One of my oldest son’s favorite shirts is a Superman one. He requests to wear it every so often, even when it’s too hot to wear long sleeves in the summer. He’s worn it to the beach, as pajamas, or just to hang out in the house. You name it. I’m not too sure why he loves this shirt so much (he’s never watched Superman and the only book in the house with this superhero has never caught his interest), but I suspect that it has to do with the fact that his dad has the same shirt. My son likes to wear the shirt when he sees his dad wear it, and when he wants to wear it, he asks his dad to do the same. It’s like their little thing.
This reminds me that children look up to their parents. Often times, parents are their children’s first role models. But what happens when children don’t look like their parents, as in, multiracial children who look nothing like one or both of their parents? I often joke with my husband that if he were to go to the grocery store with the kids by himself (which he sometimes does), people would think he’s the sitter. Or that the kids are adopted. I know many interracial couples with mixed children who have experienced this one or twice.
So that leads me to ask, it is important that children have role models who look like them? I think so. Yes, children can look up to their parents as role models. But they also need to look up to people who look like them. Why? Because it helps children see themselves in their role models. It helps them visualize their own potential by seeing it in others.
In my own experience growing up in Venezuela, I had few to no role models who looked like me, or with whom I could identify. In any given situation, I was usually the only Chinese girl in the room, and often felt different from everyone else around me. Over time, the effects of being singled out and feeling like an outsider can have a lasting impact on one’s confidence and sense of identity.
As I’ve written about in previous posts, biracial and multiracial children may go through similar experiences over their lifetimes. Constantly having to deal with societal pressures to define who they are or let others define it for them. Having to choose between one race over another. Often being asked “what are you?” or having to explain their mixed heritage. Multiracial children can find some comfort in dealing with these experiences by looking at how others have dealt with this. They can learn from others who look like them. And parents can help by exposing children to various types of role models and by recognizing that yes, looks do matter. At least in this context.
The same way that Latina girls benefit from seeing a princess with whom they can identify, like Elena of Avalor, multiracial children need action figures, superheroes, princes and princesses, athletes, everyday heroes, and the whole realm of role models to whom they can look up and say, “I can be him or her one day.”