How Do I Free My Daughter from the Culture Matrix?

M.O.M. Squad – dear, dear cabal of friends and strangers – I’m flabberwhelmed. (And, yes, that’s a real word. Because Jayden Smith.) I am literally spinning in cyclone of confusion. I don’t know what to do about my sweet Black baby girl; and wonder if I should do anything at all.

Over the years, when pop culture hasn’t dominated the talking points, we’ve talked about the challenges of raising children of different races and abilities. You guys who still have yet to raise children of your own have been gracious enough to chime in with your unique perceptions, observations and suggestions. Every parent does and will struggle with some aspect of their child(ren)’s personality, quirks and capabilities. I have had the honor of adopting a number of ‘nieces’ and ‘nephews’ born to women I have yet to meet in person, but who I consider friends. Some of our kids have delayed speech or are non-verbal altogether. Some of them are exceptional students but struggle with social interaction. Some don’t try hard enough at school. Each of us has our own weighty cross to bear, but for the most part, we would all consider ourselves lucky to be parents.

My cross is my daughter Aya. Not Aya specifically, of course. Anyone who knows her is aware of how thoughtful and kind she is. The weight of my concern for her is attributed to the lack of confidence she has in herself, or in her blackness, to be precise. She lacks confidence in the abilities of Black girls.

Ebei. Raising a Black child in these United States is not easy o! Where do I even begin?

denciaWe’ve all read about/talked about/raged about the dominant European standards of beauty and how they affect the self-esteem women and girls around the globe. Anyone who had has ever had an opinion on this has taken a different approach to addressing this “problem” as it affects them personally or as it affects their child. Some women have gone so far as to bleach ALL of the black out of their skin or perm the kinks out of their 4 month old baby’s hair. On the other side of the pendulum, some people of color won’t let heat or a comb anywhere near their roots or the follicles of their children. As far as aesthetics are concerned, I believe we have come to some definite conclusions about how to deal with our perceptions of blackness and what Black beauty ought to look like. But how much time has been invested in developing the Black mind, or what it means to change the dynamics of what it means to think Black?

Earlier in the year some time in the spring, I wrote on my Facebook page about taking Nadjah and Aya to the salon here in Roswell. When we approached the building, the marquee had a picture of a green eyed woman with dark, tousled hair. I had already called ahead, and the owner assured me they styled “ethnic hair”, but even I was hesitant to enter the building with its rocking chairs on the front porch and Vogue-esque model welcoming us at the door. Nadjah scampered up the steps ahead of Aya and I and urged us to hurry up. Aya was frozen in her tracks, however.

“Mommy? Is this a place for brown people? Can we go inside?”

Before I could answer, Nadjah grabbed her sister by the hand and boomed “We can go anywhere we want! Segregation is over!”

That settled it. We went inside, they got a wash, blow dry and some cornrows, and everyone went home happy. Everyone except me, that is. What kind of messaging was my daughter receiving to make her think that she did not have the right to enter an establishment as innocuous as a salon?

I have done my best to direct my children towards critical thinking (although I often believe I am failing) and to have faith not only in God, but in their God-given talents and abilities as human beings. Nadjah thinks she’s invincible, so somehow the messaging has worked for her. But in Aya’s case, she doubts herself because she is Black. Hear me again: her self-doubt isn’t because she doesn’t go to a good school or have a great teacher – it’s because she thinks she’s only capable of achieving *this* much because she is BLACK.

Sally in the airWhen I wrote Sally and the Butterfly, I had Aya and kids like her in mind and was very deliberate about making sure that there were clues in the book about Salimah’s life that pointed to her being an 8 year old brown-skinned heroine. Mrs. Greenwood, her temporary caretaker cornrows her hair for her. When she is nervous, Salimah plays with her braids. Heck, I named the child Salimah so that there would be no confusing this child for anything other than a kid who had a fair amount of melanin in her skin. But when Aya scanned through the book and saw Sally outrunning ostriches, using tactical methods to outwit Orbeasts and navigating her way through an enchanted realm, my sweet baby girl looked up at me and asked: “Mommy? Is Sally brown?”

She was doubtful; doubtful that a little brown girl could do any of these things. If it were not, Sally’s race would never come into question. If Sally were blond with cream colored skin, we could read through her adventure and her race would never come up. I know this because we read lots of books with pretty white girls doing amazing things, and race has never come up once. But it did with Sally.

When I simply replied “Yes. She’s brown”, and left it there, Aya beamed and continued reading. But again, I was struck by how much this innocent question revealed so much uncertainty in my daughter.

I often hear/read people in the mainstream talk about how sick they are of hearing people of color – or Black people, to be blunt – kvetch about why we create web shows, magazines, etc. that focus on our blackness because we grew up looking at images that looked nothing like us.

“I’m a 300 lbs white man on crutches. I’ve never seen anyone in the media look like me!” I recall one Yahoo user snarling in retort to such an article.

Fair enough. But this man probably has a white steel worker, a hacker, a cook, a banker or what have you in his family, and these folks often get complex and interesting story lines on soap operas and Netflix originals that folk that look like Aya don’t regularly get! He at least has the benefit of relating to these characters…even if they don’t “look like” him.

I know that race and perceptions about intelligence matter to my daughter, but I just don’t know how to fix it. I don’t know what to give her. In her whole existence, she has only had one Black instructor – her current third grade teacher. It didn’t strike me as an issue until Aya mentioned this as we were eating popcorn one day.

“I like being in Ms. McNeil’s class, because she’s brown like me and she’s smart,” she said.

Ms. McNeils are in the minority in classrooms around the nation. I don’t know when Aya will encounter another brown face in education that doesn’t work as a custodian or lunch lady (and God bless them for their service!). I literally don’t know how to rip her out of this matrix.