|

Mixed race and proud: LA's multi-heritage kids navigate their identity

Delia Douglas-Haight, husband William Haight and daughter Soleil Haight, 5, play together at the Venice Beach Boardwalk Playground on Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 17, 2017. One of the biggest demographic changes over the last few decades has been in the number of children under five who are mixed race. In 1970, just 1 percent of babies had parents of different races. Today it’s 10 percent. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Soleil Simone Haight loves saying all three of her names, running them together with sheer glee in her voice. She also proudly declares that she is five years old, that she has curly hair like her mommy, and that she is from Africa.

But when she announces that she's from Africa, she often encounters a momentary look of confusion from listeners that might have something to do with her blonde hair and fair skin. Dealing with that confused look is one small part of what it means to be a young mixed race child.

On the other hand, this sparkly kindergartener who has a black and Native American mom and a white dad is not confused. When asked why people have different colored skin, her response is matter-of-fact: “Because that’s the way they’re made.”

One of the biggest demographic changes over the last few decades has been in the number of children under five who are mixed race. In 1970, just 1 percent of babies had parents of different races. Today, it’s 10 percent.

It's a dramatic shift away from decades past, when state laws banned interracial relationships. But the rise of mixed-race families raises challenges that might not be easy for parents and their young children to navigate.

Soleil’s mother, Delia Douglas Haight, said she’s always had to deal with questions about her heritage, down to well-meaning strangers asking if she was Soleil’s nanny. “That was a tough experience to have so early in motherhood,” Douglas Haight said.

The experience also reinforced that her child too would face challenging moments, so conversations about skin color come up regularly in her household.

Haight said it’s a starting point to move on to discussions about identity and culture, as well as more difficult concepts for a young child, like those of inclusion and exclusion. As a mixed heritage family, there are always complicating moments, Douglas Haight said – like the time a well-meaning family member advised her she should let Soleil pass for white as it would make her life easier. 

"Being mixed race they may be invited to sit at a table that others may not be able to," Douglas Haight said. So if indeed her daughter can, at times, "pass" for white, she wants her to be prepared for the harsh things she may hear about other parts of her heritage.

"If we do instill this great sense of pride and appreciation and respect, they may be able to influence these other groups into thinking in that same way," Douglas Haight said. 

For Farzana Nayani, the layers of heritage and culture that her two young sons share span three continents and seven countries. With grandparents from Malaysia, the Philippines, India, Pakistan and Germany, who currently live in Canada, Nayani’s sons have traveled the world at their young age.

It’s not that the family is rich, it’s that they need to understand their roots, Nayani said. And it makes explaining who they are so much easier.

“I know my grandma, her name is Nenek, she lives in Malaysia,” 6-year-old Zakri said.  He’s looking at family photos which adorn the walls. Then he runs and grabs a globe.

“Malaysia,” he said, pointing. “It’s here. Right here. This dark green stuff. All of it is Malaysia.”

Nayani has seen her family get stared at, and she knows the looks register with her sons.

“It can get tiring,” Nayani said. “The hard cold reality is that you’re asked questions more than other people, you’re looked at differently.”

So ignoring their differences is not an option, she said.

“Navigating identity, having to balance, having to favor one over the other in certain circumstances, all those things are really difficult and our children are going to go through it and so we have to equip ourselves with the ability to deal with it,” said Nayani.

Both these families had a rare moment of public celebration this past August when the Dodgers honored mixed race families by dedicating a game to people of multi-heritage. It came after years of advocacy work by a group called Multi-Racial Americans of Southern California (MRASC).

At the game, the mayor's office presented an award to the group for it's work. Sonia Smith-Kang, vice president of MRASC, said it was an important moment recognizing the movement's "collective dedication to the multiracial community."

While families are themselves organizing to bring attention, resources and recognition to the needs of their multi-heritage children, the early education world is not really helping.  Erika Frankenberg, a professor of education and demography at Penn State University, who authored a report on preschool segregation, said too often children go to preschool with children exactly like themselves.

“If we have segregated classrooms then kids aren’t able to mix,” she said. And preschool should be the place to “play with students from different backgrounds.”   

For mixed race kids, when mommy looks one way and daddy another, or when mommy has one cultural tradition and daddy another, they can feel very different from peers.

“The normalization of difference is really critical at this age range,” Frankenberg said. “It helps to reduce the formation of prejudice.”

World City Preschool in the West Adams district embraces this philosophy, and it’s students of mixed heritage, said school co-founder Rebecca Bernard.

She estimates a third of all her students are of mixed heritage. “I looked around and I was like, wow, how many mixed race kids do we have in our school, this is so awesome,” she said.

At this preschool, difference is celebrated. “Its not about just playing sand and toys for us,” Bernard said. “There is a deep commitment to giving them everything they need to be whole and complete.”

Teachers start the year by interviewing families, finding out about home cultures and traditions which then leads to in depth planning for how to bring these into the classroom.

“It’s a unique racial experience because we’re not one or the other,” Bernard said. She herself is mixed race. “You’re coming with two different heritages.”

Beranrd’s staff are working on tools -- a preschool aged curriculum, best practices for parents -- that will put children of mixed heritage at the center. A large part of that is empowering children to be there for each other.

“It is a kind of unique support that mixed kids can give other mixed kids,” Bernard said.

Her message with three and four year-olds is simple and effective: “Hey man, its cool to be everything!”