|Photo by Kevin Miller|
This is so hard to write. I mean, who wants to start a conversation that goes, “My five-year-old daughter is racist”? But this is how deep it goes in our culture. My daughter doesn’t know how to read, but she has read the signs that tell her: Black people are marginal Others.
Of course, this conversation started right before she had to leave for preschool. She had been dressed, brushed, fed, and sunscreened. My husband’s coffee sat ready on the counter. Any moment now, he would emerge from the bathroom with clean teeth, and they would have to put on their shoes and go.
Moments before, her little brother, Ocho*, and I were reading Bear on a Bike, and Silver* came to sit with us. When we read books now, the kids point to characters in the book and say, “This is me. This is you. This is Mama. This is Daddy.” So Ocho pointed to a girl with dark brown skin and a star-shaped thatch of curly hair and said, “This is Silver.” She immediately protested. “NOOOOOOO! I don’t want to be her!”
I could ignore where this was going. I knew this moment could mean the difference between my husband getting to work on time... or not.
But then again, I couldn’t ignore where it was going. Not when I had grown up feeling acutely conscious of being the only brown girl in my class. Not when I had struggled with seeing only white girls around me at school, on television, in print, and no reflections of me or my family.
And not when I had learned the names of Martin Luther King, Jr., El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, Rosa Parks, Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and on and on to those whose names I don’t know, but whose courage not only changed my world, but made my life possible. Those who marched in the streets, faced savage dogs, fire hoses, fists, clubs, and bullets.
In moments like these, I am overwhelmed by what I know and what she doesn’t yet. Yuri Kochiyama. Cesar Chavez. Leonard Peltier. Audre Lorde. More names than I can possibly list. Loving v. Virginia. The Bluest Eye. This Bridge Called My Back. Social movement upon social movement. A lifetime of history, literature, political analysis, and lived experience of discrimination in America. Enough examples to fill a library of books on how ugly and twisted human nature can get, and the myriad ways that we, the marginalized, have fought back.
And here my daughter sits next to me: to the eye, a white girl. California tan skin, brown hair with sunny highlights. Round, brown eyes. Wherever she goes, adults coo over her, call her “princess,” and tell her how cute and adorable she is.
People mistake me for a nanny. Children look at her, look at me, and say, “You’re her mommy?”
Between what I know already and what she will learn is a gaping maw of meanness and hate that I am not willing to teach her about yet. Like any mother, I would like to spare her the fear, shame, loneliness, and self-hatred I grew up with. Mean, to her, is when a kid in her school calls her “poopy,” or when she wants to watch a video and I won’t let her.
My previous attempt to explain discrimination to her completely backfired. We were listening to Sweet Honey in the Rock’s All for Freedom. (I mean, how much more racial could I get? There’s even a version of Kumbaya on it—“Cum Bah Ya”—with African-style polyrhythms.) Her favorite track at the time was “Calypso Freedom,” which she called “Freedom is coming and it won’t be long.” “Mama, what does it mean?” she asked.
So I tried to explain segregation. I used much of the same language that Sweet Honey uses on the CD. I said that kids with dark brown skin weren’t allowed to go to the same schools as kids with light-colored skin. I tried to explain anti-miscegenation laws, red-lining, and Jim Crow in four-year-old terms. I asked her if she understood. She said yes, and added, “Mama, I don’t want to talk about this any more.” Which is how I knew I’d overwhelmed her and that she didn’t get it.
But I didn’t realize how badly I had done my job until months later when Silver said she didn’t like people with dark brown skin that she didn’t know. “Why, honey?” I asked. She answered, “Remember how you told me that people with dark brown skin aren’t trained the way that people with light skin are?”
(To be continued in Part 2.)
*Not their real names. I'm not that L.A.!