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Saturday, July 26, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book helps parents impart coping skills, self-esteem to multiracial children

Seattle Times staff reporter

Parents of multiracial children sometimes say they are colorblind. Since race doesn't matter to them, they figure it shouldn't for anyone else.

But these parents — usually Caucasian — are doing their children a disservice by not preparing them for the prejudice and cruelty they'll sometimes face from peers and society, says Donna Jackson Nakazawa in her book "Does Anybody Else Look Like Me? A Parent's Guide to Raising Multiracial Children."

Nakazawa, a white woman married to a Japanese American, has two biracial children. Her book came out of her struggles to deal with friends' and strangers' curiosity, assumptions and racial biases while raising her children with positive self-images and cultural pride.

It still takes Nakazawa by surprise when strangers do a double take because her kids don't "match" her: "Isn't the bond my children and I share so rich and potent, the connection between us so obvious, so palpable, it speaks volumes, transcending all imagined racial assumptions?"

It's a misconception that multiracial children are conflicted and internally "mixed up," Nakazawa writes. "In truth, the confusion about our multiracial children's racial identity is society's confusion — most people simply don't feel comfortable when they don't know how to racially pigeonhole our children. That discomfort ... should be owned by society, not our multiracial children."

In the 2000 census, the first to give respondents the option of identifying themselves as more than one race, nearly 7 million Americans cited a mixed racial background. More than four out of 10 were under age 18. As mixed-race marriages increase (from 1.5 million in 1990 to 4 million in 2000), the number of multiracial births is expected to also jump.

In one study, a psychologist asked multiracial adults if they thought their parents had been prepared to raise mixed-race children. The majority said no.

As a 22-year-old African-American-Caucasian woman advised, "I wish we lived in a colorblind society, but that's not happening. You had better delve into race with them so they can understand who they really are and the complications that can come with being multiracial. It would be totally unfair to pretend that your kids will have no problems. ...

"It makes for a really naive person who's going to go out into the world without the necessary skills and knowledge and rhetoric they need to defend themselves from the stupid and hurtful things some people will say and the confusing responses the world will give them."

Some parents of color avoid discussing race, especially with younger children, because it stirs up deep and often painful emotions, Nakazawa notes. But parents can discuss racial heritage and differences without getting into racial hatred and race crimes until children are older.

Nakazawa acknowledges controversy even in appropriate terms: Some argue that everyone is genetically "mixed." Some prefer "multiethnic." She relies mostly on "multiracial" and identifies her sources by their race because this informs their perspective.

Some of her parenting tips:

Don't dismiss preschoolers' questions. "At this stage our children's antennae are so tuned to issues of differences that stereotypic and inaccurate information can be particularly damaging."

Encourage children to be proud of all their racial background. Encouraging them to identify with only one race "is all but guaranteed to set them up for a state of inner turmoil and identity problems over the long haul."

Insist strangers respect boundaries and children's privacy. Sharing a family's intimate details in response to a stranger's questions puts politeness ahead of the child's needs, Nakazawa says.

Some ways to deflect obtrusive comments: "Oh, aren't all children beautiful?" (when strangers feel obliged to comment on a child's appearance to cover up staring); "From God" (to the question of "Where did she get that hair/skin/etc.?"); "Yes, we are adopted"; "I'm American" (to "What are you?"); "This is a personal matter" (to just about any intrusive question).

Point out the ignorance of comments to children so it's clear that the problem is with the speaker, not them. "Diminish the power of the comment by letting your child know how surprising it is that these people don't have a broader or more educated world view."

Consider having at least two children. "The presence of siblings may have a remarkably positive effect on children's self-esteem, giving a concrete sense that there are others like them."

Watch for two pivotal "pressure points" children will face: grade school (usually third or fourth grade), when teasing starts and multiracial children realize that others see them as different; and the early teen years, as they struggle to fit in socially and find their identities.

Don't offer abstract responses such as "We all bleed the same color" when children are harassed. "A child does not want a philosophy lesson when smarting from being told by peers that he or she was a mistake or is an 'Oreo cookie.' "

Understand that racial identity may be fluid during adolescence, with a teen changing from one primary racial affiliation to another. This is a way to fit into racial groupings at school.

Embrace different cultures — through activities, dance, food, celebrations, travel — as a family, rather than singling out children.

Stress the positives. Multiracial children often demonstrate greater creativity and flexibility because they use more than one culture's approach to life's challenges. As one young woman noted, "I can relate to and connect with and make relationships with so many different types of people. It's something extra I have that others don't."

Stephanie Dunnewind: sdunnewind@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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