Who Are You? Multicultural Families & Societal Perceptions

Image Credit: Jen Marshall Duncan

Multicultural Families & Societal Perceptions

When I am by myself at the grocery store people see a middle-aged, kind of overweight white woman who needs her roots touched up, and dresses like she has a job that pays well enough—but not enough to be considered well-to-do. Being that woman gains me some respect, some positivity, some polite interaction that is not earned, but is definitely a part of every day life. The only people who follow me around are store employees who smile and ask if I’m finding everything okay. My fellow shoppers pretty much ignore me as I move aisle to aisle pushing my cart. I smile at their kids, nod at the folks who pass me by….and the whole time I feel kind of lost, because I don’t feel like people know who I really am. They don’t really see me–they see a woman with white skin, and they make assumptions about what that means. They treat me with a respect that is unearned because of those assumptions. And it makes me uncomfortable.

What the people at the store don’t know is that I go home after shopping and my family helps me carry in the groceries. Sometimes my son’s friends help, too.  Sometimes, there is a sea of gangly pre-teenaged boys eating the food I just bought before it even makes it into the cupboards.  With them, I feel like myself. I am at home, both physically and spiritually. In my house, I am the only white person. The respect I get is respect that is earned–by caring for and loving the people under my own roof. They don’t see me as a white woman, and I don’t see them as people of color. They see me as mom, wife, or Mrs. Duncan their neighbor; and I see them as people I love and care about. My family. My neighborhood. My home.

While I sometimes dislike shopping with my children (somehow I always end up spending far more than I’d intended), I also really like it because I feel like the world gets a better picture of who I really am. With that better picture, though, comes a lot of attention that is not always positive. And I am not the only mom to multiracial/multicultural kids who gets that kind of attention. I read lots of stories about people who encounter rude comments at grocery stores: “Is that your child?” “Are you the nanny?” “Are they yours?”  These are all questions that parents in multicultural families receive when out in public. The questions, the looks, the smirks can sometimes be so rude it’s unbelievable to imagine anyone has the gall to ask them. In those moments it is best to just breathe and remember the feelings we have when we are at home, surrounded by people who love each other and respect each other because of their shared experiences as a family. Home, where there are no faulty assumptions that have been ingrained in our brains by society.

For myself, I try to either ignore the stares and comments, or politely respond in a way that shows the love and pride I have for my family. I can only hope that my love will be evident, will spread, pollinate, and grow in the hearts of those who so rudely question it’s authenticity. Even though I don’t get any of those comments when I am by myself, I prefer to be with my family, giving the doubters and naysayers the chance to see who we really are.

How do you feel when you are out and about without your multicultural family? What questions have you been asked about your family? How do you respond to rude assumptions or questions?

Many of us have stories to tell. Please share yours here!

 

 

Comments

  1. says

    I am in a demographic and family structure similar to you. But I am trying not to make assumptions about how people at the grocery store are judging me. Maybe they also are in a multiRACIAL family, or have a "difference" that consumes their every thought. I disagree with the term multicultural, because I feel that my own family shares a culture that may be unique to ourselves, but it is a single culture of our family. It may incorporate elements of culture from around the world or across the train tracks, but it is our family's culture.
    And I feel the reactions we get in public to our family are overwhelmingly positive if anything. We often prepared for those inappropriate questions or comments but they don't come; of course there are the overly personal questions, but I guess that we feel so thoroughly that we belong together as a family that people respond to that positively. And the negative reactions I attribute to the fact that I have annoying teenage boys.
    As I think about this I also wonder if the rude questions just seem so ridiculous that I can brush them off with amusement. I just don't think it's my job to worry about what everyone else is thinking. I'm more likely to strike up a conversation myself and make a connection.

    • says

      Thanks for your comment, Christopher! I understand what you're saying about your family being the primary unit of culture. I agree that my family also represents it's own culture–that's why I feel so comfortable at home. But we are also a part of a larger culture–the regional culture of my local community, the culture of my state, the culture of the midwest, the culture of the USA. I need only to travel a short distance to find different turns of phrase, different types of food, and different traditions. I grew up in Chicago, the daughter of a German immigrant. My culture growing up was very different from my husband's. Together we blend our two backgrounds to make one family culture, yes; but it is definitely multicultural–meaning we make one culture out of the many we come from.

      You are very lucky to receive such positive responses from the people you encounter in public!

      I don't worry about what other people are thinking, either–I worry about what they are saying to my face, in front of my children. I don't think that my kids should be asked regularly if they all have the same father, or if I am really their mom (that second one happens almost daily.) We are obviously family, holding hands as we walk, and they call me "mommy"–but people still ask. I never had people asking if my mom was REALLY my mother…I don't know if that kind of questioning has a negative effect in the long-run. I do that know it is frustrating for me, and it bothers my kids to be asked repeatedly, "Is that YOUR mom???" like there is something wrong with us. You are very lucky, indeed, to only get positive reactions. Very lucky.

  2. says

    Great post Jen! I think it's so funny that you mentioned the part about how you're treated without your family, versus with. For me, I have noticed this a lot too and it does feel weird for someone to treat you "white" (read giving privilege) when if they saw you with your spouse, they would often act very differently and even uncomfortable. Sometimes I've noticed that people interact with me more when I'm with my husband, just because I think they don't want to be rude and seem like they're avoiding looking at or talking to us.

    I really appreciate your honesty here because I've had feelings like this too, but never quite know what to think of them.

    On the other hand, you know our hubbies are going through something very similar and they often begin to get new privileges when they with us vs. without. It's so frustrating that I have to be with my husband for him to be treated with respect at some places. And the saddest part is that most people don't even know, or a least won't acknowledge that they are treating him differently than they would all the other white faces.

    As most interracial couples probably do, we have certain places where we know he will not be treated fairly because he is a person of color, or I may not be treated fairly as a woman, and so we have a mental list of which things he must handle and which I am responsible for based on upon the preference or lack of that we will each receive at a certain place of business. Sad, but that is the reality.

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience with us. You're not the only one. ♥

    • says

      Thank you, Chantilly! My hubby and I have the same sort of mental list of things to handle, and you are right–it is a sad reality. Some things are easier for him to handle as a man due to societal perceptions of women, and some things are easier for me to handle due to societal perceptions of men of color. It's sometimes tricky to navigate it all. I appreciate you talking about how your privilege seems to extend to your husband sometimes. If they can treat him respectfully when you're around, why not when he's alone? It would be a very simple matter to treat him the same either way.

  3. says

    Jen,

    Great article! I totally relate with what you experience while shopping at the grocery store. I actually feel the stares on both ends. When I'm in a predominantly white grocery store, we get stares from others who seem to be taking a "double take" of our son….to see who he looks like…. I hope! Some smile, some look away. Whatever! I try not to let it bother me.

    When we are in a latina store, we get much of the same reaction but it seems like I'm getting all the stares rather than my son.

    Glad to know I'm not alone. It does feel good to be at home where your family is considered "the norm", everyone loves you for you, and skin color is not even an issue….even if it is out of curiosity.

    • says

      Wow, Tara– You have another whole side of the equation when visiting a latina store–you just can't win! Thanks for sharing! You are definitely not alone.

  4. Anne Taylor says

    What a great article , you his it right on the nail . Some days I am so tired of the questions …. Where did they get their curls from ? , how did they get curls like that ??
    I started to speak loader in Danish to my girls which mostly makes people stop and ask about the language and stop the questions for a bit.
    Today we went to the pool and got so many stares , it's tiresome sometimes .
    Thank you so much for writing this post , it's important to create a dialog .

    • says

      Thank you, Anne for sharing your story! I think that if more of us talk about how it feels to receive those stares and questions people will learn a better way of responding. I like how you deflect questions by speaking Danish louder :)

  5. Jen says

    As the white wife and mother of a black husband and biracial child, I read these sorts of stories with interest and empathy– but strangely don't find myself identifying with them. Perhaps it is because our only child thus far is not yet 2, but I have only once in her life had someone ask me if she is mine. I can count on one hand the number of odd questions AND looks we've ever received. I firmly believe this can largely be attributed to where we live.

    Having been born and raised in "liberal, accepting" California, I was worried about moving to the "South" that I had been raised to believe is ripe with racism, and where inequality is rampant– but this has not been our experience at all. Biracial (black/white) marriage is surprisingly common here in north Georgia, and seldom do we go on an excursion without seeing at least one other mixed family. We've received FAR more odd looks when visiting my family back in California! This is particularly ironic to me, as several people in my family are part of dual culture families, married to Latino men. Yet they never get a second look! It all comes down to what people are used to seeing. So as more of us are parts of interracial/intercultural/interethnic families, this will become progressively less odd, interesting and noteworthy to others.

    • says

      Jen, I think you're right about the difference it makes when you live in a particular state or region. It's odd that Californians give you such looks while Georgia is more accepting! I hope you're right–that things will keep progressing and not as many people will think twice about seeing mixed families.

  6. says

    Sometimes when people stare, I think it's because my kids are so darn cute;), but then if I hear the comments (do you run a daycare? is this a school? are they all your kids?) I realize it is because we are a conspicuous family. My husband is from Mexico City, my 2 bio daughters are his clones, my son is from China, and my other son is from Ethiopia. If the multiracial aspect confuses them, the fact that my kids are all almost the same age confuses them even more. My older 2 are 3 months apart and my younger 2 are one month apart. One time in Target a woman pointed at my two 3 year olds, one Hispanic, one AA and said "Are they twins?" I looked at them, and then at her and said "They are one month apart." A couple of minutes passed as she was scanning my items. "Woah. I can't believe you had them a month apart! That's crazy." …..!?!!?!?!? hahaha People make me laugh.

    • says

      Becky that is so funny! How could anyone think that you'd have twins a month apart?? Love it! Your family sounds wonderful :)

  7. Joy says

    I was just talking about this with my husband yesterday. He doesn't have the same experience because he's rarely alone with our kids (he works 60 hours a week), but I'm home with them full time, and I notice a differences between when it's just me and my two black kids, me alone, and me, my white husband and our kids together.