by guest contributor Jen Chau, originally published at The time is always right…
I hung out with Katie this weekend – she has gotten so big. The last time I saw her, she mostly looked at me with wide-open googly eyes, but on Saturday, she was completely with me. She laughed and giggled, made funny faces, and ate my hair. We had a great time. Her mom, Lorraine, is my closest friend from high school, like a sister to me, so this is really the first baby of my friends to whom I will be close. It’s pretty amazing and unreal to me, still.
In the months leading up to Katie’s birth, I would sit around with Lorraine and Harry, the future mom and dad, talking about what she would be like.
Harry mainly teased (because that’s what he does with me), and said that even though she would be mixed, she would certainly not have anything to do with Swirl, because it’s a cult. He has been making this assertion since I started the organization in 1999. It bugs me, and so he keeps it up (for anyone who knows the org, it is certainly not a cult! See how defensive I am? ). Jokes flew back and forth about Katie looking more Asian or more Latina, more like Harry, or more like Lorraine. Would she pull off being tri-lingual? There were plans to have her exposed to and learning English, Spanish, and Chinese, all at the same time. The two sides of the family daydreamed about what she would look like. Almond eyes with an olive complexion and curly black hair? It seemed that the majority of talk that I was privy to really revolved around her culture, her identity, and her looks.
Spending time catching up with Lorraine on Saturday, all of this hardly comes into play. Most of what we talk about are the challenges of raising a baby while also holding a full-time job – the guilt that naturally comes with that, and the hard decisions that need to be made as a new mom. We talk about what good parenting looks like.
I wonder when the issues of identity come back. Or are they already there, but felt through Katie’s parents? How much do we experience ourselves, and how much do our parents make a reality for us?
Before Katie was born (and in response to Harry’s mocking), I used to say that I would be her mixed auntie, the one who would validate all of the experiences she was having as a mixed girl. Though now I wonder – how much will be the same? I hope that if I ever tell Katie what it was like for me to grow up mixed, that she will think it is all crazy and unimaginable.
I hope that she will think that all of it was prehistoric. I was her age at a time – not so long ago, the 70s! – when the country was mostly oblivious about mixed heritage people. I see that lack of consciousness waning now, and I hope that it continues to get smaller and smaller until we can hardly remember that it even existed.
In the 70s, my mom would take me to the park to play. We did this every day, and we eventually made friends – me, with the other toddlers, my mom with the moms. She was consistently questioned by newbies, “How long have you been babysitting this one?” I hope that Lorraine doesn’t have to frequently defend the fact that she is Katie’s mom when a stranger determines that they don’t look enough alike to be related.
In elementary school, kids would tease me about looking the way I did (read: different) and having the last name Chau, while looking the way I did (read: I guess, to them, not Chinese enough to have that last name). Many mixed people from my generation talk about the experience of being raised with a particular identity — typically, an identity with a weak tie to culture, or one with a strong emphasis on one side and not the other, and then having others consistently question them. I remember thinking “my outside doesn’t match up to how I feel on the inside.” I hope that Katie will feel so validated and supported in her mixed identity (being all that she is, if that’s what she chooses), that she won’t ever feel weakened by the potentially harsh things the other kids will say to her in the classroom and schoolyard.
In Junior High School, I learned a tough lesson about community. During my Bat Mitzvah, my father wasn’t permitted to participate in the ceremony. This in turn led to my mother deciding not to participate either. I learned the unfortunate lesson that community will not always accept or automatically accept difference. I hope that all communities are moving to heightened inclusivity. It makes sense, considering that our country is only becoming more and more diverse. The number of interracial couples is only growing, so it is to be expected that we will see more and more mixed heritage kids and families with “membership” in a number of communities.
In High School, I thought even more about identity as I was faced with a class that was harshly divided into distinct cliques whose borderlines were almost entirely determined by race and culture. I remember the way that we used to talk about the groups – there was the “A crowd,” which was actually termed “the Jew crew” (most of them were Jewish, so the name came about) full of the seemingly perfect and popular kids. Another “crew” consisted of the majority of the Latino and Black students, and then there were the Asian students. And everyone understood this. There were people who didn’t fall into any, but these were the sizable groups that were recognized. My group of friends was a pretty good mix, but I remember us feeling on the margins, like we were weird. We let anyone and everyone be a part of our group of friends, so if diversity was weird, then we were definitely weird. I remember feeling uncomfortable about the divisions in my high school because they all felt so arbitrary. I hope that Katie will find that she can have real friendships with people in school regardless of her ethnic background – that community isn’t merely shaped by race and race alone.
And then, college. If I haven’t made it clear through my writing already, let me say that I absolutely loved my time at Wellesley College. It was transformative, and those years really helped to shape me. I hope that Katie has the same kind of amazing experience that I did – where she is able to further explore her identity in the context of a tremendously diverse student body, where there is support for who she is. We are looking good on this level…there are dozens and dozens of mixed student organizations across the country. On the college level, there is definitely awareness and support for mixed heritage students. And I hope that if Katie decides to be a part of other groups and doesn’t strongly identify with being mixed that she will be supported in that as well. The main idea is that she should be able to decide for herself who she is. Who even knows what “mixed identity” or “racial identity” will look like 20 years from now anyway!?
My point is that I want Katie to grow up in a world where no one is ever confused by her. Where she doesn’t have to constantly answer questions about how her parents met. I want her to feel comfortable identifying in whatever ways she pleases, and I want her to be supported in these ways by family, friends, and the communities to which she belongs. I hope I am doing my small part in getting us to this place.
In short, if old auntie Jen tells her about how it was to be mixed in her time, I want her to roll her eyes and say, “Gosh. The world was so crazy back then!”
Jen Chau is the Founder and Executive Director of Swirl, Inc. (http://www.swirlinc.org), a national anti-racist, grassroots organization that serves the mixed heritage community. In addition, she is the Director of People Services at New Leaders for New Schools (http://www.nlns.org), a national non-profit education reform organization.