**This post was published by the Huffington Post as How Not to Offend Mixed Race Families. **
My first experience with a biracial individual was in 5th grade. Our teacher was doing a race count for FTE funding (schools get more money based on the number of minority students they have). Our teacher called out all the different races, then got mad when she counted and realized someone didn’t raise their hand. She said very loudly, “Who didn’t raise their hand?” (We’ll call his name Jason) Jason said, “I didn’t.” She then screamed at him, “Why not?” To which he replied, I’m not sure which one to pick (black or white). She screamed back, “just pick one!”
At the time, I didn’t realize how damaging this conversation was. It was insensitive of the teacher to demand him to pick one race, when he was clearly a combination of two. How mortifying it must have been for him to have this identity crisis in front of all of his peers and teachers. This anecdote is an extreme example, but some people just don’t know what to say without being offensive. I came up with a small list to help.
Do give compliments. It is acceptable to say, I love her hair. I love his complexion. She has beautiful eyes. Give a compliment and then put a period. Don’t say: He has beautiful skin for a mixed baby. I love her curls, where did she get them from. Usually when a compliment ends with uncomfortable ramblings, something offensive will come out.
Don’t assume that a child does not belong to the parents because their skin doesn’t match. Dark skinned black people have light-skinned black babies. White parents with blue eyes, give birth to kids with brown eyes. This is genetics at work! Furthermore, some parents adopt children from an ethnicity different from their own.
Don’t ask questions about a child’s ethnicity unless you have a close relationship with the parent. I’ve been in line at Wal-Mart when the cashier has asked me, “Is their daddy white?” I’m not sure what that has to do with my groceries. Thankfully my children were young enough to not internalize that question.
Don’t ask a child why their skin color is different from their sibling. Some of this may sound like common sense, but this exact scenario almost caused a fight at my school. No one chooses their physical features, so they should not be questioned about it. Especially with an audience.
Do ask hair care questions. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask what products someone uses to get such bouncy curls or to fight the frizz.
Sometimes conversations are awkward because we make them awkward. If we just focus on our similarities instead of our differences, we won’t get so hung up on saying the wrong thing and offending people.
What do you think? Have you ever asked a well-meaning question, but ending up offending someone?