When it comes to mixed-race parenting, the differences are only skin deep.
Originally published at daddybegood.com.
Until recently, I hadn’t given much thought to being a parent in a mixed-race relationship. In fact, I could never be accused of over-thinking my fatherhood skills, period.
Consequently, I would never presume to offer a how-to guide on mixed-race parenting. Aside from feeling personally ill-equipped for such a task, I also suspect it might be counter-productive. I can, however, offer some personal observations.
It is easy to focus on the superficial differences in a mixed race family. If you saw our wedding picture, for example, your first uncensored response would probably be, “Who’s the rough-looking white guy next to the beautiful black girl and her son?” We look different, and when we’re all out together we probably do look like the Benetton Brady Bunch. But once you get over that initial visual impression, it’s the similarities that resonate.
Because I grew up at the heart of a large rural Irish family, parenting wasn’t so much consciously taught as willingly subcontracted; the result of being “put in charge of the younger ones” as soon as you displayed any signs of being up to the job. By matriarchal decree, nappy-changing and baby-burping were learned by boys and girls alike. By my early teens, I was already an old hand at child-minding.
What I did when looking after my younger cousins and siblings was pretty much what I did when my own daughter came along. Then, when I married into an African family, I took the same approach to rearing my Nigerian/Jamaican stepson. He’s 15 now. I’ve known him since he was seven, and I can honestly say I couldn’t love him any more if he was my blood.
When I married his mother, becoming part of an extended family network was a given. I entered a world where hordes of cousins gather at regular family events; where everyone older is respectfully referred to as “Auntie” or “Uncle”; where women rule the roost but let men think they’re in charge. Superficial cultural differences barely masked deep-seated commonalities. It was all a bit like a homecoming for me.
But if you want a practical distinction, the only one I’m very aware of is, literally, skin deep. The care of black and mixed-race hair and skin is different, and getting it right is very important.
While black skin is more resistant to photo-damage and the ageing process, there are some skin disorders that are more common–and more apparent–in black people. The European climate and our local hard water can be factors. Some of the conditions to be aware of are keloids, razor bumps, vitiligo, lupus erythematosus, tinea versicolor, ashy skin, pityriasis alba, and eczema.
Black children need to moisturise every day (sometimes twice daily during the winter), otherwise their skin may become scaly and ashy. Shea Butter, Cocoa Butter, and Vaseline are best.
Black hair care requires specific products and techniques. Most importantly, oil needs to be added to your child’s hair and scalp regularly. It is also essential that the hair not be over-washed.
Hair care is probably more of an issue for black girls than boys (at least until your son starts agitating for an afro, dreads, or cane rows), and this is another reason why the extended family network is important. There will always be an “Auntie” out there who does hair, so find out who she is and be sure to keep her sweet. Intermix has good information on black skin and hair care.
Apart from these important practicalities, how I raise my stepson has little to do with either of our races. My concerns are no different to those of any parent with a teenage boy in a disadvantaged area. What does this uncertain world have in store for him? Will he make the best of his education? Will he stay out of trouble?
Sadly, this is where race is put back on the agenda.
This is the stuff of my south London nightmares: the unpalatable statistics about young black men in prison outnumbering those in university. The widely alleged abuse of police stop and search powers in order to profile the DNA of young black men and juveniles. Don’t even get me started on teen gun and knife crime. However I slice and dice it, my boy’s going to be up against it, even before he’s begun. This assessment is only copper-fastened by my ongoing experience of training as an independent police station representative.
While I wouldn’t want to promote a sense of victimhood, I can certainly empathise with the experience of being discriminated against. My response has always been to try twice as hard to beat the odds, and that is the message I try to pass on. We don’t pretend discrimination doesn’t exist; we just try to find ways of beating it.
The only other advice I’d presume to offer applies to raising children of any colour or culture and comes in the form of an old Gaelic proverb: Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sé. Praise the young and they will come on.
Photo by Cebelia’s/Flickr