Tag Archives: racial identity

A Tale of Two Families

Our circle trip began late this July. We were on a mission, two families in ten days … my family in Tennessee, and my husband’s in Canada.

The trip began gleefully with a music mix from my friend, Amy. The first day of driving was shortened by a stay at an Indiana horse ranch. After a couple of nights and a trail ride, we were back on the road to Tennessee.

At first, I had extreme hesitation. While I love my family, I do not love the closed minds and prejudices in Tennessee. We began with the stark contrast of Adult World and the huge cross along the interstate.

 (If you cannot view this, please see it here: http://mothermade.blogspot.com/2013/08/a-tale-of-two-families.html)

The anxiety began to creep in and cover me just as the kudzu drapes and kills the trees in Tennessee. Racist memories from my childhood flooded my mind. I took deep breaths so as not to alarm my kids. Since having children, I worry about their well being, and more specifically, their racial identities.

The conversation in the car began.

“Who are we seeing in Tennessee? Are we going to Papito’s house (my father)?” the kids asked.

“We are not going to Papito’s house. We’ll be staying in Knoxville, where your dad and I met. And you will be meeting your Puerto Rican cousins today,” I answered.

“When are we going to Canada? How long do we have to stay in Tennessee?” the kids continued.

“We will be in Tennessee for a few days, and then we will meet up with your cousins in Canada,” my husband answered.

The conversation then moved on to my husband’s family. Canada is home to his aunt. She and her husband own a lake cottage where we had planned to meet my in-laws for their 50th wedding celebration; however, due to my father-in-law’s recent health decline, my husband’s sister and her family would be the only Brits coming to the party. The kids asked about their relatives across the pond. They all talked happily about similarities. My husband spoke of how our daughter reminded him of his sister at her age. Other biological family traits were bestowed on the kids, and they beamed.

I felt myself receding. My kids weren’t interested in seeing my Puerto Rican family as much as they wanted to see my husband’s. Granted, we haven’t seen my Puerto Rican family in more than five years. Plus, there is the language barrier. But I must admit, I felt slighted. My son does not identify with his Puerto Rican family, but my daughter does. I want desperately for my children to feel the love that I have felt from my family.

The Puerto Ricans, also known as the “Gonzos,” are my family. When someone asks me where I would like to live, I say Puerto Rico. With this side of my family, I feel sudden comfort and security. The Gonzos talk about my son’s resemblance to our great-grandfather. The Gonzos kiss and hug and dance. Boy, do they dance.

We met my father and my cousins, Missiel and Kike, in Tennessee and went to Dollywood. Missiel and I reminisced about their childhood visits to Tennessee and teased Kike. I learned my Spanish pronunciation from my cousins in our backyard. My children stood on the periphery. Missiel and Kike have two children each. Kike’s daughter followed my daughter and wanted to bond with her.

The boys played a little at first.

And my father encouraged more play together as they all sifted for treasure.

While things were going well, most times, my kids still clung to one another.

Then, we found the perfect ride to unite all children … against the grown-ups.

 (If you cannot view this, please see it here: http://mothermade.blogspot.com/2013/08/a-tale-of-two-families.html)

As the boys played and joked, Missiel leaned over to me and said, “Noah is a Gonzo! He and Andreas have the same motions!” All the tension and anxiety within me suddenly slid off, and I felt just as I always have when I am with my family … loved.

The Misguided Guide

My parenting could be described as a “fly by the seat of my pants” philosophy. Before I became a parent, I read parenting books and made notes on steps and rules. I was a planner, and I was certain of my future as a parent.

The minute my boy broke free from my womb, it was apparent that no book could prepare me for this trip, but I wholeheartedly accepted my role as the life travel guide.

If you have been reading my blog, you know that my boy is struggling with his racial identity. One day, he wants to blend in. The next, he proclaims his allegiance to Asian Pride. My love for him drives me to be supportive but also to encourage dialogue so that I, too, can learn. His recent entry through the door of self-discovery has brought many opportunities and also several failings in my job as his tour guide.

Current events and books are often the spark to our talks. Recently, discussions erupted about the Zimmerman trial (Trayvon Martin) and racial profiling. We talked about a local incident.

My daughter asked if the person was “African American.” My son immediately said, “You can say ‘black’ because saying African American is kinda incorrect.” She suddenly teared up. I explained that terms evolved, and I brought up a book she had read to me this year, The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine. We talked about the progression of terms through the years.

My daughter sulked. She felt down the rest of the day. At bedtime, she could not hold back her fears. Through tears, my daughter said, “I want to look more like you. I want to be Asian. I don’t mind if people tease me. I am afraid that people will expect the worst from me because I am white!”

How insensitive I had been! In trying to protect and support my son, I had alienated my daughter. It wasn’t as if I did not know her racial identity struggles. I had written about it here! But when I had asked her the same questions I had asked my son, she had seemed so definitive.

Me: “Are you Korean?”

My daughter: “Yes.”

Me: “Are you Puerto Rican?”

My daughter: “Yes.”

Me: “Are you American?”

My daughter: “Yes.”

Me: “Are you British?”

My daughter: “Yes.”

I thought she was so much more comfortable in her skin, but in fact, she isn’t. She is just as confused as I am.

I have been misguided in applying my experiences as a child to both my children. My daughter is frustrated because she does not have the same experiences I had. She cannot share those experiences like her brother and I can, and we have made her an outsider.

I recognize my mistake. She is mixed and confused. Lending me her spectacles on life, she has taught me her struggles, and I vow to listen more carefully. We will travel these roads together and alternate guide duties.

The Pains of Prejudice & The Road to Racial Recovery

Today, I was struck by NPR’s Michele Norris’s newest Race Card Project subject, Elysha O’Brien, a Mexican-American married to an Italian-American.

O’Brien was not taught Spanish. Her parents wanted to spare her the pain of prejudice. Not learning Spanish at home silenced her Mexican voice, but her appearance would often betray her. In the interview, she says that when she was teased in her teens by other Mexican children she says:

“It was my parents’ language; it wasn’t my language. When you’re kind of rebellious and you’re trying to find your identity, I used to say, ‘Well, I’m not Mexican, my parents are.’”

Like many of us who are trying to assimilate to our American Imposed identity, O’Brien is struggling with the pain of rejecting her Genetic racial identity. She says very effectively in response to her teen reaction, “I think it sounds very flip. It sounds very much like I’m trying to make amends for a really deep wound — just trying to put a Band-Aid on something instead of digging out the infection that’s there.”

As a mother, she, like me, is struggling with the best way to guide her children and help them celebrate this part of themselves that has been suppressed in her. Her conversation with her children when they are presented with the ethnicity box, a box that creates confusion and frustration, is mirrored in our family. She recounts the scene:

“And there was a box for ‘white,’ there was a box for ‘black,’ a box for ‘Asian’ and a box for ‘Hispanic.’

And my son says, ‘Well, where’s the Italian box?’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s just if you’re white.’ And he goes, ‘And what about Irish?’ I said, ‘Well, that’s white, too.’

‘But Hispanic’s there and Italian isn’t?’ my son asked. And … I couldn’t really answer him. But it’s interesting that when you look at the Hispanics … Mexicans are very different from Cubans, and Cubans are very different from Puerto Ricans, and Puerto Ricans are very different from Peruvians. But yet we are all lumped together as Hispanic, and we are all assumed to … speak the same language.

My children have the O’Brien last name, and they’re all fair-skinned, and they appear white. I always make sure I check off that ‘Hispanic’ box. Because I know that as a white male, they’re not going to be given certain privileges as if they were a Mexican male, which perhaps is slightly racist on my own part, but I want them to be able to have access to things.”

I understand this dilemma. I often felt so confused by the ethnicity questions and the boxes. As you have read, a college researcher changed my ethnicity when she read my name and saw that I had “checked the wrong box” for Asian.

O’Brien is determined to make sure her sons learn her native language, despite the fact that she doesn’t know it. I also want my children to learn my Cognitive identity native language, Spanish.

While my son is learning Spanish, he does not feel the same connection to the language that O’Brien’s sons will. But I will keep steering him down my road to racial recovery.

Slow to See Myself

The conversation in our family car went like this:

My son, “Are there any racial slurs for white people?

My husband, “Yes, ‘Whitey’ and ‘White trash.’”

Me, “‘Honkey, ‘Redneck.’ Why?”

My son, “Just asking. Does anyone use them?”

My husband, “Yes, and they are offensive.”

My son, silence.

At the conference this week, this conversation that had happened the week before kept playing over and over in my head.

I have jokingly used “Whitey” to describe my husband when I am with my Asian women friends who are also married to Caucasian men. This reminded me that I am just as guilty, and though I haven’t said it with my children around, I will stop.

But it also got me thinking. My son was asking this question as a means of exploring his racial identity. He knows he is not identified by these white racial slurs, despite the fact that he is a mix of Caucasian and Asian. The rub? Like I mentioned before, I have passed on to him the genetic and visual racial identity of Korean. Our outward appearances invite these Asian racial slurs. People we do not know, will use them on us. I asked my husband if he had ever had anyone who didn’t know him walk up and use a white racial slur on him. He said that he had not.

A new adoptee friend, Dan, had given me a recent study, “The development of racial identity in transracially adopted people: An ecological approach,” by Tien Ung, Susan Harris O’Connor and Raymond Pillidge. They discuss an interesting idea that our racial identity is five part: genetic, imposed, cognitive, visual and feeling.

Genetic is simply the biological traits we inherit from birth parents. The Imposed is more complex for the adoptee since it involves the adoptive family and is often harder for the mixed race child; it is an inaccurate “construction of race” given by those around the child. My son is questioning and struggling with this part of his racial identity.

This brings me to the Cognitive racial identity. This is “what a person thinks and/or knows her or himself to be.” The Visual racial identity is the “color one sees one’s skin.” This one lies closely with the Genetic.

The last and final one is the Feeling racial identity. This gives those of us with mixed racial backgrounds our “sense of self.” This sense of self is “heavily influenced by the race(s) of the social community that surrounds” us. Feeling is the root of my confusion. I truly have believed myself to be white and Puerto Rican.

For my son, I believe he is struggling most with the Cognitive and the Feeling, I asked my son a few questions:

Me: “Are you Korean?”

My son: “Yes.”

Me: “Are you Puerto Rican?”

My son: “No.”

Me: “Are you American?”

My son: “No.”

Me: “No?”

My son: “It is a nationality.”

Me: “Are you British?”

My son: “Yes.”

As I mentioned in the last post, I have ferociously defended my right to be an American. I have referred to America as “The Melting Pot.” But in hindsight, I believe I was fighting for the right to feel white. The nuances of this have been interpreted by my son. While he says being American is a nationality, so is being British. He is both, but he is identifying his race in a nationality. I wonder if he, like I have done, equates the word “American” with being white.

I now realize how important our Asian friends have been.  In part, what my son and I have been missing in our Virginia friends is the anchor for our Asian identity. My daughter has that now with her friend.  Her friend’s mother is Korean and speaks mostly Korean. My daughter relishes time at her friend’s house and loves her friend’s mother’s cooking. She has found that anchor in Wisconsin.

My son and I will need to work on getting that for ourselves. My fellow three, Korean panelists will hopefully be able to touch our lives with this sense of belonging. They are well beyond their years, and I am still in my identity infancy. I have a lot to learn.