Harvard Educational Review
  1. Raising Biracial Children

    By Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracey Laszloffy

    Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2005. 240 pp. $22.95.

    As indicated by the 2000 U.S. Census, the population of biracial and multiracial people is increasing; however, most schools and communities lack a clear understanding of the unique experiences and needs of mixed-race children. In addition, many parents and other caregivers may feel at a loss to address these needs in a way that promotes the socioemotional well-being of these children. In Raising Biracial Children, Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracy Laszloffy attempt to meet this need by bridging the gap between research and practice “to provide parents, educators, therapists, social workers, and others with an accessible framework for understanding healthy mixed-race identity development and to translate those findings into practical care-giving strategies.”

    The authors chose to focus on mixed-race people who are biracially Black and White. Drawing on their experiences as family therapists and their research on racial socialization and identity development, Rockquemore and Laszloffy first discuss the evolution of racial identity for mixed-race people, tracing it from the “one-drop” rule to the current ideas of blended identity. While the authors acknowledge U.S. society’s progress in racial identity politics, they find existing scholarly and clinical models of racial identity development inadequate in addressing the reality of mixed-race experience. Previous theories on healthy racial identity development emphasized linear stages leading to a one-size-fits-all identification as biracial. However, Rockquemore and Laszloffy argue that healthy racial development occurs through multiple pathways and involves a range of possible racial identities that fall along a continuum of biracial identity (COBI).

    The COBI model defines and describes multiple points of identity along a Black-White continuum, including singular Black or White, blended with a Black or White emphasis, and blended biracial. Rockquemore and Laszloffy assert that no one identity is better than another and contend that healthy racial development is less about which identity is selected by a mixed-race individual than about the pathway taken to achieve it. They identify a healthy pathway to racial identity as “shaped by cognitive and emotional acceptance of the fact of having one white and one black parent.” While two mixed-race people may identify as Black, one may have accepted and integrated his mixed parentage and chosen a singular Black identity, while another’s Black identity may be rooted in denial of her mixed background. For each mixed-race person, the pathway in constructing identity is a unique and ongoing reflective process shaped by interactions with people and institutions that either validate or reject a chosen identity. These interactions form the contextual landscape for identity development and include societal definitions of race, physical appearance, and gender and relationships with family, friends, peers, and community. For the authors, creating healthy pathways involves open, honest communication about the way these factors influence identity.

    The impact of these social and relational contexts on the psychological health and well-being of mixed-race people is at the heart of this book, and Rockquemore and Laszloffy devote the next and largest portion of the book to this discussion. In subsequent chapters, the authors apply their COBI model in unpacking and discussing each of the contextual factors, using case studies to illustrate both healthy and unhealthy pathways to specific identities. Every chapter concludes with a discussion of concrete strategies for supporting positive interactions and understanding within this context, as well as for mitigating potentially negative impacts.

    Of special note is the chapter on gender. While Rockquemore and Laszloffy recognize that all biracial children experience unique challenges in developing healthy pathways to racial identity, they argue that biracial girls face even tougher circumstances. Given the double hammer of racial and patriarchal standards imposed by society, Black and mixed-race girls struggle with self-worth in the face of sociocultural messages that value only a White standard of beauty. For biracial girls who appear White or have light physical features, the interactions with Black female peers can be fraught with tension around the issue of appearance. The authors stress the need for families and other caregivers to help these young women identify, understand, and reject sociohistorical stereotypes in favor of sisterhood.

    For all of the positive aspects of this book, it also has certain limitations. Most troubling is the simplistic nature of some of the practical strategies presented by the authors. Suggesting that parents may prevent damage to their children’s self-esteem by helping them to “understand that if they are subjected to [racist acts], these tend to say more about the offender than it does about them” may be reasonable, but it lacks sophistication in mitigating the cumulative damage of a lifetime of these experiences. Also, while the authors promote a dynamic model of mixed-race identity, they fall into the trap of representing singular racial identity in monolithic terms This is apparent when the authors refer to people as “talking Black” or “acting Black” without any explanation of what this means or citations supporting this generalization. And while they make a conscious effort to include the voices of their biracial participants, the authors include few voices of people of singular racial identity. The omission is especially jarring in the chapter on gender, in which the authors make statements about how young Black women think and feel but never include quotations or explanations from the women themselves. Finally, while the focus of the book is on children and the authors emphasize the generalizability of their model to the general population of Black-White mixed-race children, the interview and case study samples are almost exclusively drawn from a population of mainly middle-class older teenagers and college students. Including a range of ages and socioeconomic levels would have added more depth and validity to the book’s findings.

    Rockquemore and Laszloffy offer straight talk about difficult issues, including the need to be aware of unconscious tendencies in families, schools, and peer relations to privilege lighter skin and “European” features, echoing patterns in society at large. Overall, the authors believe that creating healthy developmental pathways involves honest, early, open, and ongoing communication about race with biracial children. While research indicates that these kinds of discussions are a common practice in families of color, they can be surprisingly absent in biracial families. Without this kind of clear conversation, mixed-race children may be confused about how to react to and interact with a world that may not validate them or value how they see themselves. To aid in this process, the authors also include several appendices listing books, films, groups, and online resources for interracial families.

    Raising Biracial Children focuses much needed attention on the unique concerns of biracial children in the United States. Most readers will find the book thought provoking, but parents and families of biracial children may benefit the most from its ideas.

    K. R. V.
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    Book Notes

    Teaching by Heart
    By Sara Day Hatton

    Raising Biracial Children
    By Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracey Laszloffy

    Critical Perspectives
    Edited by Caron Atlas and Pam Korza

    Three Magic Letters
    By Michael T. Nettles and Catherine M. Millett