Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Racial Mirrors: Who Do They See?

This topic has been on my heart lately. I wrote this piece for my column, Spilled Milk, in the Fostering Families Today magazine July/Aug 2016 issue. You can get your subscription HERE.

Racial Mirrors: Who do they see?

My five-year-old son was holding my hand as we walked down the sidewalk on the busy street so he could get his first big boy hair cut. I was determined to walk into that barber shop with confidence, because I knew that if I was going to show my son that he could embrace this part of who he is, I should to feel comfortable too. I think I was nervous about being judged as the white, adoptive, mom who hadn’t done this before. Aren’t we all, when we step into a new part of parenting? 

We first became a transracial family five-years ago, when our son came to us just before his first birthday, I immediately started learning about hair styles and skin care products. I started scanning the toy aisle for any African-American toys I could find for him. Books with diversity in their illustrations made their way into my shopping cart. I will never forget my excitement the year that I found a black angel for the top of our Christmas tree. I was eager to fill my house with items that my son could identify with, but I know even more now, that parenting a child of a different race involved so much more than that. 

I think as foster parents it is easy to get so busy with parenting hard behaviors or navigating medical appointments and court hearings that we end up putting this very important part of parenting on the back burner. However, I can’t stress enough how important this is. Children need to know that they matter, they don't have to appreciate the work we do to provide this area of need for them they just need it to be present.

In many ways kids come into our care and are introduced to our way of living, our family traditions, our style of home and clothes, our holiday feasts, etc. We want them to become part of our family but it is so crucial for us to remember that they have their own identity and it is one we need to embrace.

So much of parenting is helping our kids develop who they are and who they are going to be. So whether we have a child for six months or six years we need to invest the time and thought into making sure we give them positive racial mirrors. We don't know what the future holds, and that is the name of the game when it comes to foster parenting. So with whatever time we have, we need to make it count. The impact can be life changing for our kids or damaging if we neglect this area all together. 

As I walked inside that barber shop for the first time, I felt about 20 pairs of eyes on me, I realized that when we are out as a family my son often gets more than those 20 eyes on him on a regular basis. I watched as my son twirled his chair around in the waiting area, relaxed and eager for this experience, eager for something he didn’t even know he was missing. This is the moment when I knew how important it was that parents seek opportunities to immerse our kids in their culture.

Children deserve to be in a home that values their language, heritage, culture, and identity. I encourage you to remember that foster parenting doesn’t just mean parenting a child in our comfort zone and our familiar environment but rather taking the time and effort to help them thrive and get to know who they are.

Ways you can support your child's identity: 

Body Image: Kids are always learning about their bodies and comparing to those around them. It is important to teach them proper self-care so they can take pride in themselves. Let them be part of the process whether it be picking out a skin care product or hairstyle etc… The more positive role models and racial mirrors they have, the more they will value their own identity. 

Community: Surround yourself with support. Take classes, gain knowledge from those in your community. Join transracial parenting groups and glean from their insight. Find a mentor or similar families to help you walk through this part of parenting. Ask yourself where your child has racial mirrors whether it be at school, sporting teams, church events, or extended family and friends, and if any area is lacking, seek and find community. 

Advocate: Whether it be reminding extended family members that dolls come in all races or letting your school professionals know that words need to be carefully spoken, it is our job to advocate for our child. And teach your child that it is okay to advocate for themselves. Give them age appropriate words to stand up for themselves.

Seek Advice: Don’t confuse racial stereotypes for racial mirrors. What you think might be an important part of their culture might just be a stereotype and not helpful to their cultural identity. Part of advocating for your child is knowing when to ask for help. Learn from those around you and seek counsel when needed. 

Food: So often food is a big part of culture. If your child is old enough, ask them what meal traditions they had in their family. Let them help plan a special dinner for the family or have input to the holiday menu item. Try adding race-ethnic food to your weekly dinner menu. Embracing their food traditions can bring much comfort to a child. 


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