How Important is Racial Identity?


October 3, 2007 by multiracialsky

One of my brothers was just here visiting. We spent a good portion of our visit talking about White privilege, which seemed to be a new concept to contemplate for this very-well-read intellectual. I also recently received this emailed commentary:

My two daughters are adopted transracially. They are given lessons in their “birth language” weekly and our home is filled with art from their birth country. However, if I thought race had the importance that you give it in your writings, I would never have adopted. You are so very wrong as to the importance that race holds in our lives. Race is only one of the many ways that my daughters are unique. They are both from the same country but they look and act very different just as my biological sister and I do. Your defining race as you do gives it the potential to be a weapon, a wedge in relationships. Acknowledge race but do not make it the definition of who you are or who your children are.

Here’s my breakdown and response:

  • I am guessing the writer is White, since she did not identify her own race, which is a cornerstone of White privilege (White as default).
  • If I thought race had the importance that you give it in your writings, I would never have adopted. I’m not quite sure what to make of this statement. Maybe she meant to say, “never would have adopted transracially,” but that would still concern me.
  • You are so very wrong as to the importance that race holds in our lives. When she writes “our lives,” I read “our White lives,” the White mother’s life.
  • Race is only one of the many ways that my daughters are unique. Again, not quite sure what she means. I am hoping she does not mean ‘unique’ as in ‘different from the other people I know’. (Unique: distinctive, rare, the only one of its kind.)
  • They are both from the same country but they look and act very different just as my biological sister and I do. More so, I would imagine, because they are not biological siblings.
  • Your defining race as you do gives it the potential to be a weapon, a wedge in relationships. Is she saying it is okay to acknowledge the existence of socially-constructed racial categories (aka: race) but wrong to recognize their impact on people of color in this country? That it is damaging to talk about race and racism, especially with your children? Racism, not race, is the wedge, and ignoring racism will not make it go away.
  • Do not make race the definition of who you are or who your children are. It’s not. My personal ancestry and my children’s varied heritage is simply one piece of our selves, our identities.

I’ve often wondered at the posts I’ve seen on other blogs, posts that go something like this: “Just wanted to make it clear that I do not post every single thing that happens in my/my children’s/my family’s life here on this blog.” But now I find myself feeling the need to write a similar line.

This site is my writing about Multiracial Family Life. Nothing more. I stray over into antiracism, transracial adoption, and White privilege, and those are all topics that relate directly to living in my multiracial family. Every time I sit down to write a column here for My Sky, I pick a topic, issue, or experience directly related to living in a multiracial family or living as a multiracial person. The weeks I struggle to write anything cohesive are usually weeks where the bulk of what is going on in our life has nothing to do with multiracialism. (I tried to write a post about our dog dying, but it was completely off-topic.)

I have widespread interests, and I have to work hard to avoid mission-creep. I’ve made a conscious choice to keep this blog focused, because otherwise the range of subjects would be super broad (abstract art, homesteading, vegetarianism, queer rights, organic living, bipolar disorder, social welfare reform, DIY clothing and toys, unschooling, TV-free living, ASL, chosen family, . . .) I take my writing on these other subjects, about the rest of my life, and publish it elsewhere.

I write here about the aspects of our life that relate somehow to our multiracialism (collectively and individually). This is–on purpose–not a journal of the entirety of my life. Race is only a piece of our family’s life; some weeks an almost invisibly small piece.

All that said, I do believe that understanding and talking about race is important, especially in a multiracial family. Extra-especially where one or both of the parents in the family are White. White privilege is such an amazing set of blinders, and just because a White parent has a child of color (through adoption or birth) does not mean the parent’s blinders will automatically disappear.

Recognizing White privilege at work in your own life is a scary thing to do; I’ve done it. It can make you feel stupid and defensive, and an easier and more comfortable path to take is the ‘race doesn’t matter’ (or ‘matter much‘) philosophy–which ignores the daily living non-reality of that statement for people of color.

Most White individuals in the U.S. do not have to acknowledge their own racial identity (as a White person) if they do not choose to. Nevertheless, racist beliefs, behaviors, and institutionalized systems are affecting every person everyday. If you are White, these systems are improving your life, but at a huge and largely invisible cost to people of color.

I do not define myself by my racial and ethnic heritage alone, but it is an integral part of my identity. Race–however you define it–is an integrated part of everyone‘s life, every individual’s experience of the world (as are gender, sexuality, age, and ability, among others). This is true whether a person chooses to acknowledge their racial ancestry or not.

How important is an individual’s racial identity? Back to the conversations with my brother, and in response to the transracially adoptive mother: If you’re White, your racial identity is as important as you choose to make it. For people of color, race-as-a-portion-of-personal-identity is much less a choice, more a fact of life. That’s why it’s called White privilege.


6 thoughts on “How Important is Racial Identity?

  1. chughes says:

    i believe it is difficult for some white people to realize how much race factors into the everyday lives of people of color. We must consider it constantly. They probably do not, at least not like we do.

    i would love a day without considering my race when going into a business or walking down the street or when conversing with others, waiting for the offense, cautious about opening up.

    Teaching children about race and culture is vital to developing in them a strong sense of self and strength, because others will attempt to use their race against them. Like you said, racism divides. Knowledge results in understanding and power.

  2. Sofia says:

    this is soo true, it reminds me of the film something new where they have an argument in the grocery store and he says something like i just want a day off from talking about race etc and she says that’s the point as a black person you don’t get a day off from being black.

    anyway i think it’s very easy for white people to be oblivious to racism, a university lecturer i had said don’t worry about racist people and racism was their problem, as you can imagine a few black students were quick to tell her that we couldn’t ignore racists especially if they want to beat us up, or prevent us from getting a job etc.

    great blog by the way 🙂

  3. Katia says:

    Hello, I just happened upon your blog. Very interesting. I’m white, married to a Black man, and we have two daughters. This is such a big debate. I just want to say that, even though I have read and continue to read a lot about race issues, even though I’m totally aware and very much ashamed byt his whole “white privilege” thing, and I agree that one has to be “actively” anti-racist, as opposed to just pretending that overlooking the issue will make it disappear or simply not be there, my first reaction as a white woman was to understand and agree with what this woman said in her email to you. I mean, I live in a mutiracial family, and I still have to be reminded of the battle, and I still have spontaneous reservations when the subject comes up. Just imagine how hard it’s got to be for the white person living in a world where white is still considered the norm and the majority to actually realize all that we’re talking about. Not to defend the people who choose to burry their heads in the sand. That’s not what I’m after. Just trying to show the magnitude of the problem.
    To my defense, I may be biased because I no longer live in the US, but I have to add that neither my husband, nor I, feel the need to bring up the subject of race in our conversations with our kids. I mean, it was established very early on that our daughers have gorgeous cinammon skins, that Daddy’s is dark brown, and Mom is beige/white, and the fact that our children live surrounded by other kids of different countries – lots of Indians, and most of them have pretty much the same skin tones as our kids, some darker, some lighter – just seem to mean that this is the way things are. There are different people all around, and isn’t that just wonderful? I have read books like Karen Katz “The Colors of Us” to them, in a casual way. That’s it.
    I find it very hard to decide whether indeed the subject should be broached more often. I mean, if the kids want to talk about it, I have no problem, and I have dozens more books that can help me, when the time comes. But, should it be something that’s discussed constantly or even regularly? I’m not sure. And this is a genuine question. Were we to return to the US, maybe I would feel differently. I’m not sure. Not that racism doesn’t exist in other countries. That would be the day. But my husband can take of himself, and I know for a fact that the kids do NOT have to suffer because of their skin color, here. And so, I can’t deny that I’m tempted to let our actions and our lives speak for themselves, and to hope that their living in a diverse environment such as theirs will simply shape their minds to believe that THIS is the norm : a multicultural world.
    Sorry for such a long, rambling comment. Goes to show that, once again, nothing is black or white – pun not intended… or maybe it is 🙂

  4. Katia says:

    Me again : your post prompted me to write something on my own blog. You may be interested to read it. Thanks for making me think about all that. Obviously, I have no clear cut answer, but awareness is better than oblivion, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

  5. […] Multiracial Sky asks (and answers) the question: How Important Is Racial Identity? […]

  6. Bonnie Davis says:

    Thank you for your writings! I am new to blogs but not to the study of race. I am a White woman and mother of a biracial son who has been doing work in the this area since 1986.
    I am currently writing a book on biracial/multiracial students for K-12 educators. My first book is “How to Teach Students Who Don’t Look Like You,” and it examines White privilege in two of the chapters.
    I plan to start a blog in the next couple of weeks, and I’d love your feedback. If you go to my website, you can read my newsletter on race which received several responses, and that encouraged me to start a blog.
    Thank you for what you are doing!

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