The diversity of races, religions and cultures is what makes America great. As the melting pot of this country deepens, more multicultural families are being created though biology, adoption and blended marriages. But one aspect of multicultural families is that often, a parent or a child can feel a physical or cultural difference from the rest of their family that can sometimes feel isolating. For Purposeful Parenting Month, a time that encourages building bonds and lines of communication between child and guardian, NYXT explores what it’s like to feel culturally outcast from one’s own family and what parents can do to reassure kids that they belong.
A comedy video from New York City improvisational performance studio Magnet Theater sets up one of the realities of multicultural families; what it’s like to not look like the rest of one’s family, and how looking a certain way will dictate how they navigate through the world. Like the video, Jenn* grew up in what she calls an “international family.” Separated from her father’s side of the family, who is Black, she was raised by her mother, an immigrant from Italy, and a stepfather from Portugal, in addition to many relatives and close family friends from the West Indies and the Mediterranean. While always accepted by her family and spending her early years in a diverse neighborhood, when a school bully hurled a racial epithet at Jenn, she sensed that her mother had a difficult time connecting to this kind of discrimination. “I was her daughter, but there was something different about me,” recalls Jenn.
In the midst of the rise of hate crimes against perceived others since the 2016 Presidential Election in America, as well as centuries of discrimination and fear, more parents of non-White, non-Christian backgrounds have had to have “the talk” with their children about what challenges and outright dangers their family may face in the wake. NYXT content partner Path 2 Parenthood also recounts the tale of a mixed-race family as White parents feared for the safety of their adopted Black son who must navigate a world wherein many refuse to accept his humanity.
But there are many ways parents, guardians and mentors can take charge to form bonds and talk to their children about the realities of the world, even one that they themselves don’t experience. After Jenn’s incident with the incendiary bully, her mother rallied on her behalf and spoke to Jenn’s teachers to notify them of the situation and to ensure that her daughter and no other child would have to endure that situation in school again. But there’s also more parents can do. Path 2 Parenthood also offers crucial advice: always remind your child that they are loved. They, and Jenn, also strongly encourage listening to their child about their worldview instead of making assumptions or projecting their own expectations.
Unlike the Magnet video, where the onus of explanation and emotional labor was on the parent that was “different,” Jenn suggests that in families where one parent is White, that parent should also prepare themselves for having non-White children. Jenn realized that although her mother confronted her teachers because she sought to protect her child physically and emotionally as any parent would, Jenn also knew that, at the end of the day, her mother would never know what it’s like to be Black. Parents must first and foremost become empathetic and promote the idea that no race, religion or culture is the “default,” or “mainstream,” that differences are merely variety, not inferiority. Actively read and listen to others’ experiences in order to relate to your children because a child who is understood is a child who is open and content. Jenn, who is new to practicing Judaism, also suggests NYC-based “Strangers No More” for mixed-faith families, a program that promotes religious understanding in a casual, non-judgmental environment. Seek out services near you that build community and tolerance. Path 2 Parenthood also maintains a network of services that can help.
As she plans for the future with her Israeli partner of Middle Eastern descent and thinking about children she may have with him, Jenn worries about the future of her own progeny wherein, because of their darker skin color and their would-be father’s background, they may also be subject to harmful bias. In a post-9/11 world where people with brown skin, despite their country of origin or religion, are stereotyped and surveilled as terrorists, a whole new door of heightened paranoia and discrimination has opened. Despite not knowing what tomorrow brings, she still has one great piece of advice: when it comes to cultural understanding, “don’t tell people what their experience is or should be. Listen, ask and learn.” Educating one’s self and a commitment to compassion is the key to demystifying racial, religious and cultural experience.
*Name has been changed.