Racial and ethnic socialization within interracial Asian and White families: A summary

Findings from a study of 12 Asian and White families demonstrate how family members communicate with each other about race and ethnicity, with particular focus on parent/child communication.

Author: Sarah Kasuga-Jenks

In the past 20 years, interest in the experience of biracial and multiracial individuals has increased. Psychological literature has focused mainly on biracial and multiracial individuals’ experiences and identity development, as well as perceptions of biracial and multiracial individuals (Poston, 1990; Root, 1996; Shih & Sanchez, 2005). As the number of interracial relationships and families continues to rise, scholars have noted the importance of examining these families (Kenney & Kenney, 2009; Rosenfeld, 2010), especially in terms of ethnic and racial socialization (Hughes et al., 2006; Thorton, 1992). While family is often noted as an important component of multiracial identity development (Root, 1996), few studies have examined the process of ethnic and racial socialization specifically within the interracial family. In addition, the majority of the literature related to multiracial identity or interracial families concerns the multiracial black and white individual or family (Omi, 2001; Williams- León & Nakashima, 2001).

Racial and ethnic socialization is often more complicated for interracial families than for monoracial families. For one, interracial marriages differ from the societal norm of marrying within one’s own racial or ethnic group, thus leaving parents without clear, established guidelines for socialization. Additionally, parents bring diverse ideologies and understandings of race and ethnicity to the family. Multiracial children also lack an identified community in which to belong (in the absence of an established class of multiracial children in US society), and since parents in interracial families are usually monoracial, they cannot completely understand their multiracial child’s experience (Rockquemore, Laszloffy, & Noveske, 2006). Hughes and Chen (1999) identify a need for “creative, diverse and multiple methods” in order to adequately study racial and ethnic socialization (p. 469).

The current study focused on racial and ethnic socialization and communication about race and ethnicity within Asian and white interracial families (Kasuga-Jenks, 2012). The guiding research questions included: How do individuals within interracial Asian and White families communicate with each other (e.g., do they use verbal or non-verbal styles and are they more proactive or reactive)? How do parents communicate issues of race and ethnicity (e.g., racial and ethnic identity, participation in cultural events, cultural values, discrimination, etc.) to their children?

The intent of the study was to examine ways in which parents communicate issues of race and ethnicity to their biracial or multiracial children. Narrative inquiry was utilized to access lived experiences of members of interracial families. Through narratives, an individual gives meaning to their experience thereby influencing how they construct their personal identity (Riessman, 1993). Twelve families participated in the study. Eight mothers (75 percent) were Asian; 4 fathers (25 percent) were Asian. Some white parents were multiethnic and identified multiple ethnic backgrounds; for example, one father identified ethnically as Irish, German and English. All Asian parents identified with only one ethnic group. Six White parents were fourth generation in the United States, four were third generation, and 2 were second generation. Four Asian parents were third generation, 5 were second generation, and 3 were immigrants. Children ranged in age from eight to 20 years old: 9 in middle childhood (eight to 11 years old), 8 in young adolescence (11 to 14 years old), 5 adolescents (15 to 17 years old), and 2 young adults (18 to 20 years old). Parent, child and family stories were gathered. First, parents were interviewed without children. Next, the entire family was interviewed together. Finally, the entire family had the opportunity to review transcripts and results. Family stories were the main unit of analysis; family stories from the parent interview were examined in addition to family stories from the family interview. After data was collected, a thematic approach was used to analyze the data. A thematic approach is one in which the focus of the analysis is on the content of the narrative (Riessman, 2008). Themes were identified through repeated readings of narratives.

Four themes emerged from the interviews (sub-themes in parentheses): cultural practices (language, food, religion and cultural traditions or holidays), effects of interpersonal relationships (family and friends), experiences of discrimination and negotiating identity (parent identity, parent perspectives of child identity, and children’s descriptions of cultural, ethnic and racial identity). Narratives often referenced multiple themes.

Cultural practices

Most families reported celebrating holidays, eating traditional foods and using specific words from their particular ethnic groups’ languages, but did not identify those rituals as intentional ways of communicating culture to their children. Interviews also provided an opportunity for parents to communicate to their children about cultural practices. Information that children did not know was often explained by parents during the family interview. Almost half of the parents told stories about the role of ethnic foods in their childhood, as opposed to a formal “sit-down” discussion about ethnic foods. For example:

Italian American mother: They just sort of know it’s a fabric woven in without discussion I think, yeah.

Chinese American father: I don’t think there’s specific, “Sit down. We’re talking about this right now.” We talk about Chinese New Year and what we’re gonna do... We’ll go out to eat for Chinese New Year.

Effects of interpersonal relationships

Most families explained that relationships with family members were essential for the children to learn about their ethnic heritages. For example:

English/German American father: So definitely I’m interested in Harabeoji [(grandfather in Korean)] telling them stories of the old days and so on and so forth... and for Harabeoji, it’s very clear how that heritage is sort of dominant in his life, and I think that’s where the kids see it and say, “Hey, wait a minute. We’re kind of part of that, too,” and absolutely they are, so being aware of that and understanding what it means.

Children in middle childhood identified friends based on ethnic heritage, but it was not a distinctive part of friendships. A few young adolescents identified that some of their friendships were based on cultural socialization and cultural similarities. The majority of older adolescents articulated friends’ ethnic heritages and how those friendships influenced both the cultural socialization process and their ethnic or cultural identity.

Experiences of discrimination

Experiences of bias and discrimination often had an effect on ethnic and racial socialization either because parents discussed experiences with children or because those experiences had an impact on parent identity. Parents’ own experiences shaped what cultural information they shared with their children. For example:

Korean-American father: And a couple of times I went outside to play and, you know, they were brutal. You know, they were making fun of me and they chased me around... I remember that right off the bat and, you know, that made me very sensitive to the fact that I was different. So that probably accelerated my sort of learning English and all that, which probably made me more white in the end...

Negotiating identity

During the parent interviews, all parents discussed their own identity and their children’s identities. Parent narratives focused on different aspects of identity (e.g., identity development, phenotypic differences or cultural environment). Family interviews yielded narratives from all children about their cultural, ethnic or racial identity. Similar to parent narratives, child narratives varied in focus (e.g., being identified by others or “forced to choose” experiences). Child narratives (and how they identified) also varied depending on the developmental stage of the child. All except four parents explained that they first realized their cultural, ethnic, or racial identity before they were in high school. All except two Asian parents spoke about an experience in which they were marginalized in some way (e.g., because of language or phenotypic differences).

In summary, racial and ethnic socialization processes were complex; parent identity, educational status, generational status, socioeconomic status, community demographics, experiences of discrimination, intergenerational trauma or racism, parent and child phenotype, and acculturation status were important. Children’s age impacted children’s understanding of identity. Parent racial, ethnic or cultural identity was often linked to an early experience of discrimination or alienation or the way that parent was raised by their own parents. Internalized racism may have an influence on parent identity and socialization.

Parents utilized a range of techniques, both verbal and non-verbal, to communicate issues related to race and ethnicity. Responses varied in terms of which parent culture was emphasized and by whom. Many families did not report actively “socializing” their children about race and ethnicity, but incorporated cultural lessons into daily life as a way of communicating cultural heritage to children. Significant differences in terms of communication with children about race and ethnicity based on generational status of parents were not found. Parents replicated their parents’ communication strategies, utilized opposite strategies or combined multiple strategies to communicate with their children. Identity in children was complex and not necessarily linked to specific socialization strategies. Multiple factors such as age, gender, ethnicity of peer group and interest in cultural issues contributed to the children’s identities.

Implications from this research include a more nuanced understanding of an understudied population. Results inform future research focused on interracial families. Clinically, results provide practitioners with more information about interracial families to help specify interventions.


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Author Bio

Sarah Kasuga-Jenks, PhDSarah Kasuga-Jenks, PhD, received her doctorate in clinical psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology in San Francisco. Her research has focused on the academic opportunity gap, ethnic identity in biracial children and adolescents, and racial and ethnic socialization. She completed her pre-doctoral internship at UCSF’s Child and Adolescent Services at San Francisco General Hospital and is currently completing her post-doctoral fellowship at UCLA’s Counseling and Psychological Services.