table of contents | abstracts


Toyin Okitikpi
Brunel University
London, England

Communicating With Children of Interracial/Interethnic Parentage

Abstract Children of interracial/interethnic parentage are increasing in number throughout Europe yet there has been a wall of silence about how to work with such children. In this discussion the aim is not only to encourage a dialogue about children of interracial/interethnic relationships but also to urge a development of a better understanding of the inner and outer world of such children. The aim is also to highlight and analyse the different issues that welfare professionals need to take into consideration when working with the children. I shall suggest that there is a need to give greater credence to the way people communicate with the children because what is communicated and how it is communicated could affect how the children relate to others, how they develop intellectually, emotionally and psychologically and how they develop their sense of identity. Introduction There is a great deal of evidence to support the claim that there is a growing number of children in Europe born of relationships in which the parents are from different racial, cultural and ethnic backgrounds (Robinson, 1999; Owusu-Bempah and Howitt, 2000). In countries in Europe where there is a relative peace between the different ethnic groups it is still the case that children born from relationships between the indigenous majority population and the minority population often face, at best, inquisitiveness and, at worst, hostilities from significant others and also from strangers. Throughout the troubles in Northern Ireland there has been very little reporting or research into the experiences of families whose relationship cuts across the religious divide. Similarly, in the much reported Balkan War, there was very little coverage of the turmoil that the war must have brought into families where one partner is a Kosova Serb and the other a Kosova Albanian. There appears to have been very little discussion about how such families make sense of their world and how the children relate to children from mono-ethnic relationships. What happens to interethnic families during such crises and are there concerns about the children's sense of identity and where they belong? In other words, how are the children and their families viewed? How are they identified by significant others and strangers? To which ethnic groups do they belong and, importantly, which ethnic group can claim their allegiance? Unlike the dearth of data from the Balkans and many of the Eastern European countries, the countries in the West have had a longer period to explore these issues in some depth and to consider the implications, not just for the children and their families, but also in social welfare policy and practice terms (Kannan, 1973; Benson, 1992; Small, 1986; Barn, 1999). Also, unlike the Eastern European countries, the countries in the West are less concerned about interethnic relationships, rather their focus is on interracial issues and their ramifications for society. To help focus the discussion I shall be exploring the British experience but urging a wider extrapolation of the ideas and discussion presented. In other words, although the data and arguments presented are interracial in their orientation, the issues raised, the arguments presented and the ideas highlighted are of relevance and are applicable to children and families from interethnic relationships. The British Experience In Britain, the number of children from families where one parent is black African or African Caribbean and the other parent is white has increased to such a level that in many areas in the UK (London, the midlands, Wales and Yorkshire), they constitute quite a substantial number within the community. Younge (1997) observed that there is an increasing number of Caribbean children who have one white parent. Similarly, a Policy Study Institute study (1997) on multiracial Britain also supports Younge's observation that two out of five (39 percent) of the children studied had one Caribbean parent and one white parent. Yet despite their growing numbers, welfare professionals and commentators often view the children as "lacking" in some way and that their interest would be best served by being nurtured in an environment that takes account of only one part of their identity. In essence, what is being suggested is that wherever possible, children of interracial parentage should be encouraged to view themselves as non-white and helped to develop their black identity. At the heart of this view is the premise that children of interracial parentage are, for all intent and purpose, black and any other suggested identity would indicate identity "confusion" and foster "self-hatred." Tizard and Phoenix's study highlighted that indeed some children had problems associated with racial identity. As they commented: "Although only a minority of the mixed-parentage sample experienced problems with their racial identity, the proportion that did so was twice as large as it was in the case of those with two parents. Their problems were those that have always been recognised for people of mixed parentage: a feeling of being different, a feeling of being torn between two sets of competing loyalties and in some cases the experience of hostility from black children, as well as white" (Tizard and Phoenix, 1993: 162). But as Owusu-Bempah and Howitt (2000) cautioned: "This however should not encourage anxieties that these children desperately need help, since balancing competing loyalties is a common social experience which needs to be negotiated and managed in most instances. Alternatively, the feeling of being 'different' and the experience of split loyalties are at least partly due to the hostility from both communities, rather than being an intrinsic aspect of the children's personality" (Owusu-Bempah and Howitt, 2000: 149). And they continued, "The problem lies with both black and white communities, children and adults, including professionals who seem unwilling to accept similarities in matters of race, and not with individual children" (ibid). Confusing the Mix It is evident when reading the work of Banks (1998), Barn (1993) and Prevatt-Goldstein (1999) that they all work from the premise that children of mixed parentage are black irrespective of how the children may view themselves. In taking this as their starting point they further fuel the confusion and uncertainties that exist as to how to classify the children and whether they would best be served under a black identity or recognised as a group in their own right. It is evident that the current classification of children of mixed parentage is very much based on the one-drop rule. It was highlighted that: "The manifestation of the one-drop rule through the categorisation of mixed parentage children as black and the subsequent racist attitudes and behaviour towards them is the main reason put forward by those who believe that mixed parentage children must take on the black identity as their true and only identity" (Okitikpi, 1999: 399). The preoccupation with how to identify the children has, of course, not developed out of a vacuum but from genuine desire to accommodate a group of people whom white society had deemed non-white as a result of the underlying principle of the "one-drop" rule. According to the rationale of the "rule," one drop of black blood automatically renders a child non-white, and being non-white thus renders the child "black" (Root, 1992; Okitikpi, 1999b). As a result of the one-drop rule and the subsequent negative and excluding reactions of society towards children of mixed parentage, it was believed by many commentators that the natural home of children of mixed parentage is within the black fold. A view illustrated by Small (1986) said: "The concept of mixed race, which has become a part of conventional social work language, is misleading because it causes confusion in the minds of trans-racial adopters. It can lead them to believe that such children are racially distinct from other Blacks. Consequently, they may neglect the child's needs to develop a balanced racial identity and thereby a well integrated personality. The term 'mixed race' should therefore not be used by administrators or professionals, and should be discouraged amongst people who want to provide homes for Black children" (Small, 1986: 90). Small's view has had a profound impact not just in the way the children are classified, but also on the perception of social welfare professionals. There is a sense that there is no longer any need for further discussions or analysis of the children's identity, their cultural heritage and how they could be viewed in society. Those who have attempted to present a different point of view face a posse of accusation that they are either too middle class in their orientation or racist. This suggests there is little consideration given to the particular experience of each child if current assumptions are maintained. For example, what is a child to do when they look in the mirror and the reflection they see bears no resemblance to the black teacher they see in the nursery, the black parent they live with or the black children they see around them? There seems to be some reluctance on the part of commentators to accept the reality that one of the child's parents is black and the other white. There is a sense that attempts are being made to redress the racial injustices and oppression that black people have suffered in society by ignoring the white aspect of the child's background and glorifying, indeed accentuating, the black heritage of the child's history. The explanation of this stance is clearly political and is based on the quite understandable rationale that the child's white heritage is reinforced by society and that irrespective of how the child or others may view them they are considered (labeled) black by society. Although in some instances it is acknowledged that this ascription of blackness may be false, it is nevertheless asserted that the ascription of blackness has a social reality in the way the children are viewed and in the way others relate to them. It is interesting, and somewhat ironic, that ideas that were floated by Small (1986) and others during the hothouse racial and cultural debates of the 1980s should now become so entrenched that the social and personal realities of the children living the life are ignored by those commenting on their lives. Context setting The importance of early childhood development has been well explored, and similarly, the significance of these early childhood experiences on adult life has been developed and documented elsewhere (Katz, 1996; Milner, 1983; Klein, 2000). Even in this [post] modern age with its cynicism and worldliness, it is still possible to assert (without fear of derision) that these early influences have such profound effects that they can literally shape an individual's life chance. This is not to head towards the cul-de-sac of determinism and the idea that people have no control over their lives, however limiting. But it is to suggest that life chances and one's experience of the world is a combination of different factors and that an individual life experience is not peripheral to this process. For a child growing up, making sense of their world is fraught with difficulties. There are uncertainties and in some cases incomprehension and confusion about the world around them. Children not only have to cope with the world around them and get used to its incoherence and confusion as well as inconsistencies in adult behaviour, they also have to learn how to live with other children who appear to be both similar and different from themselves. Everyday "talks" and contacts with others, which adults take for granted, present an obstacle course to be negotiated and of which they have to make sense. Marsland and Leoussi (1996) rightly observed: "Influences and processes affecting human conditions and behaviour are rarely simple. They usually involved long chains or multiple complexes of causal factors which have to be carefully disentangled" (Marsland and Leoussi, 1996: 110). So a child growing up in any society is faced with a cacophony of ideas and influences that are all jostling for prominence. Some influences, of course, have more power than others but the process is not static; it is fragmented, fluid and in part discontinuous. The child's sense of self and their feeling of connectedness do not come from welfare professionals and clinical psychologists who try to convince them of who they are, nor from parents and well-meaning commentators who attempt to impose their views of what a positive identity looks like. If only it was so simple and straightforward. The child feels positive racial and cultural identity when there is congruence in their life; where there is solidity and continuity; where they can explore and "fantasise" without fear of over-interpretation or inappropriate interpretation; where it is safe to explore the depth of their psyche and its vulnerability and richness; the opportunity to experience different emotions and test themselves physically with all the inherent dangers. Focus on the Children Like other children, children of interracial/interethnic parentage have to be respected and treated as valued and unique beings. Their needs, personal situations and circumstances should not be ignored or drowned under the weight of political and racial dogmatism. From my observation, it is often the case that those who work with the children confuse their own personal, social and political prejudices with the experiences of the children. Consciously or unconsciously, their disapproval of interracial/interethnic relationships often manifests itself in the way they view the children, the assumptions they make, the ideas that inform their assessment and the way they conduct their work with the children. As Prevatt-Goldstein (1999) observed with regard to children from interracial backgrounds: "The black child with a white parent is the child of two people who have been constructed as 'racial' opposites by much of present society. The child therefore has to develop a 'racial' self-concept which manages this duality...." (Prevatt-Goldstein, 1999: 50). However, she undermined her case by suggesting that: "The desired outcome for a black child with a white parent is that a child feels positive about themselves as a black child with a white parent and feels part of a group that contributes, survives, challenges" (Prevatt-Goldstein, 1998: 50). One can only assume that the irony was overlooked in this instance and the contradiction of the comment somewhat lost to the author. Prevatt-Goldstein (1999) does not fully explain how the child can develop a "racial" self-concept, which manages their duality when she is advocating a neglect of one part of the child's experience. The difficulty is that the ideas that are advanced to enable the child to feel included paradoxically add to the confusion and further disillusionment, not just for the child but also for those who are genuinely interested in working positively with such children. Informing the child that they belong to a group that "contributes, survives and challenges" may make the adults concerned feel connected but it is meaningless pseudopsychology that adds little to the children's actual experiences. Identity Work The development of an understanding of "self" through interaction with others within the internal familial milieux and external wider community begins at a very early age. If the child's view of him/herself were based on biased and distorted information that is reinforced by communicators of cultural norms and values, then the child's sense of identity would be affected to such an extent that it could leave a long-lasting scar. Milner (1983), Spencer (1997), Wilson (1987) and Katz (1996) have further explored these ideas in their research study. But with regard to children of interracial and interethnic parentage, the overriding consideration that seems to inform the approach to the children holds more to social and political ideals than to what is actually in the best interest of the children. Of course the children live within a society in which racism, interethnic conflicts and prejudise exist. However, they have to make sense of it within the context in which one of their parents is part of the dominant group and the other a member of the oppressed group. To be able to do any meaningful and lasting identity work with such children, there has to be recognition and attempts to connect the different racial aspects and ethnicity of the child's life. To ignore one area of the child's racial and cultural background and accentuate the other is to commit a fatal error. This approach encourages the child to firmly plant themselves on one side, invariably the less socially favoured side, as a means of achieving personal integration. But as Zack, talking about her personal experiences, wryly observed: "It's too late for me to hop to either side because I can't lie about the presence of my black ancestry and pretend to be white, and I can't remake my past and become black. Either I sink or rise. I have decided to rise. And I think that such transcendence is possible because I am defying the gravity of merely social reality. I have to function in social reality but I don't actually live there" (Zack, 1994: 26). Communicating with children of interracial/interethnic backgrounds In communicating with children of mixed parentage there are a number of strands that need to be taken into consideration. These strands form an important backdrop, not only for our understanding of the influences that help to shape the children's lives, but as vital foundations to aid better and more informed communication. For example, it is vital to take account of: 1.) the children's development and their understanding of their lives 2.) external factors and influences 3.) familial arrangements 4.) general attitudes towards interracial/interethnic relationships In other words, in order to fully consider all the issues surrounding communication with children of interracial/interethnic parentage and to be able to understand their inner world, it is important to try and understand the "lived reality" of the children. The Children's Development and their Understanding of their Lives As has already been well documented, there are internal dynamics that contribute towards the shaping of an individual's development, their personality and identity (Katz, 1996; Owusu-Bempah and Howitt, 2000). Similarly, aside from their physicality, there are also attributes, cognitive abilities, emotional states and social skills that individuals bring to encounters with others that impact the way people relate to each other. Children from interethnic/interracial backgrounds, like other children, attempt to make sense of their lives in a world that is both familiar and distant. They sometimes have to cope with the uncertainties that surround them and make sense of a micro world that is inhabited by adults that are often contradictory, irrational and unpredictable in both their behaviour and utterances. Children spend the early stages of their lives believing in the omnipotence of their parents and other adults around them; in their middle childhood years they discover that not only can they make choices but also that the adults whom they have invested with so much power and wisdom are flawed. Although the early and middle years are periods of discovery, the pre-adult stage is also a time of realignments with the "others" and self-discovery as well as a time for developing and forging a path. For children of interracial/interethnic backgrounds, in addition to having to make sense of who they are and where they belong, there is a great deal of questioning from significant others and strangers about the children's identity, their racial affiliations and ethnicity. In most instances the children are faced with a situation in which, on the one hand, their parents attempt to provide a nurturing and facilitative environment from which they could begin to explore the wider world, while on the other, their very existence is challenged by others. External Influences Simply expressed, there are external influences that affect the individual's development and the extent to which they feel part of the social landscape in which they live. Although many of these factors are outside the zone of influences of the individual concerned, nevertheless people are not just mere puppets or blank slates upon whom the external prescribes a personality. The process is, of course, more complex than as Berger and Luckman observed: "I experience everyday life in terms of differing degrees of closeness and remoteness, both spatially and temporally. Closest to me is the zone of everyday life that is directly accessible to my bodily manipulation" (Berger and Luckman, 1985: 36). Berger and Luckman's observation reinforces the notion that as much as people are shaped by the world, they are also involved in shaping the world. Berger and Luckman's "social construction of reality" and Brofenbrenners's (1979) ecology of human development provide a framework from which to understand the dynamic interplay between the internal and external influences. What is of interest in this instance is that the process is fluid, discontinuous, contested and fragmented. Children, like adults, are able to make decisions (albeit limited and with support from others) about life in a way that facilitates the continuity of their lives. It is evident that children from interracial/interethnic relationships are locked into a condition in which the external world attempts to exercise a greater degree of power and influence upon their identity and how they should be defined. The power and control is manifested through the attempt to define how children of interracial/interethnic parentage should be identified. Familial Arrangements It is evident that assumptions are made of children of interracial/interethnic backgrounds are unlikely to be reared and nurtured in a non-mono-ethnic/mono-racial household. Irrespective of the domestic arrangements of the child's family, there is an imposition of what can only be described as a racially/ethnically divided binary world view. This assumption may suit the social and political trend of the period; it does not necessarily help in our understanding of the children's experiences nor does it provide an insight as how to best work with such children and their families. Unlike Small (1986), Banks (1998), Barn (1999) and Prevatt-Goldstein (1999), I would like to suggest that any direct work with children from interracial/interethnic backgrounds needs to start from the premise that the children are of interracial/interethnic background. The children's reality is that they are from families where, in some cases, one parent is black and the other is white, or in other instances, one parent hails from one ethnic group and the other from another ethnic group. Importantly, the children and their families should not be given the impression that coming form an interracial or interethnic background is in some way negative, pathological or abnormal. It is recognised that the children are part of a social context where discrimination and oppression of all kinds takes place; however, the children also belong to a narrower private world that challenges the negative assumptions and attempts to embrace a different social world where there is an acceptance and a synergy of difference. Attitudes Towards Interracial/Interethnic Relationships The other area that needs to be borne in mind in communicating with children of interracial/interethnic parentage is the negative attitudes that are held towards interracial/interethnic relationships. It is evident that there are particular difficulties experienced by those involved in such relationships (Zack, 1995; Xuanning Fu and Heaton, 1997; Warren, Walton & Johnson, 1994). This is because the people involved in the relationship are subject to a range of external pressures about the nature of relationships and they are asked to justify themselves. For example, many have reported the often negative and hostile reactions from their families and friends because of their relationship with a partner from a different ethnic or racial background. As highlighted by Alibhai-Brown and Montague (1992): "You're looked down on as if you have degraded yourself and made to feel as if you have done something impure, something immoral...once or twice have been spat at and called a whore" (Brown and Montague, 1992: 140). What this highlights is that for many people involved in such relationships, particularly the women, they not only experience disapproval from family and friends, but they also have to cope with disapprobation from complete strangers. For example, with regard to interracial relationships, many women with interracial/interethnic children speak of a sneering accusatorial look they get from others who find it difficult to accept the idea of people forming relationships outside their racial, cultural or ethnic group (Rosenblatt, Karis & Powell, 1995; Mathabane and Mathabane, 1993). People who disapprove of the relationship have no difficulty expressing their views. Sometimes there are negative non-verbal gestures that are directed at those involved in the relationship, in other instances the negative reaction is more furtive. However, in general the negative reaction is openly and aggressively displayed. In my own research study, respondents highlighted the verbal abuses and non-verbal disapproving body language directed not just at them but also at the children (Okitikpi, 2001). Mixing the Particular With the Universal To communicate with children of interracial/interethnic parentage with the underlining assumption that they are "other" or they could only belong to the ethnic group of one parent is in my view a mistake. It is a mistake because it fails to take account of the social reality of the children and does not give serious consideration to the differences that exist within such children and their families. In my view it has often been the case that it is the negative experiences of a small group of children from interracial/interethnic backgrounds that shape the way professionals view all such children. I would argue that while a great deal could be learned as a result of a close study and understanding of small but unrepresentative groups of children who have displayed negative behaviour about themselves because of their background, it would be an injustice and indeed damaging if welfare professionals approach the majority of the children with the same assumptions as those whom have had dysfunctional and difficult childhood experiences. As already mentioned, it is often asserted that, by dint of their dual heritage, such children are invariably confused by their sense of identity and with which of their parents to identify. However, the premise of this article is that children's sense of identity need not be in a state of flux, uncertainty or confusion if those working with them have a clearer idea of the pressures the children face and their parent's experience. In my view, the confusion about the children's identity lay with those who attempt to define children in a way that negates the children's lived experience. This negation also fails to allow, like everyone else, an opportunity for the children to develop a complex identity with all the uncertainties, contradictions and fluidity that it entails. By treating the children as if they inhabit a binary world in which you can only be one thing, we limit the scope of human possibilities. Rather, the children need to be encouraged to embrace a world that is multilayered, fluid and emerging. It is evident that as children with parents from two different racial and cultural backgrounds, children of interracial/interethnic parentage shoulder a heavy ideological responsibility because they are seen as possibly the "shape of things to come." So far, from the reactions of some welfare professionals and commentators toward the children and their parents, it is a future with which many feel uncomfortable and unable to comprehend. It would appear as if the children's presence challenges a mono-racial, mono-ethnic haven where an individual's place, social location and identity are predetermined. Conclusion The attempt in this article has been to highlight the problems and illogical short-comings of identifying children of interracial/interethnic parentage as belonging to one group and the need to develop communication strategies that are not just sympathetic to the children's backgrounds but genuinely try to connect the different strands that affect the children. I would suggest that to be able to understand the inner and outer world of children of interracial/interethnic parentage and effectively communicate with them, those involved in the work have to accept that the children are part of a multiracial, multicultural and multiethnic society that challenges a binary worldview. The children belong to a family that has challenged the idea that one's colour, culture and ethnicity dictate with whom one should form a relationship. It is therefore important to accept that the children should not be encouraged to embrace one aspect of their identity over and above the other and that communication is more likely to be successful when the person at the receiving end can connect with what is being said. Communication at its simplest is paradoxically complex and difficult to get right. Children of interracial/interethnic parentage require and indeed deserve a more informed approach; their needs ought to be the primary focus of attention rather than being secondary to the ideological, cultural, racial and ethnic war taking place between those who are more interested in asserting a simplistic non-racial and mono-ethnic world where diversity and difference are viewed not as achievements to be celebrated but as a threat to the very existence of society.

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