This is really not articulating the full breadth of my feelings on this issue. Not even close. And probably not as well-connected or easy to follow as I wish. I’m just going to put it out there and hope someone gives me the benefit of the doubt that my intentions are good and my fear and hurt about this are real and that I am trying to do something good with it all.
Background: I am white. I spent several years of my childhood being the only white kid in my neighborhood. In Kindergarten, I was walked to the school door by the crossing guard because otherwise the black kids chased me and pulled my hair and hit me because I “didn’t belong there”. We moved, and although the demographics of my school changed, the makeup of my little area of town was still predominantly black. I was thankfully accepted there and I know this is largely the result of quickly making friends with the tallest (and wisest) black girl there… by way of having the same bicycle and her thinking I stole it. Thankfully, her bicycle was quickly within view and the crisis averted. She sheltered me from a lot of nastiness. Having come from experiencing that nastiness first-hand, I remain grateful 35 years later for her ushering me into being accepted in that community.
My mother was engaged to a black man that was respected in our neighborhood. Not long after they had my middle little brother, a black man in his late teens broke into our house and raped my mother while we slept upstairs. He was identified by voice lineup but was not convicted, presumably because my mother–a single white woman living with her three kids in a predominantly black area and engaged to a black man–was deemed unreliable and promiscuous. She ran a mortgage company and owned our house in that neighborhood without a college degree. He was later convicted as a serial rapist (having beaten and repeatedly raped one of his victims) and (separately) of reckless manslaughter. But her reliability was questionable because she lived in and with black people.
Still, I am privileged by sheer virtue of my skin color and I am keenly aware of it. I have watched my brother of mixed race (but certainly identifiable as “black” and who claimed to identify more as black) struggle to fit into either race. The suspicion of the white race on behalf of the black race is something most non-black people cannot comprehend or understand. I came into the community as a child–before most of us were tainted by the world; but when I left and moved to a different community (still a child, but older)–I was looked at funny for even attempting to befriend the black kids. By both the whites and the blacks. It was the culture I knew, but they didn’t know I came from that and they didn’t trust me.
That suspicion runs deep enough that even my brother of mixed race had a hard time feeling fully accepted. It was as if that blood running through his veins alone was enough to make him a potential enemy–to both races. My brother is no longer with us; and I am glad he is out of that pain of never feeling accepted anywhere.
But I see that pain already in my very young daughter–a beautiful, caramel-skinned Latina planted in a lily white family complete with the relative wealth, privilege, food customs, mannerisms, mindsets and access that come with being white although she will be the first one to tell you that she is “brown” and is keenly aware of “brown people”. She is excited when we are in and among other “brown people” or she makes “brown” friends. She wants to be where she is not alone and different. I will never forget the day she had enough words to articulate this point–around the age of 2 or 3.
Her: “Mommy, I am brown.”
Me: “Yes, you are.”
Her: “But you are not brown.”
Me: “Well, in the summer, the sun makes my skin brown like yours,”
Her: (wrinkling her brow in annoyance) “But you are not brown,:
Me: “No, love. I am not brown.”
Her: “And papa is not brown.”
Me: “Papa is darker than you in the summer time.”
Her: (losing patience with me) “He is NOT brown.”
Me: “No, he is not.”
Her: “And BigGuy is not brown.”
Me: “No, he is not”
Her: “But I am brown.”
Me: “Yes, you are.”
That was an incredibly hard conversation to have. To know that she–so young–so clearly saw herself as “different” from her family. The following year we were at a community pool and there were some very dark-skinned black kids there. She asked me “Mommy, am I brown like them?”
Can you grasp the enormity of her question? Her seeking of identity? At the age of four?? Clearly she could look at her skin and know that she was not the same color as they were. She was asking a much deeper question about her place in the world. At four.
Her future terrifies me when I stop to think about it long enough to get the better of me. Where will she fit in the world? Will it bother her not to fit like it did my brother (whose life ended in suicide)? Will she actually be afforded the opportunities our son will have despite her skin color? Because I don’t think she will.
And what WILL the Hispanic community make of her? Will they see her as a traitor because of the privilege she is raised in–blind to the rejection she may face there (much like my brother)? It won’t be enough to speak the language and have had her ears pierced since infancy. There are core things she will grow up without–mindsets and traditions that we couldn’t possibly replicate. Obviously these won’t be the experiences of all Hispanics; but it will be the great majority. Much the same as my brother experienced. And the Hispanic community harbors similar suspicion for whites and what their motives might be to want to be involved with their community. It doesn’t feel as strong; but we don’t have the same history of oppression with the Hispanic community, either. What sickens me most (most? I don’t know what sickens me most–the whole thing is horrifying) is that in the grand scheme of things, her being Hispanic is likely to threaten her future slightly less than if she were black.
It still makes me wonder if some white boy will find her skin color to mean that she is insignificant enough for him to rape her without recourse? Because that happens. The same way black boys are shot dead with no recourse. Way more often than white people are willing to acknowledge or face. But it’s a very real fear I have for her. Every time someone asks me where she is from or she is a bit too far from me–doing nothing more than laughing–and someone is nervously looking around for her parents. Once, someone asked if they should call the police because they didn’t see “that little girl’s mother” anywhere in the park. I looked around for the little girl they must be referring to and the conversation among the other mothers progressed to wondering what would possess a parent to just abandon a small child in a park and how even if they had to work, they just need to realize it’s America and they can’t just leave a small child on their own in a park and I wonder if she even speaks English. That’s when I realized they were talking about my daughter–the only non-white kid in the playground. Finally I asked what child they were talking about just to be certain. “That little Spanish girl.”
The sweeping assumption that all Hispanics are here illegally doing jobs off the books–usually with the sentiment of anger because they are “stealing American jobs” is overwhelming. For one thing: the ones that ARE here illegally are usually living in horrifying conditions that put their lives in danger. Second, they are doing jobs that business owners often cannot get Americans to do. Don’t misconstrue my statements as defense of breaking the law. I am simply pointing out the misconceptions that exist among the privileged classes that come with hatred and anger that is often directed at a race instead of an individual. A race that applies to my daughter just as it did my brother. Minorities are not generally seen as individuals unless and until they become celebrities in a positive manner. And then they are exceptions–not examples–of their race.
Admittedly, the fear I hold for my daughter is not like the fear we all held for my brother–who was raised with privilege instead of fear of the white community and therefore a loose mouth that could have gotten him killed in the wrong situation if he had not taken that matter into his own hands first. My daughter’s upbringing will be different. By design.
I think one of the biggest challenges we face is finding the role models for my daughter. Where are the Hispanics that hold jobs like my husband and I–gathered in any significant numbers and willing to accept us and our friendship–if only by way of my daughter? Where she might be among them, absorbing the image of people of color who do jobs like her family or who choose to have a parent home with the kids; and hear them talk about how they handle the perspective of the dominant culture? Because she will see lots of white people like that in her life. Friends and family and images in the media. Now that we are in the Midwest, life got a lot whiter and it’s almost made me want to run back to the coast if only to immerse ourselves in an environment of diversity that makes her feel less isolated and where I can find people of color in greater concentrations doing things my own family does.
I don’t know how to do this for her. I don’t know how to be the best mother for her. I don’t know how to let go of my fears for what will happen to her. So I shove them aside best I can and let them surface when those little opportunities arise to educate her about the world in a true, but child-appropriate way that prepares her for the worldview others will place on her. Because she is clearly ready to understand it if she is seeking to assimilate her “brown-ness” to a larger community outside of her home.
And I know that this is a fraction of what black people in this country feel at all times, every day. I know that I have the privilege of these thoughts being able to be shoved aside at all, ever. I can’t imagine those thoughts being a constant every day of your life. I won’t pretend I could. It’s just demeaning to think I could identify with that.
It’s a scary intersection to be at: a family of privilege facing minority challenges. And when that minority is your child, you suddenly become far more aware of the racial inconsistencies of your nation–and the adamant refusal that they exist among your race.
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