How to Be a Multiracial Family

When you have a multiracial family you get a lot of stares.

I noticed it on my first date with the black man who would become my husband. We walked into a crowded movie theater. You’ve all been that couple in a packed throng searching for two seats together. Usually the crowd you’re scanning plays with their phones, talks it up or eats popcorn. This time, the whole mass seemed to be staring right at me.

I felt a jolt inside. Was my shirt open? Zipper down?

Why was everyone looking at me?

It took a second, then I got it. Was it that a white woman was with him? I mean, who cares, right? Wrong.

I glanced up at Val. I barely knew him. He gave me that soft gaze that I get about 50 times a day now. Nothing calms me down like locking with that man’s eyes.

We found seats and watched Scorsese’s The Departed. Val is the type of viewer to talk out loud to the characters on screen.

“Dude! You did not just do that! Come on!”

I’m the type to take notes on shot composition.

We were married nine months later.

By that time I was used to the stares and I had put up a shield. A wall. I’ve never been less friendly to strangers than since I found the love of my life. I’m not available to answer your questions or indulge your curiosity. I can’t meet your gaze whether it’s smiling or sneering, hard or soft.

Because it’s impossible to really know what you’re thinking.

It could be any one of the following:

  • Racial progress and social beauty
  • Jungle fever, interracial porn, all forms of taboo
  • Danger and lynching: “She’s gonna get that man killed.”
  • He prefers white women over black ones
  • Hatred and rage

I mean, who knows what people are thinking? 

I didn’t care. Trust me, when you marry across racial lines the stares are the least of it. (And I’m not talking about some kind of cultural divide between Val and me. I’m referring to full-fledged discrimination from realtors, local agencies, contractors, etc.)

My son Dash was 8 when I met Val and I think our family story was clear when people glanced our way.

People could tell themselves that the kid with us was obviously from a previous relationship I had with a white guy. Now I was with a black one. It got more complicated when Val and Dash hung out without me—tooling around the neighborhood and going in to Home Depot.

What are they doing together? Val sometimes said that he imagined they thought he was Dash’s coach or a family friend because being his father, even stepfather, would be too far out of the question.

Then Phineas came along. (You can see Phineas’ picture up top.)

Just to be clear, because it hasn’t been, Phineas is my biological son with Val. That means he’s mixed or biracial.

Within minutes of his birth I noticed that he resembled his father. He splayed across my belly the same way that my husband splayed across the couch. They still have the same gait, the same shape to their legs, and in my opinion, the same face.


We noticed Val’s father often tilts his head to the side in photos. Val and Phineas have that same quirk.

Phineas’ skin is light though. And that lightness has always struck the world as proof of at least two things:

  1. I must have cheated.

Early on, some of Val’s friends took a look at the light-skinned infant in the baby carrier and they didn’t offer congratulations. They pulled Val aside and tried to gently let him know that I had pulled a fast one. Even my own closest friend called me up three days after he was born: “Molly, that baby doesn’t look black.”

  1. Phineas is white, and therefore adopted.

Countless children have asked Phineas, “but how is that your dad?” It’s one of the first things that other kids need to know. I think we could all use a lesson in the complexities of genetics.

DNA has scant interest in conforming to society’s expectations.

When Phineas was five, we adopted Dari. She happens to share my husband’s skin tone. On several occasions I’ve learned she has been taken to be my biological daughter despite our vast physical differences.

me and dari

When my family of five walks across an airport or through a restaurant or meets up at the front of Target, I can feel the stares upon us. I know that everyone is trying to put together the story. It’s not even about Val as much as it is me.

Who have I been sleeping with exactly?

When my stepdad looked at my About page on this website and the family photo posted there, he advised that I remove the designations of who and where my children came from (“adopted,” “biological,” “from a previous relationship.”) He told me that he never describes me and my younger brother as his stepchildren, but just as his son and daughter.

That is a lovely gesture and it honors me. But it is enabled by my stepfather’s privilege as a white man with white children.

In the case of my multiracial children, I need to let everyone know. I need to define our story and mark it. Or else, in addition to the social progress and the beauty and the jungle fever and the confusion, I could be seen as a whore, Val as a cuckold and the children as bastards.

That’s the risk.

Rest assured that I’m helping my children navigate the issues that attend all this staring.

Dash gets used to saying, “Did you know I live with 2.5 black people?” when friends’ conversations veer racist.

Phineas figures out how to explain it with grace and humor again and again, “Yeah, that’s my Dad.”

Dari is just discovering what adoption means. She’s already heard from a kid at school, “I don’t like your dark skin.”

There is a way, at times, when no one is looking in on us, when we are nestled in our home, alone, when we are ourselves.  But when we venture out into the world, you should know: this is what interracial looks like. This is my family. These are my loves.


7 thoughts on “How to Be a Multiracial Family

Your honesty is touching. Thank you for writing about it and sharing these concerns in such a thoughtful way. Your family is beautiful, inside and out.

Thank you Molly for opening up your inner self to me and others like me. I, too, mat and married my wife Shelly, when Ashley, her daughter for her previous husband, was 8 years old. Many of the feelings that you’ve shared are not unlike those I felt. Ashley used to hate the fact that she was biracial, but we have always impressed upon her that all of us, and I mean all of us are a mixture of many ethnicities, yes even those who think they are 100% one race or the other. Ashley is now proud that she’s multiracial with Swedish, Norwegian, Native American, and African American blood running through her veins. She is so close to finishing her Ph.D. ((April) and she clearly understands her role and her mission to accept all people from all backgrounds. We are so deeply proud of her for accepting herself and growing into the beautiful, smart, talented and successful young woman that she is! And I’m even prouder that she has always reminded me that anyone can father a child, but she is so proud to call me her Dad and mean it from her heart.

Hi Molly…my cousin married a black man and have 2 amazing biracial kids (um…adults now). They married back in the early 80’s – and they received exactly the same (if not worse) – and they lived in Oakland. Talk about tough. I love how fiercely you defend your family. Maybe someday stereotypes/prejudices will subside – but in the meantime, keep fighting the fight. My son has Down syndrome, so I’m now in a similar fight to be the advocate for his future. Thanks for letting me into your life with this post. ~ Jenny

Wow, thank you for sharing this. My marriage is also interracial, and this was a great read. We don’t have children yet, so your experience was really interesting. Also, your kids are so cute!

I read about your adoption of Dari in Guideposts and was charmed by hearing how she has become part of your family. My younger sister I always like to say has done much for diversity. She has two children whose father is Asian. She has two children whose father is black. Speaking for myself I wouldn’t have it any other way though her family has had some real dysfunction. Certainly not because of their heritage however. More because of poor choices. I love ’em all despite these problems and have never harbored any bigotry one way or another and have always tried to be a support to my sis. Best wishes to the Pennington family and all multiracial families!

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