a blog about waking up, staying present, and taking action

Who Determines Racial Identity?

I’ve been away from this blog for  months now, busy being a new mama. Now that my daughter Elena is nearly three months old, we’re settling into a routine that includes nap time aka mama-blog-time. I’m excited about a new campaign by Showing Up for Racial Justice, a non-profit that organizes white people to be visible for racial justice. I downloaded their education toolkit and got ready to snap a pic of me and Ellie being visible for racial justice.

Then I remembered that my daughter isn’t (all) white. She has pale skin, which is to say, she looks white.  My daughter’s racial and ethnic heritage includes a grandfather who is Latino and a great-grandfather who immigrated to this country (undocumented, thank you very much) from Mexico.

When my wife and I adopted Elena, we wanted to honor her birth family and their ongoing presence in Ellie’s life. So Elena has a Spanish surname as part of her name, and this has prompted people — brown people, white people — to ask us: so IS she Mexican?

Recently a friend shared with me the perception by people outside the US that our American obsession with percentages in racial identity (i.e. “half-white”, “25% Black”, etc.) is shocking. “We only talk about racial percentages with animals,” the friend said.

Questions from friends about Elena’s race are hard for me to answer. I can talk about Elena’s great-grandfather, because that is a story which involves revolution and border-crossing and courage. Being an immigrant’s daughter myself, that story rings in my bones. But I don’t know how to answer the question of who Elena is racially.

I know the impetus behind my friends’ questions is to determine how to relate to my daughter. She looks white, and both of her moms are white, so I sense that other people will feel more comfortable if we just live as a white family.

But while we carry pale skin privilege, we aren’t a white family, because Elena isn’t (all) white. Having a close friend who was raised by her adopted parents to be white (just chuck that “other” heritage out the window because we don’t know what to do with it), I flat-out refuse to minimize, obscure or “%” Elena’s indigenous Mexican heritage.

I’m suddenly aware that generations of parents do this for/to their children: they shape how their children see themselves racially. I model for others how to see my daughter’s race, even as the public assumes something based on our skin. Being able to choose what to claim in racial identity is itself part of white privilege.

What if my daughter regrets our insistence on her indigenous Mexican heritage as she gets older? How MUCH heritage do you need to have before you become a person of color, anyway? The “One Drop” rule comes painfully to mind. Is it just skin color? What about language and community? Am I Elizabeth-Warren-ing my daughter?  I don’t know. This is tricky and I’m a sheltered, privileged novice.

I will raise Elena with awareness of her pale skin privilege, because that’s what I do know how to offer. But I also want to give her role models for navigating a racial identity that is complex and multi-layered. So I need you, my allies. I need your stories of passing-for-white, I need your thoughts on how we talk about racial identity, on how we respond to assumptions based on skin color.

2 Responses to “Who Determines Racial Identity?”

  1. Diana V-B says:

    Rats! I can’t help with your questions. And I thank you SO MUCH for raising the “ancestor” issue. I will let my granddaughters all know that their great-great grandparents are ALL immigrants–two Romanian, one Croation & one Serbian. As I child, I heard that this country is a “Melting Pot”; I’d much rather think of us as a stew pot–maintaining our unique identity, creating a beautiful mix.

    And, by the way, I hope to help my granddaughters understand THEIR pale skin privilege…….

    Thanks again for your keeping me . . . . honest about my privilege!

  2. Diana V-B says:

    P.S. Since it’s National Coming Out Day, you should know that I’m a lesbian-identified bisexual.

Powered by WordPress | Designed by Elegant Themes