Five years ago when I started my Master’s in Intercultural Relations, I was interested in the experiences of multicultural families, primarily because I’m in one but also because it seemed like one of the most complex terrains where intercultural relations take place. However when I talked to different experts in the field (at least those accessible to me) and when I looked for research (mostly online), I couldn’t find very much. I also had a hard time finding other people who cared deeply about the topic, and even felt a little self-conscious about it dismissed as a serious area for study – like, maybe academics thought it was just navel gazing?
Just a few years later, the landscape seems to have completely changed. Even when I’m not looking for it, the topic seems to crop up everywhere – from hashtag conversations on Twitter to workshops hosted by the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication, and even in articles on major media outlets. For example, just last week there was an eye-catching piece, White parents, becoming a little less white. Personally, I was excited to see an article tackling this topic, and it definitely sparked a lot of responses. Unfortunately, it also showed that many people are more inclined toward knee-jerk reactions than productive dialogue.
Deciphering the Reactions
These comments illustrate the automatic responses I often see in discussions about multicultural families: Americans are unresolved not only about the nature and significance of multicultural families, but also about how to talk about them. Let’s explore some of the viewpoints.
- I don’t see race/You’re making things worse by talking about it
First, we have the crowd that accuses people of making things worse by talking about race. Their view seems to be that if (liberals) would just stop talking about race all the time, it would cease to be an issue. In their minds, race is a thing because we keep making it a thing, and if we don’t want it to matter, then we should stop making it matter. They fancy themselves as the most evolved segment of society, because they don’t see/don’t care about race (and apparently don’t have to deal with the complexities that might come with it). With a dismissive wave, they sweep everything away.
- You’re talking about it wrong/You don’t get it
Others think race and identity are very important concerns but take issue with how they are presented, explored, or framed. They really don’t like the headline because it seems to promote the idea that skin color is something that white people can shed at will, which people of color never can. Others objected because they didn’t think this was a worthy angle on race and society, and by focusing on an upper class Chinese and white family, the article offered a narrow portrayal of multicultural family life.
It seemed to be particularly distressing to those who felt left out or made voiceless in an article that was related to their multicultural identity. People who are mixed in America rightfully have a lot to say about micro aggressions, the constant comments about who they are or where they are from, and the challenges in being accepted and forming a coherent identity in a society that constantly wants to classify them as either-or instead of both-and. To see an article about mixed families focus on a white woman could have made them feel decentered – like even in their own story, their perspective still played second fiddle to the white savior.
So where does this leave us?
Does the fact that so many people raged at the headline mean that there was something inherently wrong with the author and his story? I say that there is not. It was his family’s story – theirs to live, and theirs to share. The fact that it involves a white woman doesn’t negate it, nor does the fact that it is not about every multicultural family everywhere. Rather than criticize it for not being a different article, maybe we just need more articles. Surely part of the answer (I’m borrowing from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie here) is to not limit ourselves to a single story.
Seen another way, the problem is not so much that there was an article by a Chinese American writer describing his white wife’s cultural transformation, but that only people from particular socioeconomic milieus appear to be afforded the access to contribute articles. Even if this is unintentional, it is something a leading media organization should strive to redress. I suggest the New York Times take a cue from NPR, which has done a better job expanding its coverage of race, culture, and identity through its Code Switch program.
- An Intercultural Perspective
Beyond making room for more stories, I think something more is needed: an intercultural perspective. Intercultural relations focuses on the process of creating understanding and meaning as we cross cultures. It is concerned with how individuals navigate difference, build relationships with people who are culturally different, and cultivate empathy to see situations as other people see them, even if we disagree. It is also interested in how people expand their repertoires of communication styles and behaviors as they adapt to new cultural norms. Additionally, it explores how people form third cultures –hybrids of the two (or more) original cultures that are being mixed together. All of this is relevant in any discussion of mixed families – but sadly this idea of empathy was lost on many readers.
As one commenter on the Times website (named Jay) wrote:
Of [sic] my gosh, now that I have an interracial child I can acknowledge the impact of racism in our society? The amount of white privilege in this article is astounding. That’s like me “acknowledging” the impact of sexism in society only if I have a daughter. Nahh… not feeling it at all.
In his defensiveness, Jay misses something that I perceive: that being in an intercultural relationship is in many ways analogous to being an expat. In some sense – perhaps not geographical but nonetheless profound – you leave your home culture and can never really return, or return changed by the culture you’ve been living in, which has rubbed off on you and altered your values, thoughts, feelings, expectations, behaviors, assumptions, wants, needs, social interactions, worldview . . . everything. Like moving to a different country, when two people from different cultures form a relationship, they create a third culture, which metamorphoses both of them into people who – despite how they appear on the outside – are no longer quite their old selves on the inside.
The reaction to this article revealed that just because this topic is gaining public interest doesn’t mean the public is adequately prepared for the demands of these conversations. Indeed, it points to a growing need for professional facilitators trained not only in diversity, anti-racism, and critical theory but also in intercultural relations. Intercultural leaders can frame the conversation, offer research, provide much-needed vocabulary and clarification, and serve as referees, teachers, and healers in the contentious, confusing, and complex topic of mixed relationships. Experts in our field are well positioned to be at the helm – but we need to find our voices and engage in more creative, visible, and impactful ways. We also need to nudge the field to take a more participatory role in social issues, not to be divisive, but to be illuminative, and to make space for uncomfortable but urgently necessary discourse.
After all, what is the point of all our knowledge if we don’t share it and apply it to make the world a better place?
This blog was previously posted on my sister site SonoranHanbok, which is dedicated to exploring life in a mixed European-Asian American family.