by Leilani Raglin
“What are you?” “Where are you from?” “No, where are you really from?”
I have spent much of my life answering these types of questions from well-intended (mostly white) individuals. I am a Filipino-American, mixed race Asian woman. My maternal grandfather is white, deeply rooted in the southern United States, and my other grandparents are Filipino. My mother is a mixed race Asian woman and many of my family that came before me were immigrants. My older brother was born in the Philippines, and I was born in Hawaii. As an Army family, we lived all over the world.
Growing up mixed race was a struggle at times. People seemed to become curious and even concerned when they couldn’t “figure me out” racially. As a result, I struggled a lot with not feeling quite as though I belonged anywhere. I certainly could not pass as white, and I felt left out of Filipino circles at times because I was dubbed “mestiza,” meaning Filipina mixed with some other race. I have spent much of my life grappling with what it is like to feel like the “other,” someone that doesn’t quite fit easily into any standard box or definition, racially or culturally.
I’m now married to a white man and we have a beautiful, mixed race son who will be turning 8 months old this month. As a new mom, I have been reflecting on how I would like to raise him, and, specifically, how I hope to encourage him to love and appreciate all aspects of who he is. The following are a few things that I want to be intentional about while raising my mixed race son.
Get to Know Me
Okay, so I know we are talking about parenting and it should be all about the kids, right? Wrong. Research shows that the more aware we are as parents about our own tendencies, the assumptions or “stories” we make up about the world around us, and our emotional responses and choices, the better off our kids will be for it. Need more proof? Take this quote from psychiatrist and author Daniel Siegel from the book The Whole-Brain Child:
“As children develop, their brains ‘mirror’ their parent's brain. In other words, the parent's own growth and development, or lack of those, impact the child's brain. As parents become more aware and emotionally healthy, their children reap the rewards and move toward health as well.”
In other words, if I am more emotionally stable and my brain is healthy, then my son will be healthier for it.
I want to take this a step further to say that, with issues of race, the further along I am in my own ethnic-racial identity development, the more equipped I will be to support my son in his own identity development. That is going to be important as I begin to unpack issues of race with my son, because I will need to be able to sit with him, patiently, and empathize with his struggles and triumphs around issues of race and identity. I also want to make sure that I have reflected on my own privilege and spent time thinking through how to talk to him about his privilege.
Talk [Openly!] About Race and Skin Color
When I was growing up, I received messages (both implicit and explicit) that talking about race and skin color were taboo and impolite. I will work tirelessly to ensure that that is not the message that my son receives from me. I want to consciously put him in spaces where he will interact daily with diverse groups of children and adults. I want to encourage him to notice differences and nuance (especially when it comes to skin color), and openly discuss them with me. I will not quiet his voice when he makes an observation. Pointing out that someone’s skin is lighter or darker than his own is not something to sweep under the rug. Let’s talk about it and celebrate how we are all beautifully unique!
I want to be able to have open conversations with him as he discovers how he wants to identify in the world. I want to be curious and open with him as he makes discoveries and I want to be a positive, validating figure for him as he begins to settle on how he wants to identify. I hope not to take it personally if he overly identifies with one race over the other. I want to encourage ongoing dialogue and learning in his identity development.
Love Our Mixed-Race Features
This is one that I still struggle with every day. We live in a culture where we favor Eurocentric, white standards of beauty. Writer, scholar, and educator Rachel Kuo wrote an awesome article on this, if you want more information. The bottom line is that we tend to see white features as beautiful and non-white features as not beautiful (or fetishized).
What I’d like to teach my son is that his features (all of them) are beautiful, and I want to make sure that he comes to love his Filipino features. He will, inevitably, come home from school and want to unpack conversations about why he looks different than everyone else. I know this, because I had the same experience growing up mixed race. I want to ensure that I hold space for him to have his feelings, and I want to ensure that he loves his features, especially his Filipino features. He is many cultures physically embodied, and that deserves to be celebrated!
Model Speaking Up Against Racism
Something that I found really valuable about the way I was raised was how my mom modeled speaking up against racism. My mom would consistently challenge racist behaviors and notions, and she would always do it in front of us kids (rather than taking the person aside). As a child, I often thought my mom was just being argumentative, defensive, or confrontational. I would sometimes get embarrassed by her consistent tendency to speak up, especially since our Filipino culture highly values harmony.
As an adult and now a mother, what I have come to realize is her relentless pursuit of racial justice and equity taught me how to speak up against racism myself. It also instilled a solid belief in me that no one deserves unjust treatment, especially based on their skin color. I want to be as fearless as my mother was in confronting such difficult issues, and I want to do it with grace and connection so that the people that I am challenging feel compelled to continue such courageous conversations with me. I hope that it has the same impact on my son that it has had on me.
Ultimately, my intention is to raise my son to be a strong, courageous, mixed race man who is conscientious, confident, joyful, and creative. I want him to approach issues of race with a sense of pride, hope, and healing, rather than facing them with shame, resistance, and trauma. I want him to understand his own power and privilege and to feel empowered to use it to uplift and support other people of color. And when confronted with the question, “What are you?” I hope that he smiles warmly and compassionately, feeling fully equipped to decide how and when to talk about race.