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2013 Faculty & Staff News

Kardashian to Obama: Solving the identity crisis of growing up biracial

October 4, 2013

President Obama image courtesy of Shutterstock

Will Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s daughter have an identity crisis?

According to a Longwood University social work professor whose scholarly work has focused on issues facing biracial children, the answer to that question rests largely with how Kardashian, a reality TV star who is Armenian, and West, a popular African American rap artist, deal with the situation.

Like many biracial children, the girl will likely struggle with her mixed-race heritage—and it could cause her to have low self-esteem, said Dr. Kristen Nugent, a Longwood social work professor.

"A major cause of those common identity crises is the parents," she said. "Too many times, parents of mixed-race children will try to pigeon-hole their child into certain groups based on race, trying to foster a sense of identity. That actually works against the way we want it to—confusing the child and making them sensitive about their background."

It seems counterintuitive—the daughter of two pop culture icons may face self-esteem issues—but mixed-race children often feel excluded from several peer groups. It happened to President Barack Obama, who was frequently criticized for not being "black enough" during his 2008 campaign. It happened to actress Halle Berry, who felt excluded as a child from both her black and white neighbors.

In the case of President Obama, the son of an African father and white mother, he identified as a black teenager, but it didn’t come without struggles. In his memoir, Dreams From My Father, he outlines his battle with low self-esteem brought on by his biracial roots: "I kept finding the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect."

Nugent suggests that these feelings of self-contempt are strengthened, not abated, by involving children and teens in groups and activities based on race or nationality.

"It’s much better to expose children to multicultural activities," she said. "We have to avoid putting people in groups of their own identity and instead expose them to a environment where race doesn’t matter. Parents often care more about the issue than the children, who just want to get out and do kid things."

She added that the role of religious influence in fostering self-esteem can’t be understated, especially as children start to face peer pressure relating to their heritage. Oftentimes that starts at school, when teasing becomes more prevalent.

When children bring those problems home from school, oftentimes parents can elevate the level of thinking about being biracial in a way that will help the child. "I use Christian concepts to help biracial children—teenagers especially—look inward and develop a sense of positive self-identity," said Nugent, "but there are several other religious traditions that can help. What’s important is helping the child to view themselves in a universal sense: What do you think God thinks of you? If God didn’t love you for who you are, why do you think he made you biracial? Questions like that help children who have low self-esteem brought on by their multiracial ethnicity see themselves as complete people, not torn between two cultures."

 [President Barack Obama image courtesy of ShutterStock]