious traditions from any of our cultural backgrounds, but our home holds crafts and art from each of our cultures, and occasionally serve as a touchstone for conversations about where our families came from, and who we are.
The other day my husband spoke Spanish to a woman selling tamales, and our son said, surprised, "I didn't know you spoke Spanish!" And my husband responded, "Well, yes, don't you?" Our son has had Spanish taught in the classroom and as an after school program on and off over the last few years. We don't speak it at home, I know only a few words and phrases, but our son hears it often when we visit family.
We've talked about skin color, but it's been pretty matter-of-fact, the conversation often ending with our son saying something like, "Hmmm", and storing the information for later.
I am proud of my heritage, as my husband is of his, and our son of his. We don't practice it every day, but I don't feel as if it's a loss. Our culture is the combination of what we've retained from our families and what we take from what's around us today.
Our son is comfortable asking questions and talking about where he is from and how he got here, and we have always tried to show him a little of everything and let his interests show us the way.

Allie writes...

Though I had a great upbringing, my brother and I both regret that we weren't exposed to more Cuban culture. Growing up in a very white city, it was pretty apparent that everyone saw us as different (no matter how good your intentions, I can't think of a more annoying phrase to ask a kid than, "So where are YOU from?"). There was nothing else to fill that void of identity, and when on the rare occasions that we visited family, we felt very foreign around all those Cubans. I'm very proud of my heritage, but I don't feel like I own it sometimes, if that makes any sense.

Salty writes...

My generation (1960s and 70s) was much more unsophisticated about all racial experiences than individuals born in later decades. Per the one drop rule, I experienced much of my life as "Black" despite the fact that I am biracial Black/White. Regardless of what I thought of myself or my visual identity, most of my experiences, e.g., dating, education, jobs, etc. was driven by how others perceived me.

As an adult, I have completely rejected the one drop rule and fully embrace my bicultural make-up. I do believe the US have evolved to where the enlightened segment of the population accepts that people come in all shapes, sizes, and color. Although diversity is sometimes construed as a weakness, it is one of our greatest strengths as a nation. In other words, today "what color am I?" means just innocent impish question without all the psycho-analysis, presumption, and judgement of prior generations.

Lisa writes...

I'm a 39-year-old biracial (black/white) woman. I grew up in Cincinnati, a southern city. Not geographically, but culturally. I grew up in a black neighborhood, so my initial identification was black, despite the fact that I had several so-called friends (and some half-siblings) tell me that I was white, or a wanna-be, or whatever.

My personal culture, was formed by both sides. I consider myself to be human. But I also consider myself to be part African, part Irish, part Scottish, and part Cherokee. Because I knew all those parts were in me. Because my mother encouraged us to know all about ourselves. My parents were different colors because they had different histories. Their ancestors were from different places. That was a good enough explanation for me.

As I got older, I appreciated the need for this country, at least, to identify all the various parts that make them feel whole. We may not have the tradition of ancestor reverence of the Far East, but we do seem to need to revere our cultural histories. Can't do that if you don't recognize all of them.

Daddy's brown because his old family came from a different place than mommy's old family.

Maggi writes...

As a solo WASP-heritage parent of two daughters born in China, I relish our conversations about our differing heritages. It's been reassuring lately to have the 4-yr-old talk about "when I was in my Chinese mom's belly." She has not expressed any concerns about her appearance. Her sister has twice had experiences of classmates making inappropriate comments, in 2nd and now 3rd grade, about her Asian eyes. We were able to talk through it and I hope I gave her the tools to address future situations. She has a headstrong personality and knows that "good things come in small packages," so she hasn't been bothered being the second-smallest kid in her grade. They have grown up with lots of adoption-oriented books (A Mother for Choco, I Don't Have Your Eyes, to name a couple) and participation in our local Families with Children from China group, so they have China-born friends and are used to celebrating cultural holidays like Lunar New Year. And I think every adoptive mother would say that I do not see my girls as Chinese when I look at them, but as my beautiful family.

Linda writes...

I am white, but refer to myself as "Human" on forms which ask for race. My husband is from "El Salvador" and considers himself Afro-Euro-Indigenous. We have raised a beautiful bi-cultural son who recently married an equally gorgeous bi-racial woman. They are expecting their first baby, a girl, in February. Both my son and his wife have embraced their diversity. They are both so comfortable in their own skin that they fit in wherever they go. They both speak three languages fluently, Spanish, English and Portuguese and are fortunate to live in a community where diversity is common. They are the future!

Kelly writes...

We have two children, a biological son who is white with blue gray eyes, and an adopted daughter who is a rich brown color, from Delhi,India. Both kids are thirteen now but your essay reminded me of a time about eleven years ago.
I overheard my two year old son introduce his sister at some gathering we were attending. He said, "This is my sister, she looks like chocolate. Take a bite."
I'm not sure if his comment was more about his love of chocolate or his frustrations with having a sibling!

Paul writes...

What color am I? is a question I asked myself at age 6. I was born in Wash. D.C. in 1950. My mother passed away when I was 5. Her wishes were for my brother Chris, and myself to go to New York and live with her parents. As it turned out, Chris lived with our grandparents and I went to live with her youngest brother and his wife who were childless. I began to learn there were different "colors" in America my first day in 1st grade in brooklyn. When I returned home that day, I was asked by them if my teacher was "white" or "colored". I was confused because color was never mentioned in DC. I answered "colored", because she did not look like a sheet of paper, or resemble the bedsheets I slept on. When they went to meet my teacher during open school week, they found out she was white. That was when I found out I was colored, she was white, and from that day forward, it seems that race is a topic that will be present in almost every area of my life and even effect my conversations with coworkers, employers, and people I come in contact with throughtout the day. When my son was 5 years old, he heard about how a young "black" kid was shot by "white" kids in his Coney Island Project. He told me he hates white people. I had to tell him we should not concern ourselves with color, but with the goodness in people. It is a shame these young people who have expressed their experiences growing up, and raising their kids, have to deal with color. GOD did not create different color people, he created people in His image and likeness. We need to realize that when we speak about skin color as we describe ourselves and others, we are describing HIM!!

PatienceAuthor Profile Page writes...

Thank you all for sharing your stories and offering such thoughtful suggestions and responses! It is good to know as parents we can reach out and find others in a similar place. Are there other issues that arise in bi-racial and bicultural families that you would like to see discussed here on supersisters? let us know in this comment section.

Samantha writes...

My daughter (18 months old) is biracial (black/white) and sadly, she is going to miss out on most of her daddy's culture. We spend all of our holidays and such with my family (white) because after our daughter was born, my husband's family stopped including us (don't call us, don't return my husband's calls). Plus, all of our friends are either white or hispanic. As far as identity, we plan on raising her American. My husband and I try not to see color or race, if you know what I mean. So, our daughter is going to know who she is and where her ancestors come from, but neither her daddy nor I try to label ourselves as anything other than American. But I think 4 must be the magic number. My nephew first noticed that Uncle Jason was not the same color as the rest of us around that age.

Roxana writes...

Raising bi-cultural and bilingual children is what our blog, SpanglishBaby, is all about. My friend and I started it at the beginning of the year when we realized that, as first-time mothers, we had never really given much thought of how we were going to raise our daughters in two cultures and with two languages prior to having them. The good thing is that we're obviously not alone...

Unfortunately, we don't live in a diverse community, but my husband and I only speak Spanish to our children and we belong to a playgroup made up of parents raising their kids the same way we are, so that helps a lot.

Raising your children to appreciate that there are many different cultures and languages in the world is a great thing. Teaching them a second language is an even greater gift.

Raquel writes...

I am Puerto Rican and Cape Verdean. I come from two cultures that have been mixing for centuries. I have aunts/uncles/cousins, etc. who range the skin color spectrum.

I then married and Irish/English man who doesn't identify with his cultures the way that I do. He's very "Americanized." Two children later with an extreme appreciation for the diversity and richness of all of our cultures (spanish lessons, celebrating St. Pat's day, Three King's Day, food, music, family, culture, arts) we found ourselves in a therapists office with our 13 year old daughter for a non-life threatening issue. The therapist asked her what were the strengths of our family and she stated, "diversity."

My daughter could maybe pass for white and my son is moreno (brown). He definitely identifies as brown and she identifies more as white (although I point out to her that she's a light skinned person of color). Although I want her to see the color in her, I have to respect who and how she identifies; it's her journey. In any event, her comment in the therapists offices makes me aware that she embraces diversity.

Risitas writes...

I am biracial and bicultural - probably less bicultural than biracial. But I identify most with my mother's Mexican-American culture as diluted as it is (I am 3rd generation American). My husband is nearly pure Irish-American.

I relish in teaching our son the beauty and appreciation of all cultures and races. I try to expose our son to as much as possible because being a "doctor's kid" is going to be a very different experience then the socio-economic culture than his fathers and mother's experience. As a child, I hated wealthy people (anyone who lived in a house) and had little respect for white people (my white father abandoned us). Now, I am married to a white man and we would be considered wealthy by my child-like perceptions.

My point is... is that I want our son to learn about different people and to appreciate different people rather they are of a different race, different culture, have different family lifestyle (ie. 2 mommies or 2 daddies, single-parent, adopted families etc, poor or rich). Pretending to be "blind" or all the same ie "human" does not result in the values of respect and pride that we intend to instill in our children.

Jennifer writes...

I am learning about multi-cultural counseling in my Master's Program, I am also married to a Kenyan man and we have multi-racial children that are very concerned with the color of their skin. Believe it or not, there are actual stages that many minority people go through.
Stage 1: Conformity- self depreciating and desire to identify with dominant group.
Stage 2: Dissonance and Appreciating- conflict between self depreciating and group appreciating.
Stage 3: Resistance and Immersion- self appreciating and group depreciating.
Stage 4: Introspection- Concern with basis of self appreciation and concerns with basis of group depreciation.
Stage 5: Integrative Awareness- Self appreciating and dominant group selective appreciation.

These different stages appear to be something my husband and I can expect our children to go through. My oldest son is already wanting to identify with being white and denying his African heritage. My husband, although he is African, grew up in an all African majority, so he and I both were very concerned when our son seemed to want to identify with only the dominant culture. It seems that this is a normal stage of development for him being a minority. This is sometimes hard to digest as a parent, because I see that life is hard enough, let alone your children having to go through more developmental stages.
Koltko-Rivera quotes Anais Nin with “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.” (p.3) This really relates to these stages in that all of our life experiences are formed by who we are and how we see ourselves in relation to others.

Koltko-Rivera, Initials. (2004). The Psychology of worldviews. Review of General Psychology, 8(1), 3-58.
Sue, Derald, Sue, David, & , . (2010). Counseling the culturally diverse. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Melanie writes...

Oh this is such a great post! Language and cultural identity is so important in our formative years!!

Lindsay writes...

My father is Cuban and my mother's American with Irish/German ancestry. Growing up in NYC and the surrounding area, we never felt different at all. I didn't understand until later in life that most people don't grow up in such a blended community. I consider myself American and I think it's sad that people in lots of places in this country don't get the experience that we had growing up. Everyone is from somewhere else - celebrate diversity - but also get over it.. Show me a mother of any color, background, religon, etc. who wants anything but the best for her children... We're more alike than different. Teach your children that lesson and you'll give them an edge in life.

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