Several months ago, during my daughter’s night time bath she pointed out that she wasn’t white like the tub, she was black, “like mommy.” I was thrilled. “That’s right,” I affirmed.
“My biracial toddler identifies as black,” I thought to myself, and she was proud of it. My excitement and validation didn’t last long as I realized that someone had probably told my daughter that she was black and it wasn’t me. Who pointed this out to her? What was the context of the conversation? Did they talk about the fact that she had a white father? How did they settle on black versus white versus biracial? Who told my daughter she was black and in that process what part of her did they negate?
Several weeks later my daughter held her lighter arm against mine,“I’m white, like daddy!” I was hurt. I felt erased. I stopped myself from “correcting” her, when I realized that I had no idea how to condense this complex conversation for a 3-year-old in a way that affirmed her self-identity and discovery. Besides, what would I be correcting? If she’s biracial, isn’t she just as white as she is black? Isn’t race fake?
Navigating race in America has been a 18-year hike. I was born in Kenya, and identifying as black was not something that I had to do on a regular basis. Growing up in a country of diverse black people, the color of my skin was never questioned. I was never underestimated, overlooked, feared, or over-policed because of the color of my skin. Though other barriers existed in my life, I never thought to question whether any earned merit or demerit was due to my blackness.
When I moved to the United States, my Kenyan-based upbringing allowed me to exist and thrive in predominantly white spaces. Though I now realize that these spaces were riddled with microaggressions, tokenism, and blatant racism, I managed to escape relatively unscathed. I was raised in a country where I was the majority. Therefore, while transitioning into adolescence in the United States as an immigrant was not a walk in the park, I rarely felt that I was an “other;” though I certainly was in those homogeneous spaces. I didn’t doubt that I belonged, and when my abilities were questioned it didn’t occur to me that it was because of the color of my skin (even though, in retrospect, it often was).
Over time, as I’ve observed and experienced how interpersonal and institutional racism permeates the everyday existence of African Americans in this country, I look back at my life in the U.S. and can identify too many instances when I was obliviously subjected to racism.
Although my Kenyan school transcripts showed that I should be placed in advanced classes, my counselors in middle school dismissed them, assuming loudly that “she couldn’t possibly keep up.” My high school English teacher, who ignored my contributions for an entire year, expressed surprise when she realized that I, the only black girl, had the highest advanced placement score in her class.
Peers in college often complained loudly that affirmative action was depriving them of life changing opportunities. And there was the classmate who vehemently argued that compared to classic writers like Jane Austen, “Toni Morrison didn’t deserve to win a Nobel.” (I’m still so mad about that one.) White strangers closely confided in me, “Oh, you are not like black people over here,” and warned, “don’t get like them.”
After eight years in the U.S., during an internship at a hospital in Chicago, when my boss sent me on various errands, I got to meet various senior administrators and doctors. For a whole week, when I knocked on their doors, I remember distinctly feeling surprised that they were black. “When did I get like this?” I remember thinking, “Why am I shocked to meet black people in leadership positions? Why did I expect them to be white?” I had internalized racism and I couldn’t even track when it began.
Living in the United States has been an awakening and a socialization into my blackness. Raising my biracial daughter is the latest chapter of that journey. Ironically, as a fresh immigrant, race wasn’t always on my mind, but these days I think about it all the time. I now know how chronic and intergenerational racism sinks into black people’s skins and adversely impacts our mental health, life expectancy, education outcomes, and overall quality of life.
Living in Chicago, a notoriously segregated city, the impact of historical and present-day racism played out in headlines and in predominantly African American neighborhoods every day. We now live in San Antonio, which is 7% African American. This means that my daughter rarely sees any black people. Her daycare is majority white. Her church is white. We just bought a house and we were lucky enough to find something affordable in the best school district in the city which, as research often shows, is also the most resourced, affluent, and white school district.
While my family is in a nearby city, my husband’s family lives in San Antonio so naturally we spend more time with them. As a result, my daughter lives in a very white world. This means that she brazenly stares at black people in public and has more than once, I’m embarrassed to admit, gleefully mistaken several black strangers for my own father and brother. I’m very concerned.
As a doting parent, I want the best for my child. I can’t change her racialized world, so I have to teach her to exist in it without losing sight of who she is. As a black mother in America, I want her to identify as black and I want to shield her from prejudice and racism, especially internalized racism. I want her to love her whiteness as well and I want her to recognize and reject the lie of white supremacy. I want her to have access to every privilege necessary for her to live a fulfilling life, and, yes, that includes the white privilege she has access to through her white, higher income, well-networked family.
At the same time, I do not want her to be entitled or think that her success must come at the expense of others. I want her to grow into and own her beauty and I want her to understand that her lighter skin and glorious curls are not more beautiful or valuable than others’ even though society and mainstream media consistently broadcast a different message.
I want her to be carefree, a privilege not always afforded to little black girls in this country and I want her to be aware of the shapes that racism can take and to have the courage to call it out as often as needed. I want her to choose both histories, heritages, and legacies without the baggage of either.
I want her to be both though I recognize that she’ll have to decide what that is on her own. I pray that the world is a less cruel place for black lives as she grows older and into her blackness. And because I’m sure that there will still be work for her to do, that she will always take the stands that place her on the right side of our history. I want to give her the greatest privilege of all: a life in which she gets to determine her identity and destiny, despite all she’s been exposed to, including myself.