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Monday, October 15th, 2012

Mixed Up about Racial Politics and Parenting

Racial Politics and Parenting/ fotolia

Whether I like it or not, I’ve had to contend with the nexus of parenting and racial politics. This has included pondering kid-friendly conversations about color and the need to conduct these conversations in the context of resisting patriarchy. In truth, my varied racial conundrums are not so unique. Procreating across the color-line, whether coerced or consensual, is as old as America. In fact, human beings have been “doin’ it” for as long as the phenotypical variations that would come to be constructed as “race” have existed. What can make this black American father’s eyes cross is contemplating a language for talking about what this all means for a child’s identity. What exactly do I call this little boy my white wife and I have brought into the world?


Some of you may be scratching your head at a question whose answer appears self-evident. My son is obviously “mixed-race” like many of his peers in a fast growing demographic pushing for cultural and political recognition. My response to this is, “Mixed with what?” What are the constituents of this mixture people keep talking about? If we accept that science has revealed there is more genetic variation within so-called races than between them and that race has little biological meaning, aren’t we using the language of discredited, 19th century scientific-racism when we say someone is “mixed”? The ever popular “bi-racial” raises similar questions. Other readers may recommend multiracial but what “races” are we talking about if there is really no such thing as biologically distinct subspecies of human beings?


How about “multicultural”? Well, what do we mean by culture? If we mean some kind of “white culture” and “black culture” coming together in mutual child-rearing, it raises issues of essentialist notions of culture which, like scientific-racism, reflect suspect, 19th century assumptions. Such assumptions include the idea that cultures are monolithic, virtually inheritable, borderline immutable, and of course some are superior to others. In my experience, when dynamics of cultural dominance, assimilation/acculturation and class/education come into play it can result in greater cultural similarity among so-called “multicultural” couples and their offspring than between the partners and their respective cultural groups. This is not to suggest that there are not couples in which significant cultural differences exist between partners whose navigation exerts a real influence on how their children are raised. My point is that this cannot be ascertained just by looking at a couple or their children. It might be useful to think about cultural diversity within the context of family life as a continuum rather than a dichotomy between families or children that are “multicultural” and those that are not.


Other readers may be thinking, “Phillipe you are making this too hard. Your son is just a human being and that’s all that matters.” If only things were so simple. While I’ve begun to recognize that there are virtues in both color-conscious and color-blind approaches to race, I agree with those who believe that love is not enough. For better or worse I have to raise my child in a highly racialized world beset with pitfalls. How can I help him learn to navigate those pitfalls without “seeing race”?


In some ways, color-blind parenting would be a perfectly rational approach in light of what we now know about race, namely that there is no such thing biologically speaking. The problem is that race is no less real in the political sense. Many speak in terms of race being a “social construct”, a fancy way of saying that people made it up. I choose to speak of it as a “political construct” because I believe it more precisely captures the reality that race is about the balance of power between groups and how it is practiced in the dynamic of domination and resistance. Race is inseparable from racism and means nothing outside of that context. The only way to achieve a race-less world (or post-racial as some phrase it) is through achieving a racism-less world. Until then, I have no choice but “see race” and actively resist racism while helping my child learn how to do so.


Recognizing the political reality of race/racism might lead me to apply the one-drop rule approach to sorting out my son’s identity. According to one-drop-rule logic (or illogic if you really think about its historical origins) he is black by virtue of having a black father. This approach is popular with racial realists who argue that race is largely a function of how one is perceived within the racial hierarchy. How a person is treated follows accordingly regardless of parentage. Some would argue that even President Obama, who is arguably the most powerful black man on Earth, cannot escape this reality. His mother’s whiteness has proven insufficient to free him from the existential absurdities other black men face. Historically speaking, this is nothing new. White parentage has never fully shielded a black man or woman from catching hell in the United States. I should not expect my child to be any different in that respect.


A complement to the racial realism argument is what could be understood as a generally nationalist view. My son and kids like him need to be identified as black to preserve racial unity and political power to effectively resist white supremacy. Declarations of “bi-racialism” or “multiracialism” according to this line of thinking, reflect at best a dilution of necessary black solidarity and at worst an act of racial betrayal, a kind of treason as Randall Kennedy has written about. From this point of view, my duty as a father is unambiguous as are the implications of failing in it.


As I have pondered these varied options, the “blackness” of my child has emerged as the leading contender. The racial idealist in me rages against the thought of conceding to the inherently racist logic of the one-drop-rule. However, the racial realist in me recognizes the truth that I have to deal with the world as it is as I strive to create a better one. Parenting demands that I assist my child to do the same. In some ways, black is ultimately the most accurate way of describing him. I have come to realize he is no more “mixed”, “bi”, or “multi” than any other black child biologically, culturally or politically. What he is, is a really big responsibility.

© 2012 – 2013, Phillipe Copeland. All rights reserved.

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Phillipe Copeland a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, a Doctoral Candidate at Simmons College School of Social Work and a Lecturer at Boston University School of Social Work. He is author of the award winning blog, Baha'i Thought. Baha'i Thought offers commentary on issues of religion, society, and culture based on the teachings of the Baha'i Faith. "Baha'i Thought" received a 2010 "Award of Excellence in Internet Communication" from the Religion Communicator's Council, a "Best of the Web" award from "The Daily Reviewer", and is featured on the Religion News Writer's Association website. He is also author of the new social commentary blog Change is Gonna Come. He is a contributing scholar to State of Formation, a multi-author blog founded by the Journal for Interreligious Dialogue and run in partnership with Andover Newton Theological Seminary, Hebrew College, and The Council for a Parliament of World Religions. His columns are featured on "Peace Next", the social networking site of the Council for a Parliament of World Religions and in Blogcritics Magazine.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsRobert Trujillo   |  Friday, 26 October 2012 at 3:56 pm

    Interesting thoughts. I can see the arguments you’re having with the many sides of your brain here. Ive had similar thoughts, assumptions, conclusions, etc. As a kid from several racial/cultural backgrounds I know first hand what youre talking about. And as a parent of a little boy who is equally if not more racially mixed I know it gets tougher as a parent. Constant talk, tips, advice, and good ol talking are good. It gives parents and father specifically more to upll from when those hard questions arise! Thank you Philippe!

  2. CommentsHeidi Pfeifer   |  Monday, 29 October 2012 at 8:31 pm

    As a white parent of an adopted child who has 2 races/cultures which include black and aboriginal canadian I have read discussion on this topic and the thing that has struck me most profoundly is that telling a child (particularly a child) they are half anything is refusing the validity that they are ENTIRELY belonging to that culture. It’s a topic I discuss with friends who have had the experience of growing up in the same boat as my daughter. The thing I agree with most, as you say, is that it is a very large responsibility.

  3. CommentsInCultureParent | My Son was Bullied for Looking Different   |  Wednesday, 27 March 2013 at 1:49 am

    […] challenged. Racism, prejudice and bias against a person or group of people are learned behaviours. Talking about race makes us confront our own […]

  4. CommentsInCultureParent | How to Teach Kids about Race and Social Justice: One Teacher’s Approach   |  Thursday, 28 March 2013 at 2:22 pm

    […] order to do that, I would have to look deeper into our curriculum and face my own discomfort around talking about racism with my […]

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