Five years ago when I started my Master’s in Intercultural Relations, I was especially 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 that it appeared to be dismissed as an area for study – like, maybe academics thought it was just navel gazing?
Just a few years later, the landscape seems to have completely changed. Far from fruitless scavenger hunts, now I don’t even have to try. 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
I know, you’re not supposed to read the comments, but I mention these because they illustrate the automatic responses I often see in discussions about multicultural families. On the one hand, there is the typical criticism that articles like this exacerbate racial differences, while plenty of others (who, we might assume didn’t read the article), lashed out at the headline. Yet beneath the surface we can also see that Americans are very much unresolved not only about the nature and significance of multicultural families, but also 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
On the one hand, 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. It kind of makes me wonder why they waste their time commenting on articles they deem irrelevant, since I don’t do this on every article I find unimportant, but whatever.
- You’re talking about it wrong/You don’t get it
On the other hand, we have a group of people who think race and identity are very important concerns in today’s society, but who take issue with how they are presented, explored, or framed. In this case, they really don’t like the headline. I get that. It’s not a good one. I’m not sure if it was designed as clickbait, but if so it didn’t seem to work, since much of the outcry on Twitter appears to be from people who didn’t read the article (like the guy who pointed out the supposed fallacy of there being a Chinese guy in the photo. Uhm, that’s the author, dude).
But besides not reading the article, people who reacted to the headline still have a point. They are upset because it seems to promote the idea that skin color is something that white people can shed at will, which of course people of color never can. White people are generally not aware of this, but we really upset a lot of communities by acting like whiteness doesn’t exist, like we don’t have a culture, and like we are a neutral, universal baseline. We also upset people of color by exotifying and appropriating their cultures or using them as props for our own purposes. (See how these two go together? Whites deny that we have a skin tone and culture, and then we try to fill the void by sponging off another race or ethnicity’s culture. No wonder they’re pissed). Unfortunately, the headline hit these raw nerves and it became a barrier to people reading the article for what it was.
Of course there are also people who read it and still didn’t like it. Judging by their posts, the reason seems to be that they didn’t think this was a worthy angle on race and society, or they felt that by focusing on an upper class Chinese and white family, the article offered a very narrow portrayal of multicultural family life. That’s fair. In the first case, in light of ongoing social crises like police brutality, the school to prison pipeline, the shocking number of indigenous women who are raped and murdered, and the criminalization of ethnic studies, a piece on a white woman’s cultural adaptation might have come across as tone-deaf or irrelevant. Like: It must be nice to live such a cushy life where you can focus on things like seeing society from your spouse and children’s perspective. To continue this line of reasoning, does being a less ignorant white woman mean she deserves special praise?
In the second case, people react negatively when they feel like they are left out or left voiceless in an article that is ostensibly about them. 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?
I can therefore understand that there are a lot of reasons that people reacted to the headline, although in many cases their reaction seems to be more about them, their own lives, and their own perspectives than it was about the author’s story itself. But once we sort through the reactions, where does that leave us? And does the fact that so many people raged at the headline mean that there was something wrong with the author and his story?
I say that there is not. It was their 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. One article cannot be everything to everybody, and it shouldn’t try. I think it was pretty clear that the author was talking about himself and his experiences in an honest way, and in my view, we need more of that, not less, even when we don’t like or can’t relate to every aspect of what that person says.
I think the fact that I am a white woman in a mixed relationship with an Asian American man (the theme of this blog!) probably has something to do with my ability to relate to this particular piece. I admit that I even feel defensive for them. Having experienced a version of their reality myself, and having struggled to write about it for years lest I be shot down in all of the ways this writer was, I know it is tricky and nigh on impossible to do it in a manner that honors my own experience while also validating everyone else’s and making sure I don’t leave anything out while also advancing the critical conversation while also being brief enough for people to actually read. Rather than criticize this one article for not being a different article, maybe we just need more articles. Surely part of the answer (I’m borrowing from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) is to not limit ourselves to a single story.
I suggest that the New York Times might want to take a cue from NPR, which has done a great job expanding its coverage of race, culture, and identity these past few years, especially through its Code Switch program. It has given more people a space to contribute their own voice and has actively welcomed participation, input, and critique (although not always flawlessly), which has created a more equitable landscape for reporting and response. In this view, 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 perhaps only people from particular socioeconomic milieus are afforded the access or invited to contribute articles. Even if this is accidental and unintentional, it is something a leading media organization should strive to redress.
- An Intercultural Perspective
And yet, beyond the important task of 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 (and especially when) 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 it is clear 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.
I’m sorry that Jay isn’t feeling the evolution that the writer’s wife has undergone, but I can relate to it completely. It is in many ways analogous to being an expat – where you leave your home culture and can never really return, or can only 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. And like moving to a different country, when two people from different cultures form a relationship, they create a third culture, which irrevocably 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 only difference is that while the experience of being an expat and repat are seen as fairly benign experiences (tough on those who go through them, but sort of insignificant for broader society), a lot of people have a stake in mixed relationships (which are tied not only to questions of identity and belonging but also to power, history, justice, and politics). Accordingly, a lot of people therefore have opinions about mixed relationships – but unfortunately, just because this topic is gaining public interest doesn’t mean the public is adequately prepared for the demands of these conversations. Woe to the author for not having the right vocabulary, and to the Times’ editorial staff for not guiding him better, as it created (somewhat of) a missed opportunity. Yet this piece also presents a learning moment.
As an interculturalist, I think the response to the article points to an ever-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 extremely complex topic of mixed relationships. Experts in our field are well-positioned to be at the helm – we just need to continue to find our own voices and engage in more creative, visible, and impactful ways. We also need to continually 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?
Let’s keep going! And in the meantime, keep telling your mixed stories.