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  • Writer's pictureLynn VanderWielen, PhD, MPH

Ugly Histories

Evidence tells us that there are two specific elements to supporting healthy multiracial identity development for our mixed kids - connecting with cultures/heritages/traditions/histories/etc., and preparation for bias. What many fail to recognize in this discussion is that our history includes not only the beautiful and celebratory, but the heinous and shameful.

I recently talked with a mom of a multiracial daughter who was angry at me when I suggested that we should be approaching multiracial identity development in any way that is not positive and affirming.

Now, I am in full support of celebrating our mixed kids’ identities. This is why the Samahra Community exists in the first place. I fully agree that they need to hear consistent and continuous messages that they are incredible, worthy of love, celebration, safety, and joy. But wearing our rose-colored glasses when raising our kids dismisses the deep and historic racial tensions and clashes that our kids deserve to understand and think through with us. Racism and colorism (and so many other forms and systems of oppression) are going to show up in their lives. We owe it to them to have conversations and safe spaces to process and understand power, privilege, structural racism, and the histories of their ancestors. Our kids are smart and curious, and we certainly do not want them to be ignorant. They will want to learn about and be aware of their complex histories, and we have a role to play.

Where can we start?

While there are different approaches that may work for the unique personalities and relationships that we have, I recommend starting with your own knowledge.

I have shared before that growing up I only ever learned about the beauty of Dutch culture. I had a very false sense of security that my ancestors did not participate in the Atlantic slave trade - they immigrated to Wisconsin in the early 1900s, so how could they possibly have benefited from trans-Atlantic slavery? I never questioned what I was taught, and I was happily in my own little security bubble, unburdened by any role or responsibility of my ancestors.

But then I started to think about my kids and what they would need to know about their ancestors. Their unique Nigerian, Russian, and Dutch background was something we have centered in their lives, from their names to the flowers we plant in our garden. So I started Googling - “Dutch history” “Dutch slave trade” “Dutch involvement in genocide” - I was diving into a dark and not-so-distant history. For example, in 1947 the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army massacred 431 civilians as they were fighting against those fighting for Indonesian independence. In addition, the Dutch West India Company’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade contributed to the Netherlands becoming an economic world power. While Dutch people often saw the slave trade as immoral and unethical, there was an active campaign to convince the largely Christian nation that slavery was acceptable based on Bible verses. In fact, perspectives often shifted when thinking about who could be a slave as Dutch people were more open to enslaving non-Christians. (This is yet another layer of bias to unpack!)

As the granddaughter of Dutch immigrants, I now understand that my history is soaked with the need to learn beyond the Whitewashed and comfortable history I was taught.

So when it comes to my kids, who are elementary-aged, we have already had intense developmentally-appropriate conversations about slavery and power. We have talked about systems of oppression that were designed to create and maintain power. More specifically, I as their White mom both initiate these conversations and support my Black husband when he starts a conversation. My kids need to know that we all have a role to play in anti-racist work. That role starts with our own learning, reflection, and understanding.

I encourage everyone to take a deep dive into these dark topics. We cannot support our kids to understand their histories if we don’t understand them ourselves. In the US, our education is so frequently whitewashed, meaning that we gloss over and cover up crimes and histories that do not present White people and communities in a positive light. Sometimes it is a detail here, a detail there, and other times there is a complete erasure of events and situations.

Of course not all of us are White parents and not all of our kids share White histories. Do the work that is relevant for you, and join the Samahra Community in our app to share together in what we learn. What did you uncover that you didn’t know before? What surprised you? What made you sad? What was enraging? The more we understand about our world, the more thoughtful we can be as parents of incredible, deserving, and magnificent multiracial kids.

Resources used for this article: 1, 2

Photo by Andreea Swank on Unsplash

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