‘How will this be for my daughter?’ Advice for raising biracial kids, and preserving heritage, in Vermont
Sweeney Grabin is Indian. Her husband, David, is Jewish. Sweeney wants to know how to maintain her family’s cultures for her 2-year-old daughter, Maya, while living in such a white state.
Brave Little State is Vermont Public’s listener-driven journalism show. In each episode, we answer a question about Vermont that’s been asked — and voted on — by you, our audience. Today, a question from Sweeney Grabin, of South Burlington:
“How do we maintain our heritage raising a mixed-race baby in a predominantly white state?”
Brave Little State alum Myra Flynn turns to old friends and her own experiences to answer Sweeney’s question.
Note: Our show is made for the ear. We recommend listening to the audio provided here. But we also provide a written version of the episode below.
Josh Crane: From Vermont Public, this is Brave Little State. I’m Josh Crane.
Myra Flynn: And I’m Myra Flynn.
Sweeney Grabin: Hi, welcome.
Myra Flynn: Hi!
Sweeney Grabin: Come on in. So nice to meet you.
Myra Flynn: Hello! You as well. I’m Myra.
Sweeney Grabin: Myra. Can you say “Hi Myra”?
Myra Flynn: Who is this? Oh, hello. Did you just get up from a nap?
Sweeney Grabin: She did.
Myra Flynn: Aw.
Sweeney Grabin: She was practicing. She was like, “Hi, Myra.” (laughter)
Myra Flynn: This is Sweeney Grabin. And today, she’s let me into her home in South Burlington to hang with her and her 2-year-old daughter, Maya.
Sweeney Grabin: Yeah, welcome. This is, you know, our humble abode.
Myra Flynn: It’s beautiful.
Sweeney Grabin: This is the playroom, which is where the magic happens for Maya.
Maya Grabin: (Talking)
Myra Flynn: A giraffe?
Myra Flynn: Sweeney grew up in New York City. And she and her family lived in Portland, Oregon recently, before moving to Vermont a little over a year ago.
Sweeney Grabin: I feel like I've kind of gone from like big city to like smaller city to small town. So it's been quite an adjustment for me.
Myra Flynn: I actually met Sweeney once before. It was back in the summer of 2022 — right after she moved to Vermont. I’d just reported an episode of Brave Little State about how people who moved to Vermont during the pandemic were doing.
And then we threw a party for Vermont newcomers, just in case — ya know — anyone was feeling in need of a little friendship and connection. We called it a “New Vermonter Mixer.” Sweeney was there, along with her husband, David, and her little girl, Maya. At the time, they were looking for exactly the connection we were offering. Except — for Sweeney, the whole thing still felt a little lonely.
Sweeney Grabin: Even while I was at the mixer I just kind of felt out of place. Not because anybody was making me feel out of place, but because I think I had these experiences that I didn't realize were so unique in a way, right? Like, growing up in New York City, it's this whatever you want to call it: mixing bowl, melting pot. And then being in Vermont, I was just like, “Whoa.” Like, you can just pick out all the people that are not white.
Myra Flynn: For context, Sweeney is Indian with roots in Punjab. And, she is first-generation American. Her husband, David, is Jewish and white, and their daughter, Maya, is a super cute result of this love.
And so when our team went around at the mixer, asking people what questions they had about Vermont, all of this was top of mind.
Sweeney Grabin: OK. How do we maintain our heritage raising a mixed race baby in a predominantly white state?
Myra Flynn: It’s a phenomenally nuanced question: How do you maintain your heritage raising a mixed race baby in a place like Vermont? Also, “race,” “heritage” — what do these words really mean? We’ll explore that more deeply in short order. But for now, you can already hear how interconnected they are in Sweeney’s curiosity — a curiosity born out of love and concern for her daughter, Maya.
Sweeney Grabin: I don't know if you can relate to this, Myra, being a mom. But often I view things from the lens of like, “How will this be for my daughter?” And, “Is she going to have these feelings that I'm having?” And she's not obviously Indian, like I am, right, being mixed race. I don't think she looks white, necessarily, but I don't think she looks Indian. It's ambiguous. And I wonder how she'll identify in those spaces. I never want her to feel uncomfortable in her own skin.
Myra Flynn: But Sweeney doesn't want comfort to come at the expense of her culture, either.
Sweeney Grabin: I'm just in this place right now that I'm just trying to figure out how to keep my identity and pass it on to my daughter and make her feel like really rooted. Yes, I'm Indian. Yes, I'm Jewish. Yes, I'm American. I'm all of those things. I'm not half or a third of anything, you know?
Myra Flynn: Sweeney ended up in Vermont because of a reason many of us love it here: the nature. Her husband, David, went to a summer camp in Vermont as a kid. And when it came time to decide on an idyllic place to live, Vermont made the cut. And while both agree that it is indeed a beautiful place to live, in this very white state, David and Sweeney are not exactly having the same experience.
Myra Flynn: Do you worry about Maya at all in the same ways that Sweeney does?
David Grabin: I do. You know, my family also immigrated here but, you know, much further back than Sweeney's. And I think we've kind of like accepted assimilation. You know, I almost see it just as inevitable. To me, Judaism is more of, like, a cultural thing than religious.
I think for Sweeney, when we first moved here, I feel like we were more on the same page. But now that Maya is getting older, our priorities have changed. And it's become more important to us to hold on to our culture. I do wonder what it will be like for her growing up you know, looking different and coming from a different background, what that will be like.
I guess I'm not as worried about it, honestly. I think if she identifies as a Vermonter, you know, that's, that's great. I think she'll still recognize that she's a little different. But if she assimilates more, I think I'm more OK with it than Sweeney, potentially. I don't want to speak for her, but I'm OK with it, I should say.
Sweeney Grabin: Yeah, well, we've had this conversation — sorry to jump in — which is part of what I mentioned before, when I said it was a challenging conversation. Because when you say that to me, that you're OK with it, I just fight back so hard to that. Why, right?
I mean, yes, to a degree, assimilation is inevitable, and I don't — I would just say integration of all of her identities, right? Being American and—
Maya Grabin: I don’t like this one.
Sweeney Grabin: (Laughter) You don’t like the papaya?
David Grabin: I really feel like what you grew up with is so unique to be in a situation where, I mean, you could really, like, go all day speaking Hindi, or even Punjabi, and you go about your life that way. But, I really would like to live in a place that's more rural and small-town, closer to nature. And there's kind of a trade off, you know, it's— to live with that much diversity, you pretty much have to be in one of a few major metropolitan areas.
Maya Grabin: (Talking)
Sweeney Grabin: I'm concerned how that will impact her. You know, my husband and I have these conversations like, “It's wonderful here. It's beautiful, the access to nature's unparalleled, the education is great.” But I ask him, you know, “Is that enough if she feels really out of place? Will she?”
We’re in the midst of this conversation, clearly. (laughs)
Sweeney and Maya
Myra Flynn: Full disclosure — I was kinda hoping Sweeney’s question would win our voting round because, as you’ll hear more about later, I myself am a biracial person who grew up in Vermont, longing for more access to my heritage. It felt like Sweeney was asking this for me.
And it’s a complex question. Because for some of us, race and heritage? Those don’t occupy the same space.
Race is a human-invented classification system used to define physical differences or similarities between people — and for the most part, it does. But, as you can hear in Sweeney’s case, race isn’t exactly that neat in reality, and people throughout history have used race to hurt and oppress others.
The word heritage implies inheritance. It could be something that belongs to you simply by being born, or something that is handed down from the past — like that yummy food your grandmother taught you how to cook, or the candles you light at Kwanzaa.
There are other words that make the identity vocabulary list like culture, or multi-cultured, ethnicity, or one of my favorite obtuse phrases I’ve heard used: “Your background.”
We could be here all day. But the point is — especially in 2023 — these words can no longer be assumed to live together. I can look Black and have my traditions passed down from a white Polish grandparent. I can present white and have ethnic roots in Asia.
I brought some of this up to Sweeney in hopes of understanding her question a bit better.
Myra Flynn: How much does race come into play with this for you, with your question? And I mean, it sounds like essentially heritage really matters.
Sweeney Grabin: A question on maintaining heritage — I feel like I wouldn't ask that question or I wouldn't feel so strongly about it if I lived in New York City, where you go to a grocery store, you go to the library, you walk down the street and you see other people that look like you. It is coming up much more frequently for me in Vermont, and you know, sometimes I do get looks, which I've been trying to parse through — Is that just because I look different? I don't know that it's race motivated, I don't really know the answer. I can't just stop somebody and be like, “Why are you staring at me?” (laughter)
Myra Flynn: So for Sweeney, race and heritage feel really linked, at least since moving to Vermont. And this brings me to an important point of clarification in response to her original question: When it comes to your heritage, what are you working to maintain?
A reminder that Sweeney grew up in New York City — a stark contrast in diversity to Vermont, which is more than 90% white.
Sweeney Grabin: So I grew up in what I would call “Little India” in my household, and outside of it, it wasn't, but in my house, I very much felt like I was growing up in India. So I grew up in a household where Punjabi was my first language, actually. And then I would watch Hindi shows. And my mom was a stay at home mom for the first 10 years of our life.
I had two different lives, in a sense: my American life at school, and then my very Indian life at home, where I listened to Indian music and I watched Indian shows. I didn't even know what the Backstreet Boys was (laughter).
Myra Flynn: You’re not missing much.
Myra Flynn: So, there you have it: Sweeney went from growing up in, quote, “Little India” to raising her daughter in the second whitest state in the union. I mean, that has got to be a shock to the system. In fact, Indian people represent just .35% of the Vermont population, according to census data. The majority of that population lives right where Sweeney lives, in Chittenden County. But still, as Sweeney points out, there isn’t even a Hindu temple nearby.
Sweeney Grabin: You know, there isn't even a mandir here. I'm not religious, but for some reason that really hit home with me that there isn't a place for us.
Myra Flynn: Before I met with Sweeney, she emailed me letting me know what she does do to keep some of her more sacred Indian traditions alive and well in her home. She told me that she makes sure there are inclusive books available at home, and that she cooks traditional food — sometimes traveling all the way to Montreal for spices.
And there’s no mistaking who those efforts are for in real time:
Sweeney Grabin: Should we go over, Maya? Do you want to go grind some spices in the mortar and pestle?
Maya Grabin: Pestle.
Sweeney Grabin: Yeah, let's go. She can grind some chai spices with us.
Myra Flynn: But in Sweeney’s email, there was this line that blew the lens of this question open even wider for me. She said, “In the process of figuring out what would make my daughter feel at home in her skin, sometimes I wonder, is it really more about me?”
Sweeney Grabin: I think for my daughter, it would help her to see her mother being really rooted in who she is, and feeling like she does have a place with her heritage and her culture, and it's understood. And I think she'll just be confused if I don’t pass that on to her. I think she'll get that message from somewhere else, right, if she doesn't get it from me, and I think I would prefer to be the one giving voice to it and helping her understand that part of her identity, rather than her receiving it elsewhere.
Mariana Lamaison Sears: It is a lot about you.
Myra Flynn: This is Mariana Lamaison Sears, of Essex Junction. She’s originally from Argentina, and by originally I mean her heritage, racial makeup and ethnic background. She and her family have all returned to Vermont semi-recently after a five-year stint back in Argentina.
Mariana Lamaison Sears: And because when you take care of yourself, and you follow your heart, that reflects, that illuminates, so you don't have to explain things, you just live them. And they see a mom excited, they see a mom happy, they see a mom enthusiastic about something, and they just gravitate around that. And they dance around that, and they love it. And they do appreciate it.
Myra Flynn: Mariana and I actually used to work together as reporters at the Burlington Free Press. That was a long time ago. And I wanted to get her help answering Sweeney’s question. I love chatting with fellow journalists. We tend to give you the same things we ask you for: our hearts and, on a good day, our expertise.
And I’ll tell you one thing Mariana is a total expert in: her family. She and her husband have four kids and are having a multicultural experience of their own. Her husband is not Argentinian.
Myra Flynn: And is your husband either culturally or ethnically or racially considered white, Caucasian, Anglo-Saxon or something else?
Mariana Lamaison Sears: I think he considers himself Anglo-white. Yeah. I call him gringo.
Myra Flynn: What a pet name.
Mariana Lamaison Sears: With all my love.
Myra Flynn: So, your children then — do they sense, like, the two cultural worlds that they come from?
Mariana Lamaison Sears: Oh, yes, they totally do. They make fun of each other. Because we both speak both languages. I speak English and my husband speaks Spanish. So the kids make fun of all of us when we make mistakes, and, you know, they can navigate both worlds. Like if they are native to both — and they are, in a way — they feel very interested in both cultural aspects.
Myra Flynn: Was it the same in Argentina?
Mariana Lamaison Sears: Yes. They're the same. Yes, they were. They were called yankees. And they were like, “What? What does that even mean? I'm not from New York.” You
(Dinner sounds, overlapping speaking)
Myra Flynn: This on-purpose chaos you’re hearing is at Mariana’s home. I’ve been invited to dinner. Because one of the ways Mariana and her family keep their Argentinian heritage alive has been what she calls “Friday Dinners” with her friends from Uruguay. She says that Uruguyans are regional siblings to Argentinians, as they both relate to El Río de la Plata — a river that forms part of the border between the two countries. She calls these dinners a real culture grounder for her family and her friends, Ursula Gerogeoglou and Juan Pablo Alven.
Juan Pablo Alven: Yeah, we all gather since the pandemic, you know. They were living across the street from us. And now they live a few blocks away, but every Friday, we establish a tradition to have dinner together.
Mariana Lamaison Sears: Yeah, we named it. We kind of gave a name to this space, accidentally, but it just now is like Friday Dinner night.
Ursula Gerogeoglou: Yes, it’s something nice to look forward to at the end of the week.
Mariana Lamaison Sears: Yeah, it’s true. We all look forward to this moment on Fridays.
Myra Flynn: I brought up Sweeney’s question to the group, and, in addition to joining for Friday Dinners, everyone has a different ingredient to throw into the stew of heritage maintenance.
There are the non-negotiables, like language:
Ursula Gerogeoglou: It was very important to have a playgroup in Spanish. Where we used to read books in Spanish and tell stories.
Myra Flynn: There are the adjustments you sometimes have to make:
Ursula Gerogeoglou: For example, the salutation in Latin America. It's much more warmer, physically. Yeah. A hug and a kiss. Here it’s like, “Hi.”
Juan Pablo Alven: A little bit of formality and distance here.
Myra Flynn: And, there are priorities. Like sometimes, you gotta get out of Vermont. This is something Mariana mentioned during our one-on-one interview.
Mariana Lamaison Sears: We try to travel, try to visit as much as possible. You really have to put intention around that because as the kids grow, you can’t just drag them around, like when they are two and you say, “OK, we're gonna go visit grandma, and we're gonna take an 11-hour plane ride.” When they are two you may get away with it, with a pacifier or— but when they are teenagers, they really need to love what the, what they are going to engage with. And that is something that you bring them about just by sharing your passion.
Básicamente, lo que dije es que me parece que lo más importante para preservar tu acervo cultural es que tú sigas tu corazón.
(Translating) Basically, everything else will come in place once you do that. All the support that you need, all the structures, all the, you know, material things — anything will come in place naturally, if you do that. If you follow your heart.
Myra Flynn: I mentioned earlier in the episode that this question Sweeney asked Brave Little State — about how to maintain your heritage with a mixed race baby in a state like Vermont — it speaks to me personally, because I am biracial, and was raised in Vermont, and I have a daughter who I guess is also biracial because my husband is biracial. So, we’ve really doubled down on the rainbow coalition in my household.
But one new thing Sweeney’s question really brought up for me is the idea that heritage and race could be synonymous. What a lovely idea. Sweeney is first generation American, so her heritage and culture and the knowing of where she’s from is close enough for her to touch. It’s just a parent away.
But this hasn’t always been the case for me, and I wonder sometimes if that’s because my heritage, as a Black woman, has been systematically erased. And what’s been left of it — though recently celebrated more and more — Black Americans have been taught is a wound. A shame. I mean, there are massive movements right now to have to Black heritage and history erased from schools.
So, how do you maintain something you’ve never been taught to own? I brought this conundrum to Sweeney.
Sweeney Grabin: You know, this is the first time I've even thought about it differently, to be honest with you. It makes me want to cry.
Myra Flynn: You can cry.
Sweeney Grabin: I'm sorry. That's awful.
Myra Flynn: It was such a great question for me personally, like, a healing one for that reason, to just want to listen to, like, people who have a very, a heritage that's very sacred to them and could be synonymous with race.
Myra Flynn: And then there’s just the ever-fickle social construct of race. Which, as a Black American, feels more like an inevitable thing to own than heritage. Because it has a lot to do with the way you look, and more often than not, can’t escape. All the biracial folks in my family, including me — we ain’t passing for white, you feel me?
Add on top of contending with race, being biracial: a term I’ve bucked for years and basically sugared down to a technicality, because let’s be honest, who’s splitting hairs with my bloodline at the airport or grocery store?
I sometimes wonder if Black Americans, whose background, migration journey and experience has so little in common with other Americans, or, frankly, Africans — I wonder if we should be deemed our own independent ethnicity, instead of forever snuggling us up to whiteness and halving, quartering or one-dropping our proximity to it.
Mateo Baker: I will say, I don't know if I necessarily, like, identify as, like, biracial, even. Just because, I mean, you know my mom, she's definitely like a mix.
Myra Flynn: This is Mateo Baker. He lives in Burlington. And though I don’t totally recognize this grown man I’m speaking with on Zoom, I do remember when he was in his mama’s belly. His mom and I went to college together. Also a long time ago.
Mateo’s family is racial, ethnic and multicultural goals.
Mateo Baker: She's mixed with white, Black, Mexican and Native American. It's interesting because my dad is African. He’s from Benin. My stepmom is APIDA. My brother, my stepbrother, is white.
Myra Flynn: Mateo — or Tay, as his family lovingly calls him — is currently growing up in Vermont. He’s 16 now. An age where your friend group might be formed, freedom to choose where you want to live is close on the horizon, and your identity — who you are and how you walk in this world — can often be top of mind.
I asked Tay how he’s been navigating all of these things at once in a state like Vermont.
Spoiler alert, or maybe good news for Sweeney — Tay says who he is, is who he’s been raised to be. It starts with mom, and grows from there.
Mateo Baker: Like, I remember for my hair, my mom would always go to like, go to like the hair store. And we’d just pick out products and see what worked for me. I have a very wide mix of curls in my head. My mom always used to make sure that, like, we talked about it. And I'd say definitely the books I read when I was younger, the music I listened to — children are influenced by their parents’ culture, by how their parents are.
Myra Flynn: What are some of the things that you love about growing up in Vermont? Because I, you know, I'm somebody who longs for a lot of things, but I’m still really grateful for being raised there. Are there some things that feel good to you?
Mateo Baker: Well personally, I love creemees. I love a good maple creemee, I feel like you can't get a creemee outside of Vermont. It's softserve, it's not a creemee. It's not. I love maple syrup from Vermont. And I feel like I definitely bring that with me wherever I go. I'm, like, bringing a big jug of maple syrup.
And I don't know — I also like the community. Like, my friend group is, like, all BIPOC kids, and I'm really appreciative for that. As I still am growing up in this moment, I'm very grateful to kind of have like, that affinity space with them
I'm going into college soon. And yeah, I would love to see people, more people, that look like me. But at the end of the day, I'm still, like, grateful for the connections and I still, you know, look for people that look like me here.
Turning the mic around
Myra Flynn: Sweeney, at this point, we’ve talked to some people. We’ve heard about how they dinner, travel, community and family. But you also asked me about my experience and what I’ve done to make Vermont work for me.
Sweeney Grabin: I just don't want her to feel like she's not enough in any of those spaces. I wonder if you feel that way. When people ask you that question?
Myra Flynn: I have. But I got older and I know exactly who I am.
Sweeney Grabin: That’s beautiful.
Myra Flynn: And exactly how I identify, and she will too. You know? But at this age, and when you're a mom, I have the same feelings about my daughter.
Myra Flynn: So, Sweeney, I’m talking to you now. It’s time. Since you’ve asked, I’ll take a crack at answering your question from my life experience and point of view.
How do you maintain your heritage raising a mixed race baby in a predominantly white state?
A couple thoughts come to mind. One is: Some days you don’t. Some days, you just human the very best you can. You mother the very best you can. And you take some time off from the anxious action and activism a place like Vermont can often force us into, even in our own homes.
Your heritage? Isn’t going anywhere. This is who you are. You couldn’t truly lose it if you tried. And there will be inherent wisdom for Maya simply in the way that you smell. The way you laugh. Things you can’t totally control, because you are already teaching her about who she is by being you.
And yes, Sweeney. To answer the question in your email? This is about you. That’s why you also have to take good care of you. If you were in India, or New York, or if I’m honest with you — where I’ve chosen to live half the year, Los Angeles — who would you be? What would you talk about? What would you worry about? I mean, here in LA, for me? Self-preservation is not always top of mind.
And this freedom of it all is a choice I’ve made at the expense of a lot of things I truly love and miss about Vermont. My friends and I? We don’t usually talk about race, we don’t constantly cook one another’s soul food, we don’t fight to be seen and heard all the time.
Can you bring that ease, that inherent right to just be joyous, interesting, intelligent, quirky and a compassionate person first — can you bring that to Vermont?
Can it follow you here from New York or Little India? And even if your race is not represented, can your heritage somehow find a home? Also: Not that you have to, but can you, with ease, be the change you want to see?
And a final thought of mine is, the more time I spend with your question — I think what you’re asking is what most first time moms wanna know with a 2 year old, which is: Am I doing the right things? Am I dropping the ball anywhere? Will I ever really be able to give her everything she needs?
Sweeney, Maya is just so lucky. She’s two, and despite the challenges Vermont presents, you are already wrangling her ancestors for her. What a fantastic gift! And I’m gonna tell you something I wish someone told me with a 2 year old, no matter where I was, no what the worry was, or what we were grappling with as a family: You’re doing an awesome job, mama. Maya has everything she needs.
And I don’t have to tell you that. Just ask her. I know I did.
Myra Flynn: Should we ask Maya? Maya? Are you Indian?
Maya Grabin: Yes.
Myra Flynn: Are you Jewish?
Maya Grabin: Yes.
Myra Flynn: What else are you?
Maya Grabin: I’m American too! (big laugh)
Myra Flynn: You are! I think your question is answered.
Sweeney Grabin: That’s beautiful. (laughter)
Thanks to Sweeney Grabin for the great question. This episode was reported by Myra Flynn. The Brave Little State team is Josh Crane and Sabine Poux. Additional support from Sophie Stephens. Angela Evancie is Brave Little State’s Executive Producer. Our theme music is by Ty Gibbons; other music by Blue Dot Sessions, Jay Green and Myra Flynn.
Special thanks to: Erin Baker, Corey Dockser and Marlon Hyde.
Check out Myra’s show, Homegoings, for more deep dives on race and identity.
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