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. I’m white (very – blue eyes, freckles, red/blond hair) and my husband is Latino (Mexican – black hair, dark-dark brown eyes, medium brown skin). I had a hard time when my daughter was first born because I sometimes had trouble seeing myself in her (her hair and eyes are a little lighter than my husband’s but still dark brown, her skin is pale but she tans easily) and almost feel like an outsider. Not that I would actually change anything – she’s gorgeous and ironically looks how I always wished I did growing up (I grew up in a heavily Latino area of the south and hated that I had freckles, couldn’t tan, and just stood out so much).

    We haven’t had the discussion of her being both white and latina (she’s 3 1/2), but her daycare and our community is very diverse with lots of kids of mixed backgrounds and that I’m sure will help. However our family/friend culture is very “white”, so I want to make sure she has the connection to her Mexican heritage. Her daycare is bilingual Spanish/English and run by women of Mexican heritage but she won’t speak Spanish with us at home (my Spanish is limited and my husband only spoke it as a young child). My husband is less worried about this so I find myself trying to help her be connected to a culture I’m not a member of… it’s a little odd. But I guess that’s just parenthood – figuring it out as you go along…

  2. I am a caucasian woman and am married to an african american man and to show our 3 kids their ethnicity I liked to visit both sides of our extended family. When we visited either side they were exposed to the differences & similarities of each. I always looked forward to these visits. The two sides didn’t get together often, only at special occasions like the kid’s landmark birthdays, high school graduation parties, etc. our parents would get together more often like at the kids concerts or sports events. I wish the two sides got together more often. I always liked to explore with my kids cultures from both races and approach it all matter of fact, not taking a side, seeing the good in both. I think what we have in our family is special, so sometimes we really benefit from being unique and sometimes we have to take care to protect it.

  3. Hi I am a Roman Catholic Hungarian/Polish woman that fell in love with a Moroccan Israeli Jewish man. My family rejected me my church excommunicated me but I still held my beliefs. Surprisingly his family in Israel welcomed me with open arms and surrounded me with so much love. We tried to do the 50/50 religious thing celebrating both holidays going to both houses of God and it was fine until she confronted us when she was 8. She asked us, “What am I?” We were confused and said you are a wonderful little girl. She shook her head forcefully and said no! You are Catholic mommy and you are Jewish daddy but I am nothing. I sat down and asked her well what do you want (hoping that she would say Catholic) she said I want to be Jewish like daddy’s family because they love me. It was hard but I found a reform Congregation and I am pleased to say my daughter completed her bat mitzvah 3 years ago and the pride and joy I felt watching her conduct the entire service chanting 42 prayers in Hebrew each with their own chant, reading from the Torah, and watching her uncle cry because he was so proud was so incredible. I am so happy she voiced her need to belong to a specific faith and form her own identity. She will be 15 in December and sings in an International Jewish Choir and tells me often how much she loves her tribe.

  4. Wow. Thank you so much for this story.

    When I was growing up, I didn’t know ANYONE else who was mixed race. My sister and I were so alone. Half Filipino, half white. We didn’t fit perfectly in either world, but people assume we are white, because our skin is so fair. But then we get judged and teased for eating with our hands. My Nanay taught me how to eat with my hands. (There is a right and a wrong way to do it!)

    So now I live in the SF Bay Area, and there are a million little mixed-race kids everywhere. My daughter’s three best friends are ALL mixed-race. It’s just so normal in this place and time. I’m actually jealous of these kids, because in a way, their struggle will be so much easier, and so much less lonely. The loneliness was the worst part.

    In fact, the Bay Area is so pro-diversity, that one of my mom friends was flat-out told she would get preference in a preschool waiting list because she had mixed race kids. I feel shallow for being angry at this, but when I was growing up, my mixed-race status never gained me any kind of edge in admissions or otherwise. And I’ve had to fight so hard to prove or defend who I am my whole life. I wish I had had that kind of community-built support that I’m seeing now, with our kids. I applaud this progress, but it doesn’t erase my own pain.

  5. I’m curious to hear folks describe being Latino as a race. In my job I collect race/ethnicity data and it’s always a 2-part question. Race (white, black, Asian, etc.) and Ethnicity (Latino or not Latino). Isn’t Latin America made up of multiple races? Whites from Spain and Portugal, blacks from Africa and the indigenous Indian tribes, and even Japanese in Peru? I lived in Costa Rica and they were very aware of racial differences within their country. Perhaps Latino as race is a thing embraced only in the US?

    I’m mother to mixed race Caucasian-Chinese kids. In San Francisco it’s been easy to learn about their Chinese culture. It’s a little harder to explain the concept of whiteness and a generic European heritage. It’s everywhere, constantly in the background, but that only seems to make it harder to define. What I’ve done is pick out some parts of my background – like telling them we are part German, and this is where our Christmas tree tradition comes from. But most important is for the kids to spend time with both sides of the family.

  6. Hi there – My name is Lura and I don’t have kids yet. I’m not even married but I am in an interracial relationship. He is very pale, with blue eyes and blonde hair and I am a dark-skinned Nigerian-American. We have had some serious talks about getting married and about kids so we are on that path but I am so worried. I have always imagined that I would have little chocolate babies like myself but now my imaginary family has changed. Also, I know he is worried that his kids won’t look like him and I don’t know how to ease his concerns as they may look like him, just a little darker. Is there anything you can do to prep for dealing with these identity issues? Also, with the current state of America, how do interracial couple/parents deal with the racial tensions? I know I am jumping ahead but listening to this episode resurfaced all of these concerns. I love the show, especially as a unmarried, childless person.

  7. My daughter’s father is Chinese (I’m white/American), and she grew up in her first years moving back and forth between countries. As with a lot of mixed kids, people of all races and in both countries do double-takes or ask personal questions. I wonder sometimes if that’s the cause of her self-consciousness. She went through a hard time around the age of 3, picking up on the hierarchy differences between Chinese and English (usually American, but not always white) teachers at her bilingual daycare in New York. She said things like “I don’t want to be Chinese, I want to be in English”! and refused to speak Chinese with anyone but her grandparents. Lately she’s become more focused on the positive aspects of bilingualism, and likes Chinese dresses and Chinese pop music, as well as Chinese movies, though she hates the burden of having to study an extra language. To me it was important for her early on to understand multiple facets of identity: racial, national, ethnic, cultural, linguistic–to talk about passports, governments, language, body features, culture/holidays, etc. and try to see how those things line up and pull apart.

  8. My children ages 10,7, and 4 are mixed Taiwanese/Irish. We thought we had been doing a good job talking to them about their heritages especially since my husband and I are both immigrants although culturally American. We chose to live in a diverse community where we have to confront issues around race, sexuality, etc. (very similar and not far from Montclair) and appreciate that there is a context to bring up different cultures and different kind of families with our kids. A year or two ago we were talking about an annual Christmas party we attend in NYC Chinatown where someone from the community dresses up as Santa. My middle child commented the Santa is not American. When I questioned him about what he meant it became clear he didn’t see the Chinese man as being American. He also did not see me or my parents and sister as “American” but he did identify my husband who is Irish as “American.” Upon further questioning he didn’t identify a close family friend who is African American as “American.” We were disappointed that we had done a poor job talking to our kids about the diversity of America. It was my African American friend who said it made sense for our young son to respond that way because my husband although an Irish immigrant doesn’t identify himself as Irish American but just American. I tend to identify as Asian or Chinese or Taiwanese American and our friend is African American or black. The terminology we used to talk about ourselves and others included these qualifiers which he picked up on at such a young age. This has changed the dialogue we have with our kids and made us more conscious of how we identify ourselves and others. We continue to have lots of discussions as issues come up and try to teach our kids to be open minded, accepting of all, interested in all cultures, and that we are all American.

Say Something

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