Jenn Noble is a clinical psychologist. On the right, her parents celebrate with her after she received her Ph.D. in psychology. (Photos courtesy of Jenn Noble/Graphic by Kelly Ma of KQED)
More people are identifying as mixed race than ever before in the U.S. — the 2020 census showed a 256% jump in people identifying as multiracial over the previous 10 years. Mixed-race kids are a growing part of that demographic.
Psychologist Jenn Noble has been helping mixed-race kids and their parents navigate issues of identity and belonging for over 15 years. Through the online community she’s created with the Mixed Life Academy, she works to set kids up for success in a world that is often uncomfortable with liminality, and that prefers to put people in neat little boxes.
1. Don’t be afraid to talk about race with your child
A lot of parents are hesitant to address race directly with their young children out of a desire to protect them from the ugliness of the world. Instead, they may use phrases like, “There’s only one race — the human race.”
“That is going to be more harmful, because the kid is like, No, I know something is different here. I see you, and I see my dad and I see the mirror and my friends are saying, ‘Why do I look like this?’” Noble said.
As hard as it might be to talk about race, ignoring the conversation means kids will encounter questions about their racial identity for the first time not in the safety of their own family, but at school or on the playground, and often in ways that are scary or unpleasant.
2. Read books and watch films about mixed-race characters
“There are a lot of great books that introduce the idea of the mixed-race experience to a child,” Noble said. “You can do it as young as 3 and 4 years old. And sometimes, that allows the parents to find more words because if the parent is sitting there and reading the book, [they’ll realize], ‘Oh, is this what my kid is feeling or could be experiencing at some point? Or will their peers say this to them?’ I think that’s a great place to start.”
Noble also recommends families watching films and shows together that feature racially mixed families, like Encanto or the Netflix series Masaba Masaba.
Noble said the best place for kids to learn to talk about race and identity is at home, with their parents. Then, when the child goes out into the world and someone asks, “What are you?,” that child will be less likely to be hurt or surprised. Rather, they’ll be ready with answers.
“You protect them more by doing it this way,” Noble said. “Rather than, ‘Oh, let me go talk to that teacher. Let me go talk to that kid so they never say that to you again,’ the kid’s like, ‘No, just help me understand why they even said that, and then I’ll take it from here.’”
3. Expose your kids to their cultural backgrounds
Noble said she hears a lot of mixed-race kids saying that different parts of their identity are validated in different spaces, leaving them feeling fractured, like their entire self is never fully acknowledged. She says helping them to connect to the language, food and cultural practices of all their various heritages can help mitigate that feeling.
“Worlds are not split. I’m me everywhere I go. So, if I’m with one family and they’re saying, ‘You’re this,’ and I’m with another family and they’re saying, ‘You’re that,’ I’m still the same person in both environments. They may be acknowledging just one portion, but I’m always one person. And then stepping into that,” she said.
4. Be bold
Noble says it’s easy for mixed-race kids to feel they don’t belong anywhere, when actually they are members of more communities than many other people. The trick is to boldly step into those spaces and own the right to be there.
“When your phenotype really doesn’t match one of the groups you belong to, you develop that skill of being like, ‘Well, I’m going to enter this space anyway and y’all are going to be all right and we’ll figure it out together,’” she said. “You should be there, and you should participate and you should feel comfortable to do so.”
5. Don’t use fractions
Parents have many opportunities to name their child’s multiple heritages and model the normalcy of that. If a nosy neighbor asks, “What’s your kid’s background?,” answer by naming all their racial identities, but not breaking them into fractions. “Ands” and commas will be your friends. For example, say, “My kid is Black and Filipino and Chinese,” not, “She’s a quarter Black, a quarter Chinese and half Filipino.”
“The more you model that, your kid is going to hear you,” Noble said. “Because your little child could be standing there when you assert their identity to someone else and they’re going to be like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s right. I am all those things.’ [Modeling that] full embracing of identity is going to be helpful for that child.”
6. Remind your kids they are enough
There’s not a magic checklist of things that makes someone, for example, “Mexican enough,” “Black enough” or “Indian enough.” Chasing after one is exhausting and probably won’t work. Try to cultivate the mindset that you belong and don’t have to prove it.