Ask ARP: How should we refer to the race of our new baby?

Dear Anti-Racist Parent:

I’m a Scandinavian woman married to an East African man and now we’re expecting our little baby girl within a month from now or so… My question is the following:

Admittedly, I haven’t read much on your Web site yet so forgive me my ignorance if this is completely wrong but we both hate the term “race” as we’re of the opinion (backed up by recent research in the area) that there’s only ONE human race to which we all belong. We happen to have different colours on the outside, but in Scandinavia, where I come from, we also all have different hair colours and eye colours. I don’t see the big difference. It has never really been important to us. If people ask, I say that I’m married to a Ugandan man. He normally says I’m Danish. That’s it!

Now, however the problems come with the baby. People apparently WANT to define what she is/will be genetically, for some very weird reason. Many of them mean to be nice, actually, like saying: “Wow – she’s going to be so beautiful and cute. ‘They’ (all mixed kids) are all like that.!” I myself find it a rather stupid thing to say, to be honest. I mean just because, yes, she might very well get a really nice skin colour, doesn’t necessarily mean that she’ll be pretty!!!!! I find both of us rather good looking, so of course, I believe she will be the prettiest little girl on this whole planet :-) – and that’s what I mistakingly thought they meant to begin with but later figured out that they were actually talking about her being “mixed.”

I got really mad the other day, when someone called our baby a half caste!!! I know it’s being used in the UK but to me the term is deeply racial because “caste” means “pure,” so if someone calls a person “half-caste” they are calling them half pure! And besides, it gives me very bad associations to the inhuman Indian caste system (in my opinion at least). No fucking way (sorry!) that our baby is a half caste!!!! And she’s not a “mulatto” either.

But what is she? We’re running out of words here. I guess, if we get mad when people call her things like that, we’ll have to come up with a better word ourselves. We ourselves normally call her African-European but what would – in your opinion – be the right term to use? In order to satisfy people’s desperate need to characterize a person by her ethnicity?

I would be grateful if you could help us clarify this issue as we by now realise that it will be a fight of words that we have to be able to fight – and we want her as well to be prepared for this!

Kristine M.


From the Editor:

What do you call your new baby, who may have arrived as I’m typing this? (If so, congratulations!) Call her your beautiful, sweet daughter. Call her the apple of your eye. Call her the greatest kid in the whole wide world. Those are the labels that truly matter.

As for her racial identity–teach her all the wonderful things about her African and European heritage. Expose her to people of Danish and Ugandan and other cultures. In time, she will decide how she wants to identify herself–and how she wants to identify herself may change from time to time. Sometimes she may want to be biracial…sometimes black…sometimes white. Really only your daughter can choose who she will be. That is fundamentally what I want to say. People on the street who use offensive terms like “half caste” don’t get to choose. And, this may be harder to grasp, but I think that you and your husband don’t get to choose, either.

Racial identity is personal and it can be informed by our genetic makeup, the culture in which we are raised, the parents who raise us, our appearance, how other people react to us and other factors. It is complicated. I wonder if you and your husband’s view of race really takes into account the complexities of the topic in Western culture. You are correct that fundamentally we’re not all that different. And technically, we can all trace our ancestry back to a group of ancestors on the African continent some 60,000 years ago. But when has life ever been technical?

In common parlance, race is tied to several culture markers, and I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. For instance, I am an American black woman. Being black in America, with roots in slavery and ancestors from both Africa and Europe, has informed who I am.  It is not the only thing that informs who I am–not even necessarily the most important thing, but it is something. The problem is not that my cultural heritage, skin color and features have led me to identify as black. The problem is that some people would assign negative meaning to my blackness. It is not race that is bad, but racism.

…and about racism: That your daughter is a woman of color in the Western world will likely mean something to the people she encounters. It may affect how people judge her beauty. It may affect the type of sexism she faces. It may affect how she is accepted in black and white circles. I encourage you and your husband to explore this blog. You’ll find wonderful stories about the joys and challenges of being biracial and parenting biracial children. Some may be relevant to your European experience, some not, but I think they will all be helpful. (You might start with Graig M.’s wonderful essay about his biracial daughter.) I think it is important that you prepare your lovely little one to face the world as it is, not as you hope it will be. 

So, what do you call your daughter? While she is very young, I think you may call her what feels most comfortable for you–biracial…African-European. Eventually, though, you will need to take your cues from her.

Of course, the most imporant thing any parent can offer a child is love. And it sounds like you and your husband have plenty of that to share, plus a desire to do what is best for your new baby. With that, you and your growing family will be just fine.

Readers, what do you say?

Tami

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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