You Are NOT a Mutt! (Teaching My Kids About Race)

The faces of the new generation of Americans

“Mom, what’s a Latina?” my ten-year old daughter asked me yesterday afternoon. “Some kids said that I look like a Latina. Is that bad?”

For a moment, I was stunned. Not because other kids said that my daughter looks like a Latina. But I was stunned that I had not yet prepared my children to handle questions about their ethnic heritage. “Sweetie, you are a Latina,” I told her. “And you are black and white. You are all of these wonderful things.”

Of course, it isn’t really quite that simple. My children are part of a new generation of Americans, with a complex ethnic heritage. According to our family tree, my kids have ancestors from Mexico, Ireland, England, Germany, and who-knows-which-countries somewhere in Africa. Is it any wonder that I have largely avoided the topic? To me, it feels somewhat lacking to simplify their ancestry down to three terms to check off on a census box: black, white, and Latino. On the other hand, it would sound ridiculous if my kids had to explain, “I am a Mexican-Irish-English-German-Unknown-Place-in-African-American.”

Have I mentioned yet my distaste for hyphenated racial tags? I don’t feel that they are much of an improvement over the ambiguous (and somewhat derogatory) terms which multiracial people have used to identify themselves over the years. Mulatto. An Oreo cookie. Heinz 57 Sauce. Mixed.

“To tell you the truth,” I explained to my kids, “Most people are misguided about the concept of race. Science indicates that the world cannot be divided into three main racial groups. There is a spectrum of human variation, and simplifying it all into a few boxes may make other people feel more comfortable, but it does not really determine your individual or collective identity.”

My kids looked at me blankly. Then my 12 year-old son said, “Um, maybe I’ll just tell people that I’m a mutt.”

I sighed. “Just tell them you’re mixed.”

Favorite Websites for Understanding Race:

Understanding Race (A Project of the American Anthropological Association)

Matters of Race (PBS)

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