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“Excuse me, What are you?”

Lisa Pecot-Hebert

Columnist, Multiracial Identities at the Parent Voice, Magazine
A former newspaper and broadcast journalist, Lisa is a multimedia professor at the University of Southern California and also the associate director for the undergraduate journalism program. Read more under 'Columnists".
Lisa Pecot-Hebert

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As the parent of a teenage son, I know how difficult it is to raise children in our current cultural climate. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and as an 80’s kid, I who grew up with men that wore eyeliner (think Culture Club and Flock of Seagulls) and friends from all religious and racial backgrounds. I never understood or experienced racism or prejudice, at least not any that I recognized, but we live in a different world today. According to a 2015 Pew Research study, the multiracial population in the U.S. is nearing double digits. This same population is growing three times faster than the rest of the country’s population.

What does this mean for parents of multiracial children or for multiracial children themselves? Well, for me it becomes a process of identity. We may raise our children to identify as multiracial, but the world may see them as one race or another, depending on how they look. Some multiracial children physically favor one race over the over and when they come into contact with a person who 100% identifies with a certain race that they too look like, identity may become an issue. As a person who identifies as a bi-racial African American woman, I know this scenario all too well.

I will walk through a public space (this usually happens to me the most at Starbucks and Target for some reason) and people walk up to me and ask me what I am?

They will literally stop me and say, “Excuse, me, what are you?”

Because I have experienced this odd question for so long, I know exactly what they mean. I politely tell them I am half black and half white. The response varies from “I knew it” to “oh, I figured you were mixed with something.” I am not sure why people are so concerned with race or why they feel the need to ask me such a personal question without knowing me, but this is the world we live in. Some people just want to identify you as “something” because you do not look like a “typical” person who identifies as a certain race.

Identity is personal, but also culturally situated. Read more from @universityprof. #Biracial #RacialIdentity #Race #WhatAreYou Click To Tweet

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When I was younger, the census told me I HAD to click Black. Now, I can choose to click the ever popular “other” category, but I am sometimes hesitant to check that box. Because I look like a light skinned African American female, I grapple with clicking “other” as if I am somehow snubbing the fact that I was raised as an African American female, who knew she was bi-racial. A New York Times article said it best. In their discussion about why 61% of multiracial adults do not self-identify as mixed-race, they said “It was kind of an eye-opener to us that multiracial identity [is] more than just the people who make up a family tree, it’s also a product of experiences or attitudes.” YES, you hit the nail on the head NYT!

Identity is not just who you are, it is how you have been shaped by your experiences.

So parents, think about how you will tell your children to identify, but remember, depending on how they look to the outside world, their identity may be viewed in a different manner than the conversation you have been having at home. I love the cultural shift to more mixed race families and as a result, children. But your child’s identity may shift as they get older and that is OK. Parenting is not easy, but it is rewarding. Enjoy the journey, but be prepared to have the conversation one day when YOUR child is the one asking you “What am I?””

The views and opinions expressed by columnists are their own and may or may not represent those of theParentVoice.com or its team. 

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    A former newspaper and broadcast journalist, Lisa is a multimedia professor at the University of Southern California and also the associate director for the undergraduate journalism program. Read more under 'Columnists".

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