Why Is It…?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q: Why is it…that mixed race individuals are asked to choose which race they identify with?

I am the parent of a bi-racial child who just completed his first year of school. Prior to going to school, the issue of race never came up, but ever since he started kindergarten, he has brought home questions about whether he should consider himself black or white. Why does he suddenly appear to be so concerned about skin color and how can I address his concerns in an honest and responsible fashion?

A: It is no secret that racial divides have plagued American society for hundreds of years. Although we like to think of our country as being a “melting pot,” the daily realities frequently reflect lines of racial segregation more so than a unified whole. As humans, it is natural to place things into categories when processing information about the world around us. This tendency toward categorization, is not, in and of itself, an act of prejudice. For example, it is not inherently negative for us to acknowledge the differences between oak, pine, and willow trees. Nor is it an act of prejudice to acknowledge human differences in race between blacks, whites, Asians, and Hispanics.

An act of prejudice occurs, not when we merely notice differences, but rather when we assign differences in value to different categories (if we believe one race to be superior to another, for example). When a child enters school, they are thrust into a social setting that requires them to construct impressions of themselves in relation to others (who am I and where do I fit in?). When children ask a bi-racial child whether they are black or white (or whatever combination applies), it is similar to asking if one is an oak or willow tree – a function of natural curiosity. However, to the bi-racial child who is being questioned, this may be a very perplexing issue that can influence the development of their ultimate self-concept.

Therefore, parents (as well as teachers, caregivers, etc.), who are faced with these types of questions, must do their best to respond in ways that are both honest and beneficial to the development of the child. Some years back, I had a client who was a lovely, bi-racial, young woman. She had been adopted by white parents and raised in a white community. When she was faced with these questions at school, her parents told her that she was no different than anyone else. And while her parents believed that they were doing her justice, it actually led to great confusion for her because it simply wasn’t true! She knew she was different in appearance (if not in value), and was offered no foundation on which to build a realistic self-concept.

When a child asks, “am I black or white,” here is an approach that may be useful. Get some paint and paper and sit down with the child. Paint a red circle and ask them what color it is. Then paint a blue circle next to it, again asking them to identify the color. Now, take your paintbrush and pick-up a bit of the red and blue and create a new circle blending the colors (resulting in a purple circle). Point to the purple circle and ask the child to tell you whether it is red or blue – insisting that they choose. The child will most likely argue that it is neither and insist that it is purple – a color all its own. Then explain that purple does not have to choose whether it is red or blue because it has a unique identity that is beautiful and distinct – just like the child! In this way, the child who may be confused by their racial identity will become empowered by the value and pride they feel in their own distinctive individuality.

Remember, the mere existence of bi-racial individuals represent a loving unity between races, in place of the conflict and struggle that has plagued our nation for centuries – a source of pride, in and of itself!