I'm Listening: What My Mixed Race Daughter is Teaching Me About Ethnicity

by Omilaju Miranda Before I got pregnant, I thought I knew exactly what my child’s ethnic ident...

by Omilaju Miranda

Before I got pregnant, I thought I knew exactly what my child’s ethnic identity would be. I had the obvious answers in my head that meshed perfectly with my perspective on Mixed identity. I knew if my child was brown or “high yellow” with cottony hair, he or she would be a black kid with a white father, and if my child’s phenotype obviously showed his or her racial backgrounds, then I would raise my child as mixed. I was not prepared for a child who so often looks non-anglo white to strangers and many in our close circle (people see the English/Irish white features of her father then assume because of her curls that she’s ½ Italian, ½ Jewish, ½ Puerto Rican, ½ Lebanese….almost any ethnicity except the ½ African American that she is). The mirror and people who actually look at her facial structure assure me that she is almost my twin in a different skin. However, I was not prepared for the way common place situations with strangers and those I know, in which I am mistaken for the nanny, the aunt, or told, “She don’t look a thing like you,” “She looks just like her daddy doesn’t she?” “I don’t see any black in her,” or “She’s white. You’re not going to let her say she’s black are you?” impact the quickness with which I respond to my daughter’s simple questions like, “Why am I white and you’re chocolate milk?”

Because I am sometimes dizzy from hearing others declare to me how much I am not present in my daughter’s phenotype, her Crayola crayon question makes me speechless with a feeling of alienation from my own child for a few minutes as I answer, “People are different colors to make Mother Nature happy.” I take deep breaths to calm my anxiety over what I can and cannot do for her. I cannot fix my daughter’s perspective that she is the “other outsider” amongst the women in our family and that I am the “other outsider” in her daily world of friends whose families all “match”.

As the daughter of a single mother, she is the only child amongst her friends who has no parent in the household who shares her skin color or hair type. Sure, there’s an Ethiopian boy with two white parents in the 1st grade class, which makes me excited about the diversity in her educational environment. However, elementary students don’t share the playground with the preschoolers so my daughter doesn’t even know his name.

But since last year, my daughter has been teaching me with her surprising queries in relation to the Disney Princesses:

“I am Mixed. Where is Pocahontas from?”

I answer, “Here– the United States.”

“What type of Princess is Jasmine?” is her response.

“Saudi Arabian.”

“Am I Saudi Abeen?”


“What type of Princess is Pocahontas?”
Her eyes are intensely focused on me.
“Native American.”

“Am I a Native American Princess?”


“Where is Merida?”

“Merida is in Scotland.”

“And I am in New York?”


“What type of Princess is Tiana?”

“African American.”

“What type of Princess are you mommy?”

“African American like Tiana.”

“Okay. I’m African American like you.” She declares.

And I sigh because thank goodness that conversation is over. While she was just figuring out what type of princess she “matches” with, I was trying to hide the tension I feel resulting from my knowledge of the pressure we both face— the pressure to fit a racial identity on this child and make sure she commits to the political agenda served by the identity we choose for her.

Right now the identity my daughter fits on herself is “mixed African American white princess with a brown mommy.” It is her four-year-old perspective on color and ethnicity. She is not old enough to know how historically and even now, in the eyes of most people in the United States, her inclusion of “white” in her self-description makes this an impossible ethnic identification. By the time she’s six, she may, like some of her African American classmates, understand enough about race and phenotype, including the social and formerly legal tradition of the “one-drop rule,” to solidify the “mixed African American” parts of this self-definition. Or, as she gets older, she may decide that she no longer has to identify as black or mixed to claim her black mother. Instead, if she continues to have the same complexion, features, and hair type, she may identify herself as white with a black mom.

But what I’m learning is that I cannot allow the tension within me, to choke off conversations with her, about race. Unlike some others in our life, I will not cut these conversations short with a quick, “Aren’t all colors pretty and all people from everywhere good?” when I see that she’s trying to figure out a part of her identity. I am not willing to leave her flailing in the wind to figure out her ethnic identity at some indeterminate point in the future when I hope race and ethnicity don’t matter or her decisions don’t involve an uncomfortable conversation with me. Instead, she’s teaching me that if I speak to her openly and on her level about race and identity—she will continue to be curious and engaged with all aspects of who she is. And, instead of being intimidated by others’ opinions or scared to talk about race, she will talk it out with me and come up with the answers about her ethnic identity that give her peace of mind.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Omilaju Miranda (“Omi”) is the founder of Mixed Diversity Reads Children’s Book Review http://mixeddiversityreads.com/ , a nonprofit site, which reviews Young Adult and children’s picture books with protagonists from culturally marginalized groups including those with interracial, transracial, lgbt, gender non-conforming, bilingual, and single parents. Omi has been published in Mixed Nation and has also founded the art and literary blog zine, Parenting My Interracial Family http://myinterracialfamily.com/ . A former Javits Fellow, she is a graduate of Columbia University, received her MFA in creative writing from Virginia Tech, and can be followed @diversekidreads or @Multiracefamily or on Facebook.

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