On Not Just Being an Other
Before a standardized test in grade school, my husband Robbie was having a difficult time deciding which racial identification box to check. His half-Filipino side made him an “Asian/Pacific Islander” but to check that box would only tell half his story. To simply check “Caucasian” for his father’s side was also incomplete, and therefore inaccurate. He raised his hand to get some guidance from his teacher, but her response was both disappointing and eye-opening. She looked at him, shrugged her shoulders and said, “Just check Other.” He learned then that despite the pride he felt for his Filipino, Spanish and Italian roots, and despite his strong sense of identity as part Asian American, some would always label him as unidentifiable – just an “Other.”
Test-makers have since replaced “Other” with the label “Two or More,” and have increased and even changed the available racial identifiers. While changes to these forms may signify a positive shift in the overall perception of racial identification, I wonder if multiethnic and multiracial children themselves have developed a stronger sense of identity. Admittedly, Robbie occasionally felt marginalized around other Filipino American children because he neither looked like them, nor had as homogenous of an upbringing. When I think about how my Indian American background so easily dictated my membership and participation in Indian dance classes, school clubs, and even now, professional associations, I can understand why Robbie sometimes felt a little bit out of place. Robbie’s experiences then and now make me wonder how Aashi will one day identify herself and where she will fit in as she grows up in even less of a homogenous household than Robbie did.
So I ask:
How can Robbie and I teach Aashi to embrace her diverse religious and cultural background in the most harmonious way possible? And in doing so, how can we protect her from feeling like just an Other?
In the way of raising multiracial and multiethnic children, there don’t seem to be many tutorials or handbooks out there – certainly Aashi didn’t come with one. I am willing to bet, however, that there are mothers like me asking themselves the same question, finding answers, and learning still from other mothers who have been there and done that. As a new(er) mom, my purpose in blogging is to build a forum for some solicited advice. And with that, I might as well chronicle the obstacles I face and my responses to them, i.e., my “parenting.”
Parenting for Robbie and me is destined to be an exercise in cultural balance. You see, Robbie and I are both 100% American, born and raised, but that’s where our similarities end. He identifies himself as ½ Filipino, ¼ Italian and ¼ Spanish (with some roots in Cuba), and on the whole, ideologically Roman Catholic. My background is 100% Hindu and 100% Indian, although I have a ½ Bengali and ½ Gujarati heritage. That makes our eight-month-old daughter, Aashi, 100% American, 100% Hindu and 100% Catholic, with a background that is ½ Indian (¼ Gujarati and ¼ Bengali), ¼ Filipino, ⅛ Italian and ⅛ Spanish (with some roots in Cuba). Confused? She very well may be.
But our goal is to make sure she is never confused about who she is or where she comes from. We want to teach her about every part of her background without diluting any single influence. And we want her zeal and enthusiasm for her rich ethnic and cultural background to mirror the zeal and enthusiasm that we share for each other’s backgrounds as well as our own. Our hope in the end is for Aashi to grow up feeling so confident about her own identity that she can comfortably fit in and identify with larger groups.
I don’t kid myself into believing this will be easy. Robbie and I both realize there will be challenges in teaching multiple backgrounds and reconciling their obvious differences, and we understand we will face tough questions (e.g., Do we go to church and temple every weekend or do we alternate? Do I speak with Aashi in Gujarati, even if Robbie doesn’t understand? Will she take Bharat Natyam dance, or ballet, or both – or neither?). My hope for this blog is to track our best efforts at handling these challenges, while learning from alternative thoughts, suggestions and ideas. After all, there are a growing number of us raising multiethnic, multiracial children and I am quite sure each one of us could benefit from Others’ experiences, lessons, and of course, incredibly brilliant ideas. And I am happy to create a forum for the exchange.