“Race must matter and does matter,” lawyer Sheena Scott said passionatelyon behalf of the African Canadian Legal Clinic, the Association of BlackSocial Workers and the Jamaican Canadian Association.

These anti-racism groupswere granted intervener status when the Supreme Court of Canada recently heard the child custody case involving four-year-old Elijah Van de Perre, whose mother is white and father is black.

The decision that was eventually handed down awards sole custody to the mother. It steered clear of the explosive debateon race and parenting and was pretty much void of any thoughtful airing ofthe complex issues facing mixed-race children.

But race, though not necessarily the only factor when deciding who is the most appropriate custodial parent, must not be minimized as a significant factor in a child’s life. At the very least, race should have been a consideration in Elijah’s — and all other — child custody hearings.

I am white, with a seven-year-old son, who is black. Before his birth, I researched the experiences of biracial children and found through mostly anecdotal evidence that race or more accurately racism played a significant factor in developing their self-esteem. But I also found that biracial children could thrive and be highly successful in an environment thatdoesn’ t merely tolerate but celebrates diversity.

Years ago, the adoption process gave little thought to race when placing children. The theory was that any home was good enough, especially for hard-to-place children. Consequently, white families adopted children of colour, many unconsciously turning a blind eye to the cultural identity of their new family member.

But, according to the National Association of Educators of Young Children in Washington (www.familyculture.com), the question of identityand the need of belonging will always be an issue for these children. This identity confusion can cause self-loathing and loneliness, underachievement and depression and an increased vulnerability to abuse, violence and bullying.

The end of the twentieth century saw two-million biracial children beenborn in the United States, and Canada’s statistics, though not as easily defined, are moving in the same direction. Developing a strategy is imperative for multi-racial families to help their children hold on to a positive sense of identity.

Nurture Strong Cultural Links

Belonging to clubs and organizations supporting black communities; encouraging children to develop an extensive family tree to help themlearn about their background and the blending all families experience;encouraging friendships with other black and mixed-heritage children and theirfamilies. Broaden their understanding of family and community beyond the “typical.”

Expose the Children to Black Culture

Read books with and about black people; listen to a variety ofmusic; watch movies and shows about black people’s lives; attend cultural events that celebrate the history of Caribbean or African people; teach him and her about their roots. The Centre for the Study of Biracial Children in the U.S. (www.csbs.cncfamily.com) has found that, as early as age two, children look to their peers and family for validation trying to find out how they fit in the world.

Teach About Racism and the Consequences of Discrimination

Help build their consciousness (and your own) of racism in all its forms,and about the historical struggle to achieve black freedom; support anti-racism coalitions; educate them about racism in the media, in the justice system, in schools and within the workplace; help them to understand the context of racist remarks and acts directed their way so they can avoid internalizing the hatred.

“Shari” — a 16-year-old grade ten student — found the strength to cope with the insensitive and racist comments about her mixed heritage with the support of her family and teachers, who were open to discussing her feelings and concerns.

“My parents have talked to me about this stuffsince I was very little, so I knew where the prejudice was coming from so their ignorance didn’t become part of me.”

Expose the Child to Positive Black Role Models

Make an effort to overcome the racist portrayal of black people in the media; note the achievements of biracial people like Tiger Woods or Mariah Carey; choose the schools they attend and teams they join mindfully; seek out the heroes in your own community. Encourage children to articulate in their own words their racial identity. My son Haille loves to say he is “black and proud,” but someday he may identify himself in a different fashion. I must be willing to accept his self-identification.

Encourage Self-Love

Long before they are exposed to peer pressure, children should be taught to love their curly or nappy hair, their beautiful skin colour, their fabulous features and all of the unique and distinctive characteristics of black people. Construct individual coping strategies to deal with racism so they can develop the skills and inner strength to be different in a xenophobic world.

Of course, these are not the only strategies that families can use to help build the self-esteem of their black or mixed-race children. Ultimately,the support of biracial children must begin with one’s own level ofunderstanding and comfort with their uniqueness. Hopefully, this will help build on the thoughtful and sensitive understanding of the complicated challenges facing all the Elijahs and Hailles of the world.