“Mom, are we moving to another country again?” my then 7-yr old son asked me after we had been in Canada for about 6 months. We had just come after a 2-year stay in Malaysia. Before that, we were in Germany. “I don’t like being the new kid in school all the time,” my son continued. “I kinda like it here, I know the language well.”
Before our son was born, my husband and I spent some time in Sweden and Norway, and I was working in South Africa when I found out I was pregnant. We were interested in not just visiting but actually living in different countries instead of staying put in one place, saddled with a mortgage. At that point in our lives, however, we also wanted to provide a suitable environment for our son where he could grow up confident, with a sense of belonging, and able to develop long-term friendships. This was one of the main reasons we decided to stay in Canada, and this decision turned out to be key for my son in forming his identity.
There is a myriad of interesting and useful information, tips, and advice on raising biracial children. However, each combination of races and ensuing circumstances arising from a mixed marriage, from adoptions or blended families, as well as from mixed race children being brought up by single parents, will bring different permutations of focus, concerns, challenges, and adventures. This is just one story about experiences and insights gained from our family where I am a Filipino, my husband is German, and our son was born in Canada and grew up mostly in Canada.
Physical appearance: One distinguishing feature of a multi-racial family is that at least one member will look somewhat different from the others. Ever since my son was born, I have been made aware of the disparity between our physical appearances. Some people tried to sell me fake ID cards in Los Angeles, immediately assuming I was an undocumented nanny of the blondish child in the stroller I was pushing. Later, during his teens, when I would point out my son during sports competitions, some people would look at me confused and skeptical, and say “But he’s so tall.” I got used to all kinds of remarks but still get really uneasy and dismayed when the comments, bordering on praises, focus on his fair skin and non-Asian features: “You are lucky he is so tall.” You are lucky he is so white. You are lucky he looks so mestizo*!” (Connotes looking like a non-native Filipino). This got to me because the constant mention, even praise, of his fair skin, light eyes, and tall stature call to attention some underlying colonial mentality or subservience to some western standards of beauty that I do not agree with nor want to be instilled in my child. Children tend to internalize the standards of beauty and ideas that adults place on them. We have to teach children and remind ourselves that there should not be inherent biases in appearances, that there is no one ideal of beauty as falsely promoted by the fashion industries, TV, internet or social media. On the other hand, we should also not claim that skin color does not matter – this is a myth. The reality is, the color of our skin can still pigeonhole us sometimes, whether we want it or not.
For most biracial children, physical appearances and underlying notions of status and privilege become a noticeable reality quickly because they can sense and see these from how people and society may treat one parent differently from the other, from what others say about one parent’s race and culture, from casual remarks about their own appearance or the parent they inherited it from. Sometimes, even family and friends can make casual remarks about the varying skin colours within a family, pointing to preferences for lighter skin, that could lead a child to question his or her appearance.
Help the child relate to other races: I believe that exposing our son to other cultures and races helped him become comfortable with being biracial, and come to terms with some questions on race, culture, and identity. First of all, we endeavored to show there is equal value in the cultural mix in our home – to help him value and appreciate both his German and Filipino backgrounds, as well as his Canadian environment, without pitting one heritage against the other. This way, he can enjoy and celebrate every part of who he is. (I believe this is especially important for adopted children or those being raised by a single parent – teach and share all aspects of a child’s identity and heritage, even if it is not your own culture or heritage.) Secondly, my husband and I would openly discuss and speak up against biases and prejudices to teach our child to speak up against racism. We have tried to be consistent in pointing out that it is not acceptable to make any rude, uncalled for, or deprecatory comments about race, ethnicity, or cultural backgrounds, even in a fun or casual manner. If jokes have underlying racist perspectives or other discriminatory assumptions, it is generally important to stop such conversation the moment it begins to provide the child with a critical framework, and ultimately with the means to resist discrimination and oppression. People, even my son, might say “Oh, lighten up,” but we should be consistent in calling out prejudices. (Our son now criticizes us sometimes for what he feels is a discriminatory attitude or statement.)
Finally, we tried to make him aware of and appreciate the richness coming from many other cultures, the beauty and excitement of cultural diversity in terms of food, festivals, languages, books, performances, practices, and of course people. Living in Edmonton, Canada, provides many opportunities to interact with families from a wide range of cultural backgrounds, and fortunately, we became friends with many other families of mixed ethnicities, and my son and their children grew up together, and they could then appreciate each other’s differences, as well as develop a healthy respect for multiculturalism and diversity.
Fluidity in identify: Another aspect in being a bi-racial child is that there are some encounters concerning race that can be awkward and confusing. New to Canada, we were in a playground in a rural town in Alberta once, when other children came and told my son and his Filipino friends that they can only play in one small area because the slides, swings, and monkey bars are for white children only. They added that my son can stay in the “white” area but his friends must leave. I liked that my son chose to be with his friends as they started to move before I came and explained that race and skin color do not dictate who can use the playground. I was also glad this happened in a place where I could explain myself fluently, and could show my son and his friends some leadership in upholding equality and understanding. (I would have hated for that to happen where I could not stand up to such racist remarks simply due to language barriers. That might give the impression to my son and his friends that even the adult of “our race” is easily defeated or silenced by prejudiced children.)
Another case of confusion was when my son was around 13 and he came home from school with a form to fill out but he could not identify with any of the choices in the socio-cultural information section of the form. (Is this person: White, South Asian, Chinese, Black, Filipino, Latin American, etc. Other-Specify). In half-jest, I said if the form was for a university scholarship, he should choose “Filipino” to be counted as a visible minority and provide him the best shot at some university scholarship. To which my son responded, “Not for university. Asians and female students now dominate the university scene. I have to declare as white male to increase my chances there.”
Without being conscious of all implications, biracial children make decisions about their identity that can imply a movement away from or towards minority status or privilege. In the playground instance, even if others had branded him as “white,” my son chose to reject that label or the privileges that came with the label. But with filling in the form, my son was aware that he could choose to declare himself “white” when it was beneficial to him. These are simple, harmless examples. Unfortunately, there are undeniable social and privilege hierarchies among races and cultures, and we need to be aware that some biracial children will experience prejudices and profiling, sometimes even to the point of being physically harmed. All because decisions are still being made, consciously or not, based on one’s skin colour and appearance.
Census and equity forms in Canada have improved in the meantime and the current socio-cultural questions are now phrased “Do you identify as:” instead of “This person is:” The change towards self-identification rather than declaration of appearance shows a moving away from explicit race questions towards more social and cultural origins and identity. This provides people of mixed race background better choices in indicating who they are.
Let him choose and label his identity: Travelling a lot and being in mixed race relationships did not automatically remove the assumptions, stereotypes, and biases I had about certain ethnic or racial groups. Having a mixed race child did not automatically remove preconceptions from all my relatives and friends either. Even now, I make blunders and bad jokes about ethnicity and culture, but I am more aware and willing to be corrected. Unlearning prejudices is a process; we need to be educated about our assumptions.
“Hey, you’re Filipino too, don’t forget that.” “You have to love Filipino food, you’re half-Filipino.” I used to say this to my son. So did my relatives and friends. But statements like these can force my son into a corner with expectations that do not connect to or match his experiences or how he views himself. Now, I believe it is very important to let biracial children label themselves and define their identity instead of the family or community or government imposing a label on them.
People of multi-racial origins can identify in many different ways and develop self-perception depending on many factors like how they look, which culture they have been most exposed to, which family they feel closer to, where they are in their lives, which communities they are most comfortable with, and so on.
I have long realized that my son rejecting the label of “Filipino” or not liking Filipino food does not mean he is rejecting me or Filipino culture at all. I recognize that he must make his own journey into affirming his own lived experiences, choices, and aspirations towards defining himself. Location and language became two strong identity determinants in my son’s case. While he acknowledges that his ancestry is linked to Germany and the Philippines, my son said he does not feel part-German or part-Filipino. He said he is “just Canadian.” He has chosen his identity and it is Canadian.
There is something in Canada officially supporting immigration and multi-culturalism that made this possible for my son. I believe my son would not identify as Japanese or French or Argentine, for example, if we stayed for 10 years in any of these countries, even if we learned the language fluently. In Canada, there is a socio-cultural and legal endorsement of interracial relationships and the immigrant share of the population is still increasing. These are good signs that Canada can be a great mixed cultural nation in the future. The way my son will think of his identity, history, and heritage may still shift over the years – but I believe that his grasp of the nuances of culture coming from our multi-racial family and having lived in a diverse environment in Edmonton will give him the confidence to rise above labels that people may fix on him.
Addendum: I hope no one jumped to the conclusion that my son, by identifying as a Canadian, also identified as white. Racial identity and identification are complex social constructs and identifying as Canadian does not, must not be equated to identifying as white. While many look to Canada as a model on how to build a pluralistic society, there are still privileges related to race and culture that must be addressed. But this is definitely another topic beyond this one.