“Which box do I check?” and other multiracial family tales from the doctor’s office

Written by Rorri Geller-Mohamed, LCSW

September 7, 2019

I still don’t know the best way to fill out the racial and ethnic background questions on medical forms for my son. Maybe being in a multiracial family you have felt similar. We went recently for a first visit at a pediatric specialist (luckily not for anything serious). If you have or had young kids, then you are familiar with the first visit where you have to fill out all of the paperwork while your child is talking to you and/or asking you a million questions. This particular office was filled with wonderful toys in the waiting room so my son was pretty distracted and I could focus on filling out my forms.

So here I am starting to fill out my forms and it was probably question #3, right after name and date of birth, asking me what is your child’s race and ethnicity. I was so excited to see that it was 2 separate questions and that there was a line to fill in my answers. I was probably way too happy seeing this instead of the usual check box that my kids don’t fit into. But those feelings passed quickly as anxiety set while I’m trying to think of what to write specifically for medical purposes around my child’s identity. I definitely feel some pressure to make sure that I get this “right.”

Here’s a peek into the inner dialogue that was going through my head: Let’s start with race. Now I know I’m white and my husband is….??? I know typically when there are boxes he checks other. He is from Guyana in South America and has Indian heritage. So if there were limited checkboxes it would probably be Asian using the typical categories although he doesn’t feel that he fits into that box. This meant I could put white/other, white/asian, and/or biracial/multiracial. I put biracial although after I wished I put multiracial.

Next I move on to the ethnicity question. I’m finally like yes, I know this answer and I start to write Ashkenazi Jewish (me) and Indo-Guyanese (my husband) but then I’m having mixed feelings about my answer. This is actually a dilemma I’ve been having for a while when thinking about how to help my children verbally express their identity as they get older. By putting Jewish on the form for ethnic background makes me feel like it is denying the Muslim part of who my kids are. Do I add Muslim Indo-Guyanese for ethnic background? Then my next thought is will my kids be treated differently if I add that on? What if someone at the doctors office is Islamophobic? (Then as I sit with it another minute I think silly me though chances are whether I put it on or not a person will likely deduce that we could be Muslim since their last name is Mohamed…lol).

So for today, I decide Ashkenazi Jewish and Indo-Guyanese is what will go on the form. I laugh to myself at how much thinking went into question 3 and how we are already getting called into the office and I haven’t finished the 20-30 questions about medical history and health insurance.

But my story doesn’t end there, after our appointment as we are checking out this happens. The doctor walks back over to me and starts to say “you know I didn’t shake your hand because…” I don’t remember if I even let him finish the sentence or if I finished it but it was basically that he knows culturally many Muslim women don’t shake hands with men. Now, I’m feeling really conflicted. First, he made an assumption when he easily could have asked. Second, most American Muslim women that I know do shake hands so it then makes me think he doesn’t know anyone who is Muslim. Third, I spent all of that time thinking about how to fill out my forms and it seems like he didn’t even look at it. It felt like he saw my son’s last name and made an assumption. Fourth, how do I model the best response for my son? Then lastly, I was thinking well his intention was to be culturally sensitive and there are some women that won’t shake hands with men so maybe I’m overthinking all of this.

It was one of those moments where I felt really flustered because I’m trying to pay my co-pay, calm my son who goes between trying to climb on me and touching everything in sight, and thinking about how to respond. Here’s how I responded: “Oh I’m Jewish, we’re a multi-faith family, we’re Jewish and Muslim…” and definitely over explained and provided unneccessary details. He also expressed that he was Jewish and that gave me another reason to feel that it was my responsibility to do more to educate him on Islam. I wish I would have responded by using it as a great teaching opportunity for me to talk about Islam and culture, how he could get insight from the forms that we have to fill out, and something along the lines of asking is always appropriate before making an assumption.

Although, I wished I handled it differently, I reminded myself what I would say to a client. “Be easy on yourself” and “It’s not too late.” So taking my own advice, I took a deep breath, wasn’t hard on myself, and reminded myself that I can still contact this doctor and his office. I can still reach out and invite him into a conversation about our interaction. I can still create teachable moments. I can still make a difference for the next family that might go there to feel more welcomed.

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To out of the box identity.

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