Being and Becoming: Stages of Identity Acquisition
When I became pregnant with our first child, my partner and I would guess for hours what she would look like and who she would resemble the most. Being biracial myself meant we were playing an exciting game of genetic Russian roulette. Would she have dark hair and blue eyes like her big sister from my husband's previous marriage? Would she have curly hair, a mocha skin tone, and brown eyes like me? Or blonde hair and a light complexion like her father did as a child?
Isobel (now three years old) was born with bright blue eyes, fair skin, full lips, and curly caramel-coloured hair. I realized right away that my “white-passing” child would have a very different interracial experience from my own. For the first time, I questioned how prepared we were for this reality and wanted to unpack my own experience to guide her.
I consulted Toronto-based psychotherapist Moin Subhani, who specializes in providing therapy for BIPOC, immigrant, and second-generation children. He believes that, "Today, there is no template for raising biracial kids. You are starting and creating something new. It's about embracing the fact your offspring won't be exactly like you in physical appearance. In doing so, you also accept and realize you're doing something new—not just in your family, but the world around you." Having been raised by a white mother and a Black father meant that my parents didn’t truly understand the nuances of simultaneously being racially “both,” “neither,” and “something else” entirely.
Having been raised by by a white mother and a Black father meant that my parents didn’t truly understand the nuances of simultaneously being racially “both,” “neither,” and “something else” entirely.
My experiences would help them navigate a mono-cultural world desperate to place us into a racial box. I wanted to include these realities in my childrearing and ensure acknowledgement of privilege, creating community, and practicing anti-racism were prominent themes interwoven in our teachings.
Three months after welcoming Isobel into the world, I was pregnant again. By the time our brown-eyed, olive-skinned, dark-haired beauty, Éloïse (now two), was born, my partner and I had already spoken at length about how we would foster racial and cultural integration with our children. As a blended family, our goal is to consciously and openly create a safe space for our children to explore their racialized identity while honouring our own cultures and experiences. We want them to learn and celebrate every part of who they are and develop pride in their own racial identity. We also want to ensure they grow up seeing themselves as citizens of the world, prepared for their role in challenging the status quo, and provide them with the confidence and emotional intelligence needed to foster a strong appreciation for diversity, empathy for others who do not share their background, and different approaches to problem-solving.
Many parents don't think to discuss race with children until a problem occurs, or it's a topic that never comes up, and we hope they magically “get it.” This inaction does a disservice to your child; it creates barriers to self-acceptance and connections with others in the future and fails to prepare them for the inevitable. The following is an age-appropriate guide we'll be implementing in our home, heavily rooted in art, curiosity, and play, while exploring race and culture—and their value—with our children. Even though it is designed with raising interracial children in mind, many of the ideas and practices below are valuable references for any family looking to incorporate cultural openness and racial appreciation in their homes.
THE STAGES OF IDENTITY ACQUISITION
Babies, 0–2 years old: Sounds and language
Teaching children about race and identity starts the moment your journey as a parent begins. According to the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, published by the American Psychological Association, 3-month-old babies prefer faces from particular racial groups, often based on what they see in their daily lives, and nine-month-olds are able to visually categorize faces by race. It is vital during this time to socialize your children with people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. A caretaker's voice provides babies an opportunity to be introduced to stories and songs featuring various instruments, languages, and narratives that become the fabric of their background.
I was lucky enough to be in Scotland with my (Scottish-born) mother when I first found out I was pregnant. Jet-lagged and excited, we made our way to a little boutique to find books on Celtic nursery rhymes and folktales we could begin reading. My partner, also being part Scottish, liked this idea of creating cultural familiarity between both of us and a baseline of commonality for everyone in the house. Then, we looked for a way to include differences we had that weren't part of mainstream culture. Being a native French speaker, I wanted to sing French and Haitian Créole lullabies to my babies to familiarize them with the different languages that would swirl around them. Memories of my own parents singing these songs to me as a child flooded back and further connected me to my daughters.
Toddlers, 2–4 years old: “Culture-proofing”
Much like how we babyproofed our home by eliminating potential hazards to ensure our children were safe, we made sure to “culture-proof” it as well, so our children were less exposed to problematic content and toys, while having access to books and music that focus on broadening their minds and introducing diversity. Taking a page from Montessori practices, we focused on giving the girls toys that encourage open play, such as little peg figurines with no faces, wooden blocks, and a ton of miscellaneous items from the kitchen like measuring cups and soup ladles. Of course, they have hand-me-down playsets with known characters like Batman, Captain America, and ET (which is perfectly fine because second-hand toys are excellent in their own right). Still, when it comes to the money we spend, we choose ambiguous toys with multiple uses and interpretations, which lets them play and create without the limitations and backstories provided by popular licensed figurines (which are predominantly centred around white and male narratives).
As a child, I remember how flustered my extended family would get when deciding if they should give me the Black Barbie or the white one. As a result, I've avoided giving my children traditional dolls. When a friend bought my eldest a Frida Kahlo beanbag-style plushie, I seized on this and focused on introducing them to important historical figures instead. They now have Nelson Mandela and Gandhi finger puppets and books like Dream Big Little One and Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, featuring strong feminist role models of diverse racial backgrounds. While my focus is on helping the girls forge their racial identity, I also took the opportunity to have intersectional concepts of self-love and viewpoints from other marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ++ and Indigenous communities.
Kids, 4–7 years old: Deepening knowledge
As my children progress to this stage, I expect that they might begin to articulate, paint, or draw some of the differences they see between their father and me, or subtleties between each other. Rather than shut down the conversation by saying their differences don’t matter, I plan to take the opportunity to discuss the variations and similarities that exist within our family and community.
Make sure to check in with your child to see if they are experiencing any race-related challenges or bullying that may need immediate addressing. School can intensify the curiosity children have about themselves and receive from their peers. Social science projects, such as creating a family tree or a family collage using magazines, are often part of the curriculum. These are a good opportunity to help you understand how your child is starting to identify themselves.
This age is also a perfect time to deepen their understanding of traditions and food practices unique to your family and culture. When I was a child, we cooked and ate a squash soup at Thanksgiving called Soup Joumou, and although I was a curious child, I never asked why we ate this particular soup every year. As an adult, I would discover that this is the Haitian soup of independence and has enormous significance to my ancestors and Haitians worldwide. Although most Haitians eat this soup on the first of January, my parents chose to serve it at that time to give thanks for the freedoms we have. Providing my children with context around why we celebrate the way we do as a family or as a culture will give them a sense of validation within their traditional community. Providing them with the “whys” can help them build bridges to their racialized selves that they can always reference by giving them the theory they can practice later, even if they choose to express it differently like my family did.
Tweens, 8–12 years old: Identity and boundaries
As they continue to seek independence from us, I expect my children may naturally gravitate towards one parent's identity more than the other. Sometimes this is the dominant culture and language they grow up in—a transition known as “identifying with the colonizer.” In other cases, they may gravitate towards the culture of the parent with whom they share more physical characteristics. If this parent is from a non-dominant culture, this is known as “identifying with the colonized.” Depending on where you live, how your child sees themselves, and their peer group, they can experience either, or both, of these stages. While it is often not a straightforward path from one to the other, each child will have their own unique journey through these transitions.
With influence from friends intensifying, puberty around the corner, and your child's feelings about the world around them starting to form, this is a perfect time to introduce them to advocacy, anti-racism, and protesting injustice. Pick a topic relevant to a recent event or situation your child has observed and commented on to show them how they can channel their power and voice into something positive. They can write a letter or tweet organizations, make a poster or meme, or discuss what to do if someone is racist towards them or their friends. It is here that, as a parent, I want to help my children create healthy boundaries around what is and isn't appropriate, safe, and effective. Going beyond teaching them about inclusion and tolerance, I want to provide them with the permission to walk away or speak up when experiencing racial disrespect, no matter who is involved.
Teens, 13–16 years old: Identify with the Colonizer
By this age, my children will have grasped the base level understanding of themselves and their culture in a positive light: celebration, dance, play, music, and language. Once you've empowered them with a voice and tools to express themselves, you can begin to unpack ancestral trauma or stories from your culture. Difficult topics such as slavery, colonization, genocide, war, and persecution are challenging to discuss, but vital to children's understanding themselves and integral to having a more profound knowledge of racism. Your children may oscillate between how their racialized identities are united or in conflict with each other and the world around them based on their history. Help them work through this information by drawing connections to elements in their lives, such as art and language.
When I was six, my Haitian grandmother moved in with my parents and me and became my primary caretaker when my parents were at work. She spoke no French or English, but I picked up Haitian Créole and began to speak it fluently within a year. Many years later, I would understand why Créole sounded a bit like French and the role France played in bringing enslaved Africans from their country to Haiti and how this led to creating this language. Looking back, I wish I had known more about Haitian history as a child and the connection I had (unbeknownst to me) through food and language. This knowledge would have allowed me to see beyond the narrative of Haiti as “one of the poorest countries in the Americas” and understand my ancestors as abolitionists, revolutionaries, and dreamers looking to build a new world for themselves. Subhani refers to philosophies based on Indigenous principles by stating that we walk with the seven generations before and after us. With this in mind, we can see how decisions, experiences, hardships, successes, and mindset have a way of vibrating through different generations. Understanding my cultural connections brought me closer to knowing important features about myself and my family; I feel compelled to continue in their footsteps and proudly share our history with my children.
Young adulthood, 16–18 years old: Privilege and fluidity
Your child is about to enter the world as an adult, with the tools necessary to continue to examine and explore their identity independently. The final lesson is to remind them of the power and privilege they hold as interracial individuals. They are beacons of change, and the fact of their existence challenges outdated notions about race and racism, fuels the fluidity of their identity, and makes them resilient. It is not to say they will be unbothered or untouched by the racial shifts in society, but the work you have done as a family has braced them for the challenges ahead. Their ability to reflect on themselves fully will give them the confidence to be unapologetically uncategorizable in a world that wants them to pick a racial side. In a way, they are evidence of history resolving itself: as they come to understand the role race and culture play in their own narrative, they can see and honour in themselves all the unique perspectives they possess.
A challenging part about parenting any child is that it forces you to confront your own childhood experience and either implement revisions or repetition. Regardless of your intentions, there is still a good chance that you will get it wrong. During my discussions with Subhani, he reminded me that parenting isn't about getting it right, but choosing to show up with love, humility, and consistency. The goal is to raise children who will become self-possessed enough to hold us accountable, and that may mean we will have to answer to them one day if we fail to act. Subhani suggests you “allow yourself to discover curiosity through your child. Those with mixed parenting often talk about a feeling of never belonging. The flip side of this is that your child will have a unique vantage point, one you never considered. And if you allow yourself to see the world through this perspective, imagine what it could teach you about yourself and those around you.”
This story is part of a five-part series on Consciously Exploring Race & Relationships, including Part One: Unpacking Our Racialized Selves.
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