On Raising Mixed Race Children In Today's America
Had I known only of Nancy Rahman that she was mother of two sweet young boys and founder of The Chic, I’d have wanted a coffee chat, to trade ideas because of her smarts, her creativity and her commitment to family in this chapter. But when you add to that her experience of moving from Dubai to Chicago nine years ago and figuring out where she fit in as an Arab woman, I was ready for the heart to heart.
While I grew up non-religious, I had a similar experience as an Indian American immigrant only much younger at age 3. I was always trying to carve out my place in an all white town and so a lot of my personal commitment to raise our kids in the city is so they are always surrounded by differences. I have this constantly in the back of my mind but hadn’t yet explored it thoughtfully until this conversation with Nancy. I’m so happy to share it here.
Neha: Your family, like mine, is blended from various parts of the world including the Middle East and Europe. How do you talk to your children about where they are from? How do you help them feel confident in their differences in religion and race?
Nancy: I’ve been fortunate enough to go back home frequently and expose my children to cultures where both myself and my husband come from - Egypt and the UK. Once we’re back in Chicago and (because we have no family ties in the US), I make it a point to meet friends regularly that share either our circumstance or ethnicity. Celebrating Eid with the Egyptian with the local community in Chicago, for example, or hosting a British Sunday roast for my husband’s British friends are a few ways for them to experience events that celebrate their parent’s origins.
They act as reminders of their culture and gives them a boost in confidence about their background, especially for my eldest who’s 4.5 now and understands quite a bit.
Neha: What elements of Arab culture have your incorporated into parenting and the home you are creating?
Nancy: I spent most of my life, growing up in Dubai, searching for an identity and culture - raised by Egyptian parents in international schools with western education, international friends and a culture quite distant from home. My parents watched me grow into someone who started becoming more liberal in her thinking and worried about us (siblings) losing our culture altogether. They tried their best to assimilate their heritage despite our educational system and media. They, somehow, seamlessly integrated it all successfully into our life by being more relaxed in their teachings, without disturbing our development as people. We learned about the Egyptian way of life through the language they spoke to each other, media they watched, food they cooked and general traditions.
Now that I’m a parent, I understand why they put in all this effort to try and salvage or preserve our heritage. It served me and my sibling for the better and contributed towards our success as people - socially and professionally.
I am applying all of this in my parenting journey right now and following their cues as much as I can. Of course it’s not as easy as it was for them - they both spoke Arabic, my husband doesn’t, they raised us in an Arabic speaking society, etc. so the support that I have to retain whatever teachings I own and pass it down to my children culturally, is much more challenging than how I was raised. The simplicity and relaxed integration for language and culture exposure in a day-to-day life is at least 5x as hard!
I have, however, made a conscious effort to integrate Arabic through play, dance, music, food and language. I have some Arabic Art around the house and their names written in Arabic in their rooms. I will admit that I struggle with keeping up language whenever we’re at home and try to speak to them in Arabic as much as I possibly can. Once a week, I make it a point to put some Arabic pop-culture shows in the background while they’re playing to encourage them to hear the language. Whenever we’re back in the Middle East, we come back with a favorite Arabic song which I happily play for them during our dance party sessions. Despite being terrible in the kitchen, I’ve started cooking Egyptian dishes that my mom, aunts and grandmas cooked for me when I was younger - food that they luckily enjoy! Whenever I see an Arab speaker - be it at Target or my local pharmacy - I encourage a conversation and ask my kids to say hello in Arabic. I try to maximize every opportunity I have, consciously, and to be in the moment when it happens. I find the effects longer lasting and not superficial. Last but not least, I try to integrate the Arabic alphabets and words in art and during play.
Neha: Life in America for children of color has come a long way since we grew up but I still worry about it. Do you worry about race-related issues for your children? How do you prepare them for difficult interactions or conversations as they grow up?
Nancy: Honestly, if you live in an urban city or close to a large university town, you’re more likely to see that development in US society from what it once was and that’s when there isn’t much for you to worry about. You notice a lot more modern intercultural and inter-racial families at urban playgrounds and schools.
However, the moment you step out of a larger city and hit a suburb or rural settings, you start to see a decrease in diversity. There were a few times where I wondered if it’s safe for me to be in a specific town or suburb due to my color, in the US.
Raising children without family around for support is hard as it is, so I try my best to spend my time empowering my kids’ unique strengths rather than their color, race or background. I spend a good amount of time teaching them how to embrace their strengths as if by default. I also teach acceptance in the way I interact with others - maintaining respect, kindness and courtesy no matter the person’s background - and I’m sure my kids take note. They make it a point to hug our building front desk staff every morning! Keep in mind they’re still young to appreciate all of this but you have no idea how much children pick up in habit when they are young. My mom also keeps reminding me about how we speak to our children; it becomes their inner voice for life so I make sure that I make them aware of people around them and who they are, where they stand in society as people rather than segregating ourselves from those who don’t share our culture or race.
It takes courage to step in and break a belief system where people should have barriers between each other due to your color or ethnicity. So I encourage them to be brave enough and connect with whomever they feel a connection with and ultimately create joyful moments with. I don’t put a lot of stress on who they are culturally but rather where their strength lies. As for where both their parents come from, it’s seamlessly and gently reminded, daily, through small habits and such.
Like I said earlier, I grew up with an identity crisis in my teenage and formative years, I’d like it if my children don’t have that to deal with that burden but rather let their strengths, talents and interest shine through while seamlessly carrying their cultural identity in a way that’s empowering rather than shying away from it.
Neha: You've been in the States for 10 years. When you moved here there was a lot of anti-Muslim rhetoric. Have you seen that improve in this last decade?
Nancy: Absolutely yes, I would even say more so in the last couple of years. Unfortunately, people in the past associated Islam with terrorism and eventually built the concept of Islamophobia. Side note - we’ve been raised in a home that doesn’t discuss religion in social settings or publicly - it’s just not what we were raised to do, so I never had an opportunity to discuss Islam or other religions in general with anyone to give you a proper review!
The opposite is true though. Islam is one of the kindest and most accepting and welcoming cultures as (supposed to religion) out there and Muslims can be seriously fun if you get to know them! But the media played such a huge role in hiding the beauty of the Islam in the public eye. It’s changing. It’s changing for the better and I am excited to see what this change will bring. We’re living in fabulous times and I hope this new American spirit continues to grow, we write about it a lot on the chic (www.thechic.us).
Neha: Part of the reason Dan and I are committed to staying in New York is because we want to raise our bi-racial children in a place where they can see differences are a wonderful thing. How do you find or create the right communities for you and your family?
Nancy: I think all you need is just ONE person who can open the door for you and then you do your magic - all it takes is for you to know a single person that you share a commonality with - your lifestyle, values, interest, ethnicity, education, etc. and that person is likely to know similarly minded people or people from a similar background that you can connect with.
Community centers are also a good starting point; churches, mosques, art centers and clubs, sports clubs or non-profits and organizations. You’ll be surprised at how many people you meet with whom you share a lot in common with and provide you with the affinity and kinship that you want for yourself and your family.
Schools are also a great place to meet like minded people. I am the kind of person who’s a slight introvert (except with my team) at work but an extrovert in my personal life - so I don’t make friendships at work but have zero issues walking up to a mom in the wellness aisle at Wholefoods, looking for kid’s Elderberry syrup, just as I am and exchange numbers. And usually, those are the best friendships you end up having - with people who share your values.
The point here is, you WILL find your tribe, you just have to be open and put yourself out there, present yourself as honestly as you can and don’t be afraid to say hello. You never know, your next best friend could be found out of the hustle and bustle of the city!
However, it is much, much easier finding diversity in more urban settings as I mentioned earlier. The larger the city, the more diverse (statistically) and you’ll have access to racial and ethnic differences. It just comes at a cost - be it lack of space, nature, etc.
Ultimately, I think your options are always there, you just have to decide what you’re committed to the most, what makes most sense and happiness for you and your family!
Neha: What resources have you leaned on for raising a blended family?
Nancy: Love. That’s the base resource - it’s our foundation and the reason why my husband and I are together. My children can see it in our relationship and in how we are all very loving towards each other.