Several years ago, my then 5-year-old daughter, Kristil, and I got lost while on vacation in South Florida. After getting on our 3rd bus in an unfamiliar area, I looked around, taking note of the other passengers. I put my arm around Kristil and whispered, “We’re the only white people on the bus.” Kristil looked around and responded, “No, mommy, you’re the only white person on the bus.”
You see, I didn’t see my daughter in color, I saw her as my child, and just the same as me — her white mother. I’d thought back on this story over the years, feeling a sense of pride that I had reached some level within myself that allowed me to see her not through the lens of color, but as an individual — proof that I was not only a good parent, but also not a racist.
As a single mom, I was focused on many things — keeping us afloat financially, supporting my daughter in her academic and extra-curricular pursuits, and being a loving parent. Her color simply wasn’t a focal point.
As years went on, however, I was forced to recognize, that the world did not see my daughter as I did — they saw her as a person of color. Well-meaning people frequently asked Kristil where she was from and if I was her adopted mother. These questions I could tolerate. Other incidents, however, were painful to comprehend and impossible to accept: when Kristil was just 6 and climbing her way to the top of the jungle gym and a little boy called down to her, “No brown kids are allowed up here”; in middle school, when she was harassed by black girls for not acting black enough while simultaneously being insulted by white boys for her African American features; when she was on the high school Forensics team, travelling to compete and was the only student of 4 whose seat was booked separately at the back of the plane; when she was the top competitor on the national debate team, but the only student not mentioned when the school news article came out; and when she came home from college for summer break and was followed by security through our local Sephora store while we shopped. I confronted these situations the best way I knew how — I called parents, wrote letters, confronted students, forced my way into school meetings demanding the suspension of bullies, and made complaints to store personnel. These transgressions enraged me — they were unfair and hurtful to my child. I was not willing to accept the world’s sickness onto my beautiful daughter.
In the United States and around the world, there is a common misconception that to claim we are “color-blind” is to prove our standing as non-racist. But what are we really saying?
We are saying there is a part of an individual’s identity that should not be talked about. We are saying we don’t see color because there is something wrong with seeing color. We are saying that in order to be accepted, they must assimilate into the dominate white culture. Whether we intend to do this or not, this is the clear message we are sending. And there are consequences to this message.
When we deny the identity of our children, we negatively affect their well-being. Studies show that identity denial is associated with psychological problems including anxiety and depression. When children feel they are not acknowledged or accepted, it creates feelings of hopelessness, low self-esteem, and social isolation. Studies also show, that when we do the opposite — when we recognize the full identity of our children, seek to understand their experiences — including being a person of color in the world — they have higher levels of self-esteem, happiness, motivation, and social connectivity.
How can we affirm our children’s racial identity?
- Listen to our children when they talk about their experience in the world and respond with support.
- Focus on the beauty and richness of our children’s racial identity and carefully curate the messages we allow into our homes — through our televisions, music, and literature.
- Stop pretending racism doesn’t exist, but instead educate our children and ourselves on the best ways to respond.
- Acknowledge that to be non-racist is not enough; we need to be anti-racist. We need to take a stand against all racial transgressions towards our children.
- Allow our children to identify with whatever racial identity they choose, and for bi-racial children this distinction may be fluid.
- Address our own racist thoughts and behaviors as they come up and educate ourselves on racial prejudice in all its forms.
As parents, we want the best for our children, which means loving and supporting them as the unique individuals they are. For our children of color, this includes learning not to be color-blind in order to understand and support their experience in the world.
A few nights ago, Kristil called me from Sweden, where she is living while finishing up her master’s degree. We talked about movies we watched recently, and Kristil shared her thoughts on Black Panther– a movie we’d both seen and enjoyed. I especially liked the plot line and scenery, while Kristil appreciated seeing black actors cast in non-stereotypical roles, especially that of the black super-hero. I value these conversations with my daughter — they help me see the world through her eyes, a world that exists in color.
***If you’ve found my essay interesting or valuable in any way, please feel free to give me a “clap” just below. You may also follow me on Twitter @TammyRabideau2