As conversations around racial inequality dominate headlines and public discourse, many parents are confronted with the daunting task of talking to their children about race. The subject of racial bias, while tricky to navigate, is of particular concern to parents, given the adverse effects of racial discrimination on mental health. And for multiracial families especially, the conversation is far from straightforward. With this in mind, we sat down with Boston family physician and father of two, Michael Richardson, MD to discuss the challenges of educating children on race and preserving mental health during this time. Richardson, who is African American, Irish American, and Native American himself, shares two daughters — five and three years old — with his wife, who is Chinese American.
Q: Research has shown that even babies begin to notice race at as young as 6 months old. Have either of your kids asked questions about their skin color or race? If so, how have you handled those conversations?
A: It’s very funny thinking about how kids recognize race. As adults, when we’re referring to someone, we may often dance around the topic of race. In the back of our minds, we might think of someone as ‘Black Mike’ or take note of someone’s ethnicity. Kids don’t necessarily do that. Many of our friends are multicultural and in interriacial relationships, so our kids have been exposed to a diverse group of family and friends since birth. I didn’t even think they were recognizing race until my oldest daughter, who was three at the time, and I were walking home from daycare one day and she saw an older Asian couple. She said, “Look Daddy! It’s lăolao and lăoye. But it’s not lăolao and lăoye. Do you think they know lăolao and lăoye?”. These terms mean grandmother and grandfather in Chinese on the maternal side. That was her way of recognizing that they are of Asian descent and making a connection to their race and ethnicity. At that age, she recognized shared physical features of a racial or ethnic group, but she has not yet associated specific stereotypes or connotations with specific racial groups as many adults do on a society level. She is also very light-skinned, lighter than my wife. My youngest is very dark-skinned, darker than me. However, the girls have never commented on how my wife and I look compared to them, or how they compare to each other.
Q: What information have you shared with your kids about race so far?
A: I’ve been trying not to focus on categorizing people by race and what it means to be a person of a particular group because it is a social construct. Many people think race is founded in biology or genetic differences, but scientific research has shown that this is not the case. Take for example what it means to be “Black”. I’m multiracial. My mother is a tall, blonde Irish woman. My late father was a tall, Black and Native American man. But many people automatically categorize me as Black or some kind of minority. Few people (if any) would describe me as white. This is likely rooted in the U.S.’s history of the “one-drop rule”, whereas other countries have had different policies for categorizing race that have evolved over time. As for our kids, I haven’t explicitly told them they are Black, White, Chinese, Native American or multiracial. Instead, I focus on culture. Their Chinese heritage is a big part of their childhood because my wife’s parents spend a lot of time with them. My mother in-law only speaks Mandarin and my father-in-law is an expert in the Chinese language and teaches Chinese at an undergraduate university. So the Chinese culture and tradition (e.g., Chinese New Year, Autumn Moon Festival) are already a formative part of their lives. We also celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter with my side of my family, though the specific cultural ties between my Irish, African American, or Native American heritage are not quite as clearly distinguished.
Q: How did you come to understand your own multiracial identity as a child?
A: The funny thing about race is that for many, self-identity can be heavily influenced by what other people say. For me, my initial perception of race came to a head in fourth grade. It was the state standardized test and I had to pick a race bubble. At that time you could only pick one. I raised my hand for the teacher because I was clearly confused given my multiracial background. The teacher just very quickly told me to choose Black. That was very confusing. From that point on, I thought of myself as Black, but could also associate with my Native American heritage at times. I did not see myself as white or Irish because no one outwardly acknowledged me in that way. It wasn’t until I had a conversation with one of the heads of diversity at a medical school during my college years, and she brought up that I didn’t talk about being white. Until that experience, no one had acknowledged me or recognized me as white. And that was my last “ah ha” moment of figuring out my identity as a multiracial person. If possible, I now try to self-identify as a multiracial person and it’s not broken up into percentages. I’m 100% multiracial. I’m 100% African American, 100% Irish American, and 100% Native American. For my kids, they are likely going to experience something similar. They will probably consider themselves everything and not think to distinguish until someone pushes them to make a choice. My oldest may be pushed more towards white and Asian and my youngest may be pushed towards Black and Native American. I really want to make sure though that it doesn’t take them 20 years like it took me to accept all of their racial identities and the multiethnic culture of our family.
Q: How do you plan to talk to your children about race as they get older?
A: It’s complicated talking about race with kids, especially kids who are part Black. As we know with the death of George Floyd and countless others, people who are Black or perceived as Black Americans face more significant barriers than other racial groups, that are life threatening. We shouldn’t feel like our safety is at risk while walking through the safest suburb in the state, but that’s what people of color feel. That’s a very difficult conversation. I’ve decided that I’m not going to have that racial injustice talk just yet because I want to preserve some of their innocence for now, especially because our three year-old is not at the stage where she can understand these concepts, and our daughters share everything, including repeating what we say. I’m not looking forward to that talk but it’s something we’ll have to do. What I want to do now is make sure they feel comfortable with their different cultures and backgrounds. They are familiar with the traditions, food, and language of the Chinese culture because of the substantial time they spend with my in-laws. It’s more complicated with my side of the family, especially with my father’s passing nearly two years ago. They spend most of their time with my mother and her Irish American side of the family when we visit. I’m not quite sure how to explain African American culture, and I am not very active with my Native American tribe these days.
Q: Have they asked any questions about the protests? How have you explained what’s going on in the world right now?
A: They aren’t aware of the protests, because we’re removed from the city so they’re not physically seeing anything and we don’t watch the news. It might have been different if they were at school. My wife and I thought about talking about it but we decided to hold off for now. I want to preserve that innocence and joy as much as possible because it’s not going to last forever. I want to protect them as long as possible. I don’t know if this is the right decision, but it is the decision we have made for now.
They are aware of the pandemic though because they see everyone wearing masks and they’re very attuned to that. They know we’re doing this so people don’t get sick and that’s the reason they can’t go to school and see our friends. We’ve purposefully not said the virus is from China. Early on in the pandemic, Asian Americans were heavily discriminated against. My wife’s extended family is in Wuhan, the original epicenter of the virus. My big fear when my kids were going to daycare was that the kids were going to make fun of them or tease them for being Asian. Thankfully that didn’t happen, but I do know of families who experienced this. That was a really scary time and that may have introduced the discussion of race and how to manage discrimination a lot sooner.
Q: Do you feel pressure to explain racial bias and discrimination to them?
A: Yes, but the pressure is my own. I want to find a balance between preserving innocence and joy, but also making sure they’re well prepared. I want to prepare them appropriately so when they do face their first experience of discrimination they will have an idea of how to respond to it. If I do not prepare them, they may be very hurt by that first instance of discrimination. But if I prepare them too soon, I may be enforcing stereotypes that they never knew or make them too jaded about the world.
Q: Is there an age you think you should have those conversations at?
A: We do need to consider their cognitive developmental stage. 2 years old, for instance, may be too young — they’re still learning about colors. I think it’s less about age and more about their social environment because again race is a social construct. It becomes more of an issue because people place meaning to it. When they start getting involved with more people outside of family and close friends, that’s when it’s going to be a bigger issue. I want to make sure they know how to interact with strangers, self-identify themselves, and manage questions about their identify and how to navigate situations if they are the target of discrimination. I’m still not sure when to explain larger concepts of systemic discrimination, such as Jim Crow laws or redlining, but it is something I want my children to be aware of and understand before entering adulthood.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you face raising multiracial children?
A: The biggest challenges of raising multiracial children are teaching them not to feel pressured by others’ beliefs of what they should or shouldn’t be and having discussions about racial discrimination. One thing that I’m trying not to think about though is what if they personally don’t accept part of their multicultural upbringing or multiracial identities? I may want them to accept everything but what if they don’t have a strong tie to a specific racial group? That can be very hurtful depending which side of themselves they deny. I don’t have a great solution for that, so I’m just trying to get them excited about all their different cultures, learn about other cultures, and provide them with support, ultimately letting them take the path that they choose.
Q: How does racial identity affect mental health?
A: Race is part of your identity as a person of color. You can’t get beyond it. I don’t feel that that’s necessarily the same case for white people who can identify by occupation or hometown. For any person of color, their race or their culture is ingrained in their identity because our society won’t allow anything else. They will actively be treated differently because of it. The impact of chronic and systemic racism on health is dramatic and pervasive. There is a reason why we see Black Americans dying at an earlier age. There’s a reason we see Black Americans being born at a lower birth rate. Studies show that exposure to chronic stressors such as racism can have a significant impact on health.
Q: Have you had any patients express increased stress or anxiety due to racial tensions in society?
A: All the time. But it’s not something they can typically talk to a doctor about because most doctors they have experienced are white. When I have a patient of color, they seem to be able to open up in a way they can’t with other people. For example, I had one person who came to me specifically for mental health, anxiety, and depression. This patient was talking about how she was feeling alone after moving to a new city and not fitting in. I asked her if she felt out of place because she looked different and she admitted that she did. She then went into further detail of how alone she felt as the only person of color in her workplace and neighborhood. She also wanted a therapist that would have that level of cultural sensitivity and competency to address her feelings of isolation. It is hard to find a therapist who is available and has that skill set so I often make myself available to have mini-therapy sessions for my patients if they need it and don’t have access to a mental health provider.
Q: What do you expect to be the mental health impact of the anti-racism movement that’s going on in the world right now?
A: For people of color, this is essentially reopening discussion of the ugliness of racism and discrimination. It’s like reliving trauma again. These are things American society tends not to talk about, even though they have always been in existence. The deaths of George Floyd and others is tragic and though it seems shocking to some, it’s not to people of color, because it happens all the time. But having conversations about race and racism is good because we need to have these conversations to make change happen.
Q: What tips would you give to other parents?
A: My biggest advice is to not feel like you have to have all the answers. Just be there for your child. You want them to know that they aren’t alone and that you will be there to support them through all the challenges. The hardest part about growing up multiracial is feeling so different and alone. Even if you don’t have the right answers, just being there and listening will help your child grow, feel supported, and feel empowered to find their own identity.
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