I grew up in a mostly-White suburb in central Florida. In almost every room, I was the only Black-Hispanic chocolate chip in the cookie. I wasn’t miserable or angry, nor did I feel like I was missing connections with other people of color. Frankly, I never knew any better, and it made for a pretty unremarkable childhood overall.
There were moments, though. Moments that I missed because I didn’t get how the world worked. Like the time that I was looking for a summer job and I called a local air conditioning company who was looking for a receptionist. I had this lovely conversation with the owner over the phone, and he was impressed with my credentials. He asked how soon I could come in for an interview.
“Now?” I asked breathlessly. “How about now?”
The guy agreed to speak with me if I could be there before the place closed.
I changed into my interview clothing and walked in with a hour to spare. The man took one look at me and his face shut down. He quickly turned his back on me, barely taking the time to tell me that the position had been filled. I turned on my heel and walked out to the car without a word. I was in such shock, I didn’t know how to respond otherwise.
I’ve asked myself multiple times if I was quick to judge. Sure, I could’ve just ended up on the wrong end of the fastest hiring process in the world. It could’ve been that someone was already hired. But the look of disappointment on the man’s face, and the fact that I have been told multiple times that I “sound White” on the phone, sort of outweighed that possibility.
So yes, there were a few situations as I grew that reminded me that I was an outlier. Lucky for me, I like being different, so it didn’t really bother me too much.
It didn’t, that is, until I had a little brown daughter.
My son is olive-complected, pale enough that he can “pass” to anyone willing to ignore his wider nose and high cheekbones. But my daughter is a brown-eyed, curly haired, light-brown little diva who you couldn’t mistake for White if you glued your eyes shut. The moment she was born, shit, as they say, got real. Those things that happened to me growing up could happen to her. All the things that I hear about in the news every day could happen to her.
Suddenly, I was scared. Of what, you ask? Well, for example, I’m terrified that:
1. She will fear being honest about her own discomfort.
People hate talking about race. It’s a twitchy subject. Talking about it makes people feel bad, and no one wants to be the bad guy.
So any time something is said that is uncomfortable or insensitive, we have to weigh how important it really is to talk about. If you mention that something said wasn’t right, you risk being seen as “easily offended,” as the Buzzkill. You have to worry about no longer being “cool” because you made people uncomfortable.
The guy who asks that people call him James instead of Jim is fine, but the person who asks that you don’t use the N-word “no, not even in songs, no not even if it’s just us” isn’t invited to the next hangout because it’s awkward. Remember that, folks.
In fact, she’ll often receive the heaviest guilt trips in well-meaning comments from her White friends when they praise her for being “different from other Black people” or “being one of the good ones.” And while no one ever really expands on those comments, she’ll know what they mean. Because they’ll sneer at the ones they mean, and talk down about their behaviors, until she’s terrified to be ostracized for being too much like those just like her. She may even laugh at comments she doesn’t find funny, or rub elbows with people she doesn’t like, to keep herself within her friends’ good graces. And it will take a very long time before she realizes she shouldn’t have to do it.
2. She will continually be told, in words and in deeds, that she isn’t beautiful.
Blonde hair, blue eyes, and pale skin are the standards of beauty in the US especially. It’s such a fact that we don’t even recognize it consciously anymore. Depending on the company I’m in when I mention this, I often get scoffed at and told that someone in the group prefers brunettes or that they had a huge crush on Kerri Washington once, or…I dunno…blue eyes give them nightmares. This is not the point by a long shot. The question is not whether or not you want to date these people; it is the fact that we all almost uniformly react more positively to people who fit this standard. People with curly hair, people with brown eyes, and yes, people with brown skin are taught this same lesson. We’re taught that we may be attractive, but we aren’t as worthy of admiration or positive treatment. And as you’d imagine, it messes with the head.
3. She won’t be allowed to feel angry, or to speak firmly, or to just be sitting and doing nothing.
You know that Angry Black Woman stereotype that we laugh about all the time? People out there run with it without even meaning to. Studies have shown that Black faces are more likely to be viewed as hostile, be they children or adults. I’ve experienced this myself. I still remember my husband telling me once that I needed to smile more at outings, because people were approaching him and asking him if I was angry. I wouldn’t be frowning or pouting in a corner; rather, I’d simply be standing somewhere not smiling. No one is meant to smile all the time. It’s a weird thing to expect of anyone really.
4. Her basic human rights will be considered “politics.”
Probably my biggest pet peeve is the tendency people have to wave race-talk away as politics. It isn’t. Most people actually know that it isn’t. But there are two subjects that everyone fears talking about with people they don’t know—religion and politics – and seeing how race-talk makes people uncomfortable, it’s easier to declare it one of those taboo topics in order to get you to stop talking about it.
I’ll be damned if my blood doesn’t boil imagining my daughter going through this dismissal. So I will say this in the hopes that, perhaps, this will get far enough to get people to stop it: basic human rights aren’t politics; rather, they shouldn’t be. Politics are voted on and written into bills and amendments. We’re supposed to be way past the point where racial mistreatment is anything but the concern of the individual.
And I want to believe that someday, my child won’t be crying after someone calls her a slur as she’s walking down the street, only to be told that talking about “politics” makes people uncomfortable. I want to, but at the moment that’s pretty difficult.
If you’ve made it this far, look: I do not dislike any one group of people. I think that most of us are inherently good, and that we don’t seek to actually hurt anyone. But for the sake of my daughter and anyone else who will grow to be a non-White adult in the US, look at this. Read it again if you have to. This wasn’t even an exhaustive list of the things I’ve seen; as a person who loves her some White people, I’m still pretty frustrated that I could go on for much longer about things we shouldn’t even be dealing with anymore as a country. These aren’t made up or exaggerated, and it’s all stuff we individually have direct control over correcting.
You just have to want to. So, if you’re not that Black child or their parents, please want to. I get it’s awkward, and if it helps, it’s awkward for us, too. But we’d appreciate it.
My daughter thanks you in advance. And so do I.