Becoming ang Being Black in America

This is part two of my series on raising children in America.

In the aftermath of Miley Cyrus’s debacle at the VMA, a Facebook friend wondered why everything in America has to be seen in Black and White, referring to this article, which argues that Cyrus’s attempt at twerking and her entire performance were racist. The reality is that it is hard to not see things as Black and White, especially when the parties involved are black and white. However, I do understand why my friend was so annoyed. As first generation Senegalese immigrants, we “became black” when we came to America because race is not an issue in Senegal.  Although we are the victims of several types of negative stereotypes associated with Africa, sometimes we are not able to recognize some of the nuances of racism. Also, as adults, we are better equipped to fight, avoid, or even downplay situations where we might be exposed to racial discrimination. This is done through playing it safe by sticking with our kind, or not associating with African Americans because we do not want to be put in the same “negative basket” where our black American cousins have been for centuries.

On the other hand, our children are “Blacks in America,” and will be treated as such. There is a difference between how our generation and theirs experience and process racism or racial prejudice. At a very early age, they are exposed to racial difference, and unlike us, they cannot avoid playing or interacting with their peers of different races.

Last week, I took my daughter to a local commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. There, we met a Caucasian colleague/friend with her daughter who is the same age as mine. Our daughters have known each other since they were toddlers and went to the same school for a couple of years. But since my daughter moved to another school, the two of them see each other occasionally. The girls hugged and sat together chatting, giggling, and being cute. A photographer saw them and asked to take a picture, remarking to me that “this is what Marin Luther King’s dream was about.” Minutes later, the duo was joined by another little white girl they both know. I know this girl’s mother through her business and other child-related events in town. The three girls sat together and chatted. When it started raining, people brought out umbrellas and like I always do, I had left mine in the car. My colleague/friend gave an umbrella to her daughter, under which the three girls huddled, projecting a true image of an inclusive and post-racial America. I too could not help but snap a picture of “Martin Luther King’s dream.” As the rain intensified, the second girl’s mother invited me to share her umbrella which was as big as a tent. She also offered to go to her car for an extra one. I declined the offer. She then decided to go get it for her daughter. When she came back, the rain had slowed down. Now, the two white girls had each an umbrella and my daughter was staying next to them watching them play with their umbrellas. When I asked her why she was not playing, she replied: “They say I do not have an umbrella.” When the second girl’s mother heard that, she was shocked and decided to give my daughter the umbrella we were sharing. But when the two girls saw my daughter with the bigger umbrella, they took it away, gave her one of the small ones, and proceeded to play under the big one, still excluding my daughter. By then, I was starting to get annoyed and asked my daughter to come play next to me. She refused and continued to play with the small umbrella, alone. I tried to lure her with a promise to stop by one of her favorite restaurants if she agreed to leave early. She vehemently refused and continued to twirl the umbrella. Few minutes later, she gave up the umbrella and took my phone. She approached the girls while dancing to a Michael Jackson song. I painfully watched as she tried everything to gain their attention. I could see that she was sad that she was being ignored. I had to pull her aside and explain to her that she should never insist on playing with someone who did not want to play with her.

Now, I am sure that the girls’ attitude toward my daughter had nothing to do with the color of her skin. Knowing these girls and their parents, assured me that they were not excluding my daughter because she was “the black girl.”  Also before publishing this post, I shared a draft of it with my colleague/friend because I wanted her to know that I was writing about her child. She revealed to me that the two girls are more than best friends, they are sisters. They have known each other since they were toddlers and carpool every day to and from school. She also said that this kind of scenario has happened more than she could count with other children. Her daughter would be playing with someone but the minute her best friend/sister shows up, the two of them would pick up playing, leaving out the third party.

Despite the fact that I knew in my heart that this was innocent child play, I could not help but think in Black and White. I thought about how this would have played out if I did not know the girls and their parents. Later that night, when my daughter and I talked about it, she wondered why my colleague/friend’s daughter did not want to play with her. I explained to her that there would be times when friends would choose to not play with her, and that it would have nothing to do with her. I reassured her that she was fun to play with, to which she answered: “I know, I always come up with really fun games.” As I walked downstairs, my heart was heavy and I resisted tears. Although I was convinced these girls did not exclude my daughter because of the color of her skin, I knew there will be times when she will be ignored because of her race. She is a Black Girl in America. 

The recent acquittal of George Zimmerman who profiled and killed Trayvon Martin, a young black man, gave me tremendous anxiety about raising black boys in America. It made me wonder whether my children would not be safer in Senegal where the color of their skin would not make them into inherent suspects. Some might think that I am being melodramatic but this is a real dilemma for me. It is already hard that my children are a racial minority in their schools and often come home with questions that are very difficult to answer. My daughter is confused about the color black because as she rightfully emphasizes often, “We are not black! We are brown!” She also gets upset that she cannot put her hair in a ponytail like the other girls in her class. These kinds of issues freak the hell out of me and I wonder whether it wouldn’t be easier to pack up and return to Senegal.

I look forward to your comments.

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5 thoughts on “Becoming ang Being Black in America”

  1. Hello Marame, thanks once again for addressing a topic that is near and dear to most of us.
    My family and I live in a town that is predominantly caucasian. The reason why we chose to move here ten years ago was because the statistics just looked better here. The crime rate is almost nil in this town and public schools have higher ratings than those in the less funded Black neighborhoods. Even though we chose to pay higher property taxes for a better school district, we never took advantage of the public schools as my husband and I chose to send our two girls to a private school, and that is where they have been for the past nine years.
    I remember my now eleven year old coming home one day and telling me that some of the girls in her kindergarten class did not want to play with her because they said she did not have blonde hair. As an overly protective mother, I was devastated by my daughter’s story. “What have I done”? was the first thought that came to my mine! Here I was, trying to protect my children from the ugliness of the public school system and all the stigmas that go along with living in black neighborhoods; and here is what ended up happening to one of the children I was trying so hard to keep from the world.
    I, of course took the matter to the school headmaster who was just as shocked as I was that these 5 year-old kindergarten girls had not been thaught at home that it was ok to play with a chocolate, brown, yellow, white or whatever other color girls or boy.
    The moms who were later notified by the headmaster apologized profusely to my daughter and my self, but the damage was already done. Even though all of my daughter’s bestfriends are White, she never wanted anything to do with these particular “blonde girls”.
    I am personally married to a fantastic White man who has been raising my two girls as his own for the past ten years. I however can’t help but see black and white in this country. I hope Martin Luther King’s dream will become reality soon, but let’s face it; there is still racism in this country; and it goes both ways.
    By the way, Marame, your blog is becoming a therapy session for me! :). Thank you!!!!

  2. Hi Aida,
    Thanks for reading again and for sharing your stories. May I ask why you felt that you have done something wrong? We too decided to take our children to private and charter schools because we feel that the education is better there. This is also valid for Senegal. Had we stayed and had children there, they would most likely be going to private schools. In the US, few black people can afford the hefty price of private school, hence the small number of black kids whose parents can afford it end up being an severe minority in their classes. I agree that children need to be taught at an early age about acceptance, even if it is not of racial difference. The American school system has a severe problem with bullying and the sooner children learn that it is not tolerable to exclude their peers from whatever reason, I think the better it will be for all of us. I think both black and white parents should make this a priority. Also, do you really think that racism goes both ways?
    I am glad I can provide a space for us to talk about these issues that affect so many of us. You know therapists cost a fortune. So I am a bargain and I hope you’ll keep coming back. 🙂 Thank you for your comments.

    1. Hey Marame, my previous attempt at a reply was not very successful, so I am giving it another try. 🙂
      I absolutely believe that racism in this country goes both ways. I am not sure if you know this; but I have owned a hair braiding salon in Tampa for almost 14 years now. My clients are I would say 99% African Americans and you would not believe the stories we hear on a day to day basis.
      My relationship with my husband is often disrespected and questioned by none other than blacks- mostly.
      I try to rationalize such negative behavior with the fact that we live in the south, but our geographic location should not excuse such ignorance. I believe that people should be free to love, like , play and marry whoever they deem worthy of their love and attention. But that is just me.

  3. To the girl with the small umbrella
    Dear sweet young one,
    The world you live in has mean people in it, and sometimes unfair things happen that make no sense. Some people have been taught to dislike anyone who looks different from them or acts different or likes different things. Be brave, dear one, and know that your kindness and uniqueness will help to make this world, hard as it can be, just a little bit better. Maybe a lot.
    Some old white guy who likes you

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