Ask AF: When a Child's Race is Ambiguous

Be open and honest about your child's ambiguous race, and let her decide what she wants her identity to be.

Q: We adopted our daughter in the U.S. Her birth certificate states that she is Caucasian, but she has beautiful brown skin and soft, corkscrew hair. How do we talk with her about her ethnicity, or perhaps investigate her heritage?


A: You might have your child’s DNA tested to learn more about her ethnic background. But the science of such testing is still evolving, and a test may not tell you anything conclusive.

Instead, deal with your uncertainties head on. When your child begins to question — or be questioned about — her heritage, have an honest conversation. Say, “We don’t know much about your background. What we do know is ____.” Then invite your child to look in the mirror with you: “What do you see? Pretty brown eyes, nice tan skin, and cute curly hair.” Ask her to name friends with whom she shares physical similarities. If she says she looks a lot like her friend, Maria, who’s from Guatemala, look on a map together and find the country. You might add, “Many people who live in this part of the world look like you. I wonder if, a long time ago, some of your ancestors were from here.”

You may never discover the full palette of your daughter’s racial makeup. But you can help her understand that identity is made up of many components. It seems that we live in an era where you are what you look like, or how you identify yourself. Help your child decide what she wants to say — and to whom and when.

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