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.