A few months ago, while I was getting my 6-year-old ready for an evening bath, he pointed to his deeply tanned arm and blurted out that he was white because his skin is white. I quickly replied, “Your skin is not white, darling, and being white is not really about the actual color of your skin. It is a made-up category created by Europeans, who called themselves white, so that they could have control over others.” I then said that he was white because his dad is white and comes from the area where whiteness was invented (he’s Portuguese). I am not sure how much of this impromptu lesson on colonialism and white supremacy, based on my knowledge as a lecturer in Ethnic Studies, landed in his 6-year-old brain. But I am committed to keeping this conversation going because I believe that my role as a parent of a mixed-race child is to dismantle the ideas about race and privilege that he has already absorbed, to teach him that understanding his mixed-race heritage means understanding how power and domination work in our society.
Studies show that children learn to discern racial difference by three years of age. I know this because I teach a Mixed Race Studies class at San Francisco State University. While he has been immersed in Japanese American culture — living with his obaachan and ojiichan, having attended the Buddhist Church of Oakland and played in their basketball program — it is a constant struggle to challenge the sense of privilege he has because he already understands that one of his parents is white. Beyond immersing him in Japanese American culture, I found that he needs to understand his non-white identity through the lens of racism. An example of this lesson came this past summer while he was in Daruma no Gakko, the wonderful Japanese American summer camp in Berkeley, Calif. He listened to the special guest speaker Dr. Karen Korematsu tell her father’s story. My child was the one who raised his hand to ask, “What’s incarceration?” and “What’s barbed wire?” As we read “Fred Korematsu Speaks Up” in the following evenings, we added more words into my child’s newfound anti-racism vocabulary, words like “segregation,” “discrimination, “coalition” and “reparation.” My mixed-race children are inheritors of this legacy of racism in America.
While I believe that it is important to instill an appreciation of my children’s rich cultural heritage as Japanese American and Portuguese, I think a more important and challenging task for parents and families is to discuss racism and how it can be internalized. When Daniel was around 2 years old, we were at a café in Oakland, and a woman sitting next to us looked at my kids, turned to me, and said very matter-of-factly, “You have strong genes.” I assumed that she was commenting on the fact that they didn’t look racially white. At the time, I was happy that my children would share my racial experience, that they looked “authentically” Asian. But my brother pointed out to me that both my kids look a lot like their dad. So, the truth is, they will and probably have already benefitted from having perceived “European” features and they may struggle to be seen as “legit” Asians. My students frequently talk about how white standards of beauty have been internalized within their own families and communities; I’ve heard numerous anecdotes about how children who are lighter skinned or with more perceived European features are held up within families as being more beautiful while at the same time being judged for not looking or behaving ethnic enough to be seen as a legitimate member of their group. We need to ask ourselves how we, as families and communities, uphold and police racial meanings, especially through our treatment of mixed-race children.
When we visit family in Portugal, it is not uncommon for family friends to refer to me as the “Chinese” wife or for my kids to be treated as exotic curiosities for looking Asian yet being fluent in Portuguese. The fact that mixed-race children are still pressured to fit into monoracial norms, to identify only as one (often the least dominant) race, shows how meaningful the concept of race remains in our world. My experiences as a parent of mixed-race children have shown me that we are still a society driven by the “one drop rule” concocted under slavery that declared that anyone with “one drop” of Blackness would be legally Black and therefore remain legally a slave. It is important to remember the roots of mixed-race identity in slavery. So that, even today, mixed-race individuals are still judged by their perceptible non-white identities or proximity to whiteness. It is this connection to the history of slavery that all mixed-race individuals share, and it is this connection that I hope to instill in my children — as individuals impacted by society’s “one drop rule,” they have direct investment in and responsibility for challenging anti-Blackness, because if anti-Black racism were to end, so too would discrimination against mixed-race children.
Janice Tanemura is a Lecturer in Race and Resistance Studies at San Francisco State University and in Women’s and Gender Studies at Sacramento State University and is currently working on a manuscript on radical Asian American feminisms. The views expressed in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.