Reflecting on the Construction of Race as our National Identity Shifts By Helene Slessarev-Jamir

The following is a guest post written by Helen Slessarev-Jamir, Ph.D., Mildred M. Hutchinson Professor of Urban Studies at Claremont School of Theology.  Her research focuses on the character of religiously inspired justice work in response to globalization and American empire.  Helene is a member of the Board of Directors and writes for Sojourners; she has authored multiple articles and books including most recently published Prophetic Activism: Progressive Religious Justice Movements in Contemporary America.

Today my son Stephan celebrates his 31st birthday. In the year Stephan was born he was one of very few bi-racial children in the U.S. I personally knew of no one else who had a bi-racial child. His father and I agreed that given the racial realities of the U.S. in 1980, he needed to be raised as an African-American because that was how he would be perceived. We consciously constructed Stephan’s identity as black.

We lived on the Southside of Chicago in an all-black neighborhood. Yet, when he was ready to enter elementary school, I was advised to register him as “white” so that he would have a better chance of being admitted into the local public magnet school. Having resisted any significant plans to desegregate its public schools, the Chicago Board of Education used racial diversity as one of the main criteria for admission into their magnet schools. As a result, Stephan became one of the “white” children in his 1st grade classroom even though all the faces in his school photo were varying shades of brown.

In his daily life, Stephan grew up as an urban black kid. As his mother, I indirectly experienced what it meant to be treated as a black male in America. I distinctly remember how store clerks began to treat him with suspicion when we went into department stores to buy his school clothes.

He was 15 the first time he got picked up by the Chicago Police. At the time it was legal for the police to arrest juveniles whenever they were in groups of three or more. The U.S. Supreme Court would later strike down that law as unconstitutional. Even his African-American teachers tended to have fairly low expectations of their male students – when I complained about in the incongruity between his very high test scores and his mediocre grades, his principal told me, “Some black boys are just like that.”

For many years Stephan struggled with his identity because in reality he was neither completely African-American nor white, yet at the time those were the only racial categories available. After his father left when he was seven, Stephan was in the unenviable position of living in a black neighborhood with his white mom. In response, he invented black fathers. Once in anger he yelled at me, saying, “Why can’t you be just like all the other moms!”

Shortly before his 17th birthday, he came to me in the middle of the night and told me he needed to get out of the neighborhood because someone was threatening him. I put him on a plane to his grandmother in California and then used my white privilege to move us both out to the suburbs. Stephan spent his last year of high school in an almost all white suburban school where teachers and administrators assumed that since he was black and came from Chicago he must be a gang-banger.

Things are different now. This spring I realized that the majority of my colleagues’ young children were bi-racial. In the last 30 years there has been demographic sea change in the U.S. According to the 2010 census there has been an almost 50 percent increase in the number of bi-racial children since 2000 while the number of people who identified themselves as both black and white soared by 134 percent.

According to William Frey, a nationally known demographer, over the last ten years, this country’s population of white children declined by 4.3 million while the number of Asian and Hispanic children grew by 5.5 million. There are now 10 states in which children of color are now the majority and another 12 in which they constitute 40% of the under 18 population.

While I celebrate these demographic shifts, I wonder, do they make any difference for the “Stephans” growing up today? Will mixed race children and children of color have it any easier than he did?

Maybe, if they’re from upper-middle-class families. However, the increase in the number of children below the poverty line and the concerted efforts to shrink the size and scope of government, combined with an increasingly widespread hostility towards immigrants, seems to actually be making it worse for children of color.

A Sept. 8, 2011 editorial in the Los Angeles Times suggests that the voracity of our current political debates may represent an emerging political divide between aging whites and an emerging brown majority. Resulting budget cuts are already falling most heavily on children and young adults. Many states have already made deep cuts in state spending on public education ranging from pre-school and kindergarten all the way to public universities. A handful of states have also enacted onerous restrictions on undocumented immigrants, which inevitably hurt the well-being of their children.

As the U.S. undergoes the shift to becoming a brown skinned nation, there is an urgent need to acknowledge the continued salience of race in shaping American politics. As has so often been the case, race is still not a topic many whites are willing to openly discuss, yet it continues to shape the way we view the world and the value we place on the well-being of others. How we address this critical issue as we go forward will make a big difference in whether or not the majority of our next generation grows up educated, affirmed, and productive.

9 thoughts on “Reflecting on the Construction of Race as our National Identity Shifts By Helene Slessarev-Jamir”

  1. Thank you for a post that raises important issues around race and class. My former husband is half American Indian and half Japanese (from Japan). Our first daughter has his same skin tone, which is to say dark; while our other two have much fairer complexions, “passing” as white, (I am Irish-American). In the raising of our children I took the naive position of color-blindness, insisting color did not matter. Because her father is a physician, her class allowed entrance into social groups she otherwise would have been rejected from. My inability to recognize the racism she experienced caused her great pain as a child into her adolescents. She majored in Critical Gender Studies, I believe, as a means of attempting to codify her own liminal space, especially when issues of race and class (usually ignored) are addressed together.

    The middle child, Emily, while lighter skinned, self-identifies more as Japanese, which causes strain among her Japanese relatives since she does not look the part. To be from mixed parents set them up for continued crises in self-identity. While one has been judged as inadequate because of her skin color, especially in her early school years, the other has longed to look less white in order to fit into what she understands as her Japanese identity, ( I should say here my son, for whatever reason, is completely at home in his body with no issues/concerns about how he is perceived.)

    I agree with you that as our nation’s skin tone darkens, this will inform our politics. As a white woman from a mixed marriage I can now see the importance of investing in a sometimes uncomfortable conversation about race, class, and in what each of my daughters has described as “finding home.” There needs to be more work between the intersection of race and class, at all levels, but beginning in the home might be a powerful place to start.


  2. A beautiful post! As one of your colleagues with bi-racial (“hapa”) kids, I, too, wonder what the future holds for children of color. As I look at my own boys, I know that so much of how they will be treated by others will depend on simply what they look like (i.e., will their “Asian” morphological features stay with them throughout their life or will others simply mistake them as fully white)? As you know, both of them have Taiwanese middle names, but are called by everyone by their nicknames (viz. “PJ” is Preston Jia-Ying, “KC” is Keenan Chuan-Sheng). As parents, we know we must be very intentional about exposing our kids to their Taiwanese heritage, lest they live out the scenario of what some social scientists have been speculating for some time that the distinctive ethnic cultures of certain East Asian groups are already in the process of being lost through assimilation, as these groups “become” white (like how the Irish once did).


  3. I think you are right to give a warning about the continued, and perhaps increase, of racial discrimination in the U.S., along with broadening what we think of as “race.” I agree with you, and others, that class and race are inherently intertwined, and in light of the 10th anniversary of September 11th, I think we can add “religion” to that, give the rise of Islamophobia in the past 10 years. Discrimination comes in all forms, but of course we need to be particularly aware of how it becomes normalized in our everyday encounters and public life. So thank you for bringing this to light!


  4. The article and comments reflect excellent expressions of intersections, finding home, normalizing — as key elements to our futures of educated, affirmed and productive young adults. We live and adapt with these to reflect challenges for each age group, and each representative family member.
    May I add to this conversation those children who have racial and class mix to include those influencing factors of parental age and adoption. We attempt to segregate each ingredient of child-rearing and identify it, name it, study it, then after dissecting each influence we turn in our minds and behaviors toward melding them all together into a comfortable and secure setting to help our children thrive toward successful maturation.
    Then, to do this in the turmultous American, empirical trending culture is no easy challenge. As the guest writer pointed out, then to have the father image move outside the family unit is a distinct challenge. One of the greatest helps that I have encountered throughout my journey of growing two white boys through a family unit change, then years later to grow a dark skinned boy and a dark skinned girl through adoption maizes and through the maize of the family unit shifting — Williams’ book of Sisters in the Wilderness has been my comfort food for successful survival — even for me an ole white woman! Hang together Sisters and Mothers, we will complete the journey.


      1. Heather, your personal confidence and attitude conveys to your son solid self worth. Early socialization skills training is vitally important. Quality over color (whatever color is involved) is a key. Positive and real living is solid turf. Our children mirror what we live as in happiness, confidence, Creator as center to everyone whatever their circumstance is, and staying real and in the moment. Blessings.


  5. Professor, you have opened the discussion that “race” and “racism” hold us captive to it’s cruel implicit imprints on our psyche. My son is 33 and not bi-racial. He is a beautiful dark Häagen-Dazs Fudgesicle kind of brown. A dark brown that could not hide the visibility of his coloring. He was a bright young child who met with racism at every turn in the educational system. One day when he was about 12 or 13, we walked the sidewalk and an older White woman was walking toward us, my son did not move as I had taught him to let someone older pass by first. I asked him why, he said, “They are afraid of me Mom, I don’t have to move, they will hurry to move around me, they will not look at me in the eye, they bow their heads and they rush by. They think I am a gang member because I am Black. They don’t notice that I carry a back pack filled with books or that I am reading while waiting, they only see that they think I have come into the store to steal, I am going to hurt them. Well, they think that of me, so I will no longer move for them.” My heart ached. My father before me had fought for civil rights and wanted to see integration improve the condition of Blacks and I could see that nothing had really changed. Only, a child that knew he was feared even without ever being given a chance to speak.

    I commend your ability to withdraw your son from a potentially lethal situation. My heart beats with compassion with the courage it much have taken to write these things. The strength of your story is the transparency of relaying your experience. I know you were honored when you recently saw him graduate. Ha le lu jah! The fight continues.

    Here at Seminary, we are being challenged as religious leaders to the call for pluralism. It is a noble cause and worth the effort. Yet, I see that “race” trumps almost every effort to include, “the other.” I don’t have answers. It is as complex as the question of homelessness. Thank you for bringing the issue to the table of discussion. As I have learned from you it will take a transformation through the prophetic voices and actions of many. The prophets cry out in the melodic moan of Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come.”


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