Lynn VanderWielen, PhD, MPH
Family Gatherings- Supporting your Child’s Multiracial Identity with Extended Family
As we get together for end of year celebrations, we may be excited or perhaps dreading to see our extended family. We know that these interactions are either supportive of our kids’ multiracial identity, or deeply harmful. So what can we do about it?
Research shows that how our multiracial kids identify is fluid and influenced by factors such as the environment and who they are with. Our article for today “Migrating mixedness: exploring mixed identity development in New York City” highlights the role of the extended family in how multiracial individuals identify. Our role as parents is to be sure that these interactions are supportive, positive, and provide a healthy environment for our kids.
Research from multiracial/mixed young adults found three general ways that extended family influences the racial identity of multiracial youth:
Providing validation of the mixed-race experience
Negative and unsupportive of a mixed identity (often including bullying behaviors)
Embracing one element of their racial identity but alienating all others
About half of the participants shared how their extended families warmly welcomed all elements of the participants’ identities and saw them both as like them and as all of the other elements of their racial identity. This included spending time together and never “making them feel like half of who they are” - they were seen as whole, full, and complete. Many respondents also shared how they connected with supportive and loving family through social media which helped them with “the validation to claim the ethnic identity of their parent’s country of origin”.
The other half of the participants shared how extended family members did not support their mixed-ness, which was hurtful and emotionally painful. Several participants shared how extended family members bullied them about their physical appearance such as tormenting them about the color of their skin or texture of their hair. Participants shared that these experiences influenced them to distance themselves from the racial identity of the bullying family member.
Other participants shared that extended family members embraced them as a part of their race/ethnicity/culture, but did not recognize or acknowledge their complex identity as multiracial. One participant shared how her Pakistani family “embraced and validated her identity as a Muslim Punjabi Pakistani” but this left her feeling alienated as she also identified as Catholic and Puerto Rican.
When participants were seen as only one side of their identity, they felt unaccepted, incomplete, and un-whole.
What is the takeaway?
As parents of multiracial kids, we need to be aware of how extended family members influence our kids’ racial identity formation. We are only in control of our own behaviors and cannot control the behaviors of others, so we need to step in and advocate for our multiracial kids with family members and others who are not providing an environment that supports our children as whole.
Our kids are learning from how we engage in conversations (or not!) and the language that we use - it will become the foundation of how they advocate for themselves.
A few helpful tips:
Step in and shut down racist/colorist language or behaviors.
Check-in with our kids about how they are feeling.
Celebrate your child's multicultural/multiracial heritage both internally and outloud.
If you know someone is going to say something about your child’s appearance or identity, be sure to be present when they are interacting with your kid. Your presence could help to minimize their remarks and also allow you to step in as needed.
Always advocate for your child, especially when it is hard. Your child is learning how to advocate for themselves and you are laying the foundation.
If extended family members are not supportive and loving towards your child, it may be time to limit contact with them. Nothing is worth compromising your child's self-esteem, confidence, and well-being.
We may also want to help our family members and in-laws to understand the nuance of multiracial identity formation and share what would be most helpful for our kids to feel connected to their heritage. It is not our job to make others understand, but it can be helpful to share your experiences and resources with others so that they start to get it.
Subscribe to the Samahra Community (link below) for evidence-based reading and reflection to create a safe space for healthy, positive, and celebrated multiracial identity formation for your multiracial kids.
Should I trust this research?
Yes, I do. One factor that makes this work extremely relevant for the field is that participants had a variety of multiracial identities - many researchers focus on one combination of racial identities, and this work dives more deeply. The sample size of 22 young adults and using in-depth interviews is an appropriate methodology and offers insight into their experiences.
Citation: Erica Chito Childs, Alyssa Lyons & Stephanie Laudone Jones (2019): Migrating mixedness: exploring mixed identity development in New York City, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2019.1654153
Photo by Rajiv Perera on Unsplash