Mama Don't Understand


Mama Don't Understand

People who identify as multiracial are the fastest growing demographic in the United States. Still, it can be hard for parents to figure out how to talk about race and ethnicity with their mixed kids. In today’s episode, two daughters tell their moms that they don’t get what it means to be mixed.

Our first story is about Sapna McCarthy, an Indian woman who married an Englishman named Kieren.

Sapna + Kieren on their wedding day

Sapna + Kieren on their wedding day

Sapna and Kieren have two daughters. The older one, Raina, is four.

Raina calls herself

Raina calls herself “white” and her mom “brown”

And she says her dad is "pink"

And she says her dad is “pink”

One day, Sapna was playing got-yer-nose with Raina, and Raina made the game about skin color. In our interview, Sapna tells the surprising story of what went down, and puzzles over how to talk to her young daughter about her heritage. (If you have ideas on this, please leave them in the comments below!)

UPDATE 7/23: This is a fuse bead family portrait that Raina made. Sapna sent it to me. Check out the skin tones!


Our second story is about performer and cultural educator Kirya Traber. When Kirya was a kid, she’d record her stories, songs, and tantrums on this one 90-minute cassette.


The most coherent song on the tape: a freestyle rap called “It’s a Black Thing.” Which she sang to her single white mom at the age of six.

Kirya + her mom around the time Kirya sang the rap

Kirya + her mom around the time Kirya sang the rap

Kirya + her mom in 2012

Kirya + her mom in 2012

In this episode, Kirya tells me what she was thinking when she sang the song to her mom, and how her racial identity has changed throughout her life. Plus, she gives me a *great* idea on how to help my daughter wrap her head around her own mixed ethnicity.

P.S. For any parents having trouble with your mixed kids’ hair, Kirya has offered to give advice! She’ll be checking the comments.

How do you talk to YOUR kids about race and ethnicity?
Or how have you talked to your parents? What books, movies, websites, experts, and experiences have helped you to unpack this extremely complicated topic? Leave your answers below, and talk to each other!

McCarthy wedding photo: Peter Kwan; Kirya cassette photo: Amy Pearl

Our sponsors for this episode are Thirdlove , Cellscope, Little Passports and Crane and Canopy. Use the promo code LONGSHORT at checkout for a special discount.

84 thoughts on “EPISODE #59: Mama Don’t Understand

  1. Hello all. Listening to this episode, I could relate in a way I hadn’t thought I would. I love engaging in discussions about race and ethnicity and have always been interested in hearing the diverse perspectives other than my own. But this episode left me feeling like I could relate in ways I never imagined.

    I am white, and my children are white, but I am raising my children in rural France. So many of the situations you describe I have lived being an immigrant here and can imagine living with my children in the future, as they grow and enter school (they are 3 & 1).
    The stories and tips were so helpful and I think that I will be able to adapt them to this big issue of cultural identity that I face almost daily. I think very often about my children’s cultural heritage and how I can help them to identify with their ‘American heritage’ while being raised in rural France. All of this in an environment that feels somewhat hostile to cultural pride and diversity, even though my village in France of 700 people is more diverse than the town of 4000 where I grew up in Indiana. One might think that this doesn’t really sound all that difficult, and I didn’t think that it would be that hard either, but it is surprisingly challenging. I have fully accepted my status as an etrangere here, but I am only starting to reflect on my status as an immigrant through the experience of being a mother.

    Even in the few sentences that I have just written down, there are so many things to unpack:
    What does being American mean, not just for me in my childhood and what I want to transmit to my children, but also, what does it mean today?
    Of course language, food, customs, holidays, social interactions
    The welcoming culture, which at its heart can go contrary so many of the values that we Americans hold dear. Abstract concepts like freedom, innovation, hard work, earning, citizenship, politeness, individuality, diversity, assimilation and integration are all essentially different here.
    So many would ask what is American culture anyway? And is it really worth anything? But when you raise your children in another culture where holidays are celebrated differently, with different food and customs, it’s is then that you realize that you do have a culture, and that it means something. I hope that I will be able to make the best of both cultures for them, and very importantly, help them to respect all regardless of their background.

  2. My son is just eight months old, so he has some time before I have to worry about talking to him about ethnicity, but my husband is El Salvadorian and Mexican and I’m White. I’d like him to grow up identifying with his latin side as well as his White side. How do I have that conversation with him? How do I foster pride in him for both sides of his ethnic makeup?

    1. I’m going to ask you the same question I asked my husband when he said this. What does White mean to you?

      I’d like to suggest to you that it makes more sense to focus on your particular cultural identity rather than your race.

  3. My dad was blonde-haired and blue-eyed; my mom is 100% Korean. I definitely look very Asian and most of my childhood I heard people asking my dad if his kids were adopted (there are 4 of us). When I became a teenager, people thought I was my dad’s girlfriend! (Ugh and somewhat of a strange stereotype-thinking I was mail order)

    Now, I have one biological son (his dad is Caucasian) who is sandy-haired, blue/green-eyed and fair skinned. When he was a baby, people would ask if he was mine or if I was taking care of him (nanny, I suppose). I have a pretty good sense of humor, especially after years of fielding “what are you” questions, but my son does resemble me. Some people only see what they want to see.
    I have 3 step kids that are half-Asian and half-Caucasian and I feel fortunate that I am able to identify with my kids and I help them navigate those rude comments. It is so much more prevalent now so they don’t face the same sort of racism that I did but there are still instances of people saying stupid things.

    I suppose I’m rambling now, but enjoyed the episode!

  4. Oh man. My father did not teach me Turkish, but constantly insisted that we were his blood, and that we were very Turkish. We made lots of Turkish food, and there were a smattering of words that I didn’t realize weren’t English until I was older, but I feel kind of broken-hearted, kind of like I will never be Turkish enough because he didn’t teach me as a child. I had a friend in college who told me she was more Turkish than I would ever be, even though she didn’t have a drop of Turkish blood, because she spent some time growing up in Turkey and spoke a little bit. I don’t think she meant to hurt me, but it’s stuck with me for years and years after- and was burnt into my soul a little. I feel fake when I express any part of my Turkishness, and I struggle with that. Can I, as an adult, learn my father’s language and connect with his family (my family), and have it not be a lie or some other falseness?

    I know consciously that I get to self-define, at least within the confines of my heritage, but it’s hard not to feel insecure about it. I don’t know what happens with the identities of any children I have in the future. I hope to give them the opportunity to self-define and be confident in that.

  5. I’m white (Irish, Slovak descent), my husband is black (Haitian descent) so our two children are mixed race. I can relate to so much in both of the stories. I struggle with how much we should emphasize their cultural background- in particular being Haitian (my husband is first generation and spent a lot of his childhood in Haiti). When it comes to acknowledging color, this narrative changes daily in our house these days with our 5 year old daughter.
    When she was 2, she announced to me in the car, from the backseat in her carseat- “mama! my leg skin is brown!” Like she had just realized her color. Like the child in the episode, my daughter also will hold her arm between ours and announce that mama is white, papa is black, and she is brown. She, currently, identifies as “brown”- mixed. I wonder if that will change as she grows older.
    She often describes people by their race. Just yesterday she was trying to remember a girls name and described her as the girl with brown hair and white skin.
    She talks a lot about how she and her brother are the same because they have the same brown skin.
    When watching TV, she often quickly identifies and favors people who look like her.
    Most surprisingly, the other day she told me that “all my dolls have white skin”. When I reminded her of all of the black skinned dolls she has, she replied, “well my princesses are all white and thats a world that doesnt make sense when I play.” Later that day she said she didnt want us to buy her any more white skinned dolls.
    Im, at this point, sitting by and being very open to talking with her about race, culture, skin color, sames and differences. I love seeing her come to realizations about race and am excited to see how her identity develops. I dont know what else to do now other than to listen and talk very openly with her. Luckily she goes to a very diverse school. I am so happy that she daily is surrounded by people of different races, religions, ethnicities.
    Thanks for this podcast, it was incredibly helpful and beautiful.

  6. I’m asian and my husband is European. All the time I get asked if my child is ‘mixed,’ usually by other asian people. I admit that he is. They then go on to comment how white his skin is and how attractive he is. A part of me wants to be annoyed, but since they’re saying he looks cute, I can’t help but be flattered. At this point in his life he looks mostly Chinese which is probably why I get asked. But why do they care ‘what’ he is?

    I loved this show. As a first generation American and a 0th? generation Canadian, I struggle with how to share the culture I grew up with at home (we always spoke Chinese at home and ate Chinese food), with my son. My husband is a 0th generation Canadian from Switzerland, so like my parents, I think in some ways it is easier for him. He does his ‘normal’ and the culture is shared. Since my background is *already* mixed, I find it a bit complicated. But we mostly do it with food. We eat moon cakes and hot pot and stir-fry since these are the parts of being Chinese that I love. I also associate being Chinese with the giant family get togethers we’d have with all my cousins on my mother or father’s side, and I’m a bit sad that we don’t get to share that with him as frequently since we live in Canada away from my big Californian family. That American part of us is more difficult to quantify and share and I’m still working on that one.

  7. This is a subject I think about often and, as a new mother, feel completely ill-prepared to address with my daughter. I am mixed race (Indian and white) and grew up very exposed to my Indian heritage. My mom would take my brothers and I to India every summer to spend a month with my grandparents and uncle. Maybe I was closer to my mom and so identified more with her race, I don’t know. I think part of it was just how proud she was to be Indian, having moved to the States when she was eighteen to study. She missed home so much, missed the culture, the family. Her nostalgia and love for her country seemed to just transpose onto me as a young adult. Interestingly, I look much more White than Indian, and that brought on a lot of feelings of being an imposter in claiming my Indianness. I didn’t have to endure the racism that my brown-skinned friends did, but I can still enjoy all the “perks” of my mixed background. I ended up moving to India to work for a few years on my own, and I think that’s when being Indian really became my own identity instead of a borrowed one from my mom. I know deep down that, no matter how much I share India with her, my daughter will have to eventually decide for herself what it means to be mixed race. And I hope that, if she wants to, she finds a way to identify just as strongly as an Indian as I do or my mom does, even if she looks white to the outside world.

  8. Fans of this episode might also relish the book “Part Asian, 100% Hapa.” It’s funny, reflective, and eye-opening…and an easy “read” because it’s mostly photos. :)

    It significantly impacted me, as a mixed-race person, at a time when I was freshly aware of how people viewed me. For mixed-Asian children, this book will deliver something similar to Kirya’s experience with a wall of pictures showing mixed-black women.

    Each entry shows a photo of a mixed-Asian person, stripped of make-up, jewelry, even clothes (relax…the photos are shoulders-up!), and then a copy of their unedited, hand-written answers to the intentionally provocative question “What are you?” Answers include “People can’t believe I’m filipina but then I tell them I’m also Norwegian, and Norwegian blood can suck the color out of anything.” and “I’m a girl. I’m American. I’m seven. I’m Hannah.”

    It’s a really fun book because of the variety of perspectives and gallery of wonderfully unique faces!

    Last note: because of my experience and those of other mixed children, I now use the term “ethnocultnacity.” See if my approach works for you, too! http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=ethnocultnacity

Say Something

Commenting Guidelines Curiosity and spirited discussion are welcome; personal attacks are not. We reserve the right to reject comments for any reason.