When I gave birth to my daughter almost three years ago, the idea that conversations about race would be part of my parenting didn’t come to mind. Now, I think about it all the time. I am from the Dominican Republic and considered a minority and person of color in America/the world, and my husband is African-American, which comes with its own set of racial struggles. Naturally, our daughter is brown skinned with tight curls, two telltale signs that like her parents, she is a person of color.
Similar to many others around the world, I was raised to believe in light over dark (complexion wise), but I didn’t grow up in the same world my parents did, so I rejected this notion. Dominicans, like other Hispanic groups have a history of neglecting their African ancestry, and even though I appreciate all that my culture has added to my life, I cannot condone the sentiment of “my people,” who want to make themselves believe that they only have Spanish ancestors; this is simply not the case. The beauty of the Caribbean is that our ancestors come from different places, giving us the unique and diverse exteriors we sometimes forget to celebrate. We are a mixed people; so is the rest of the world, by the way.
I want to raise a child that appreciates the beauty of brown skin, its smooth, butter-like texture that so many yearn for in the summer months. A child who does not see her tight curls as an obstacle, but rather a reflection of her mother and father, who are reflections of their parents. The point is that brown skin, “difficult to manage hair,” broad noses, full lips, and thick bodies are constantly attacked by society, yet so many, especially in current popular culture are now seeking to attain these traits. Well, that’s just plain offensive. Our ancestry is not an accessory; it’s also not up for grabs. My wish as a mother of a precious brown baby is that she grows up loving every inch of herself, ignoring society’s standards and rejecting its perception of the person she is supposed to be.
It wasn’t until I started teaching mostly Black students that fear for my daughter’s future began to creep into my body without any sign of slowing down. It’s true what people say about experience; it’s the best teacher. Hearing my students’ concerns, thoughts, and emotional stories about their experience as Black members of American society has altered my point of view more than any other experience I’ve had. Yes, I’ve always known that race was a major issue here, and I myself have been the target of racial comments many times in life, but it’s different when children you care about experience fear for their lives over something they cannot control. It’s different when you look into the eyes of these children, and you see pain, shame, and more often than not, indifference. “We’re used to this, Ms. Canela.” Those words have been uttered in my classroom anytime race comes up; I teach American Literature, so this happens quite often. Children, whether they are five or seventeen should never have to feel that they don’t belong, they don’t matter, or that they don’t get to have a voice. For children of color, Black children in particular, this seems to be the expected narrative.
During this past year of teaching, fear for my own child has been heightened. Will she be able to endure the negative comments made about her, or about her father and mother? Will she be ridiculed for having brown skin and “unruly” hair? More than likely, she will deal with racial comments, so how do we (my husband and I) prepare her?
I recently watched a video where a Black father was interviewed with his daughter, who appeared to be about seven years old. The topic was race. As a Black man, he feels he needs to teach his daughter how to interact with racist people and biased law enforcement. By the end of the interview, his daughter breaks down, worried about her father’s safety after he speaks about his experience with a police officer (I am aware not all police officers are biased or racist, that’s not the point here). I couldn’t help but picture the young father and daughter as my own husband and child; it broke me. Even though I know that all parents think about the effect of the outside world on their children, there is the added element of crippling fear for people of color. The stakes are just higher, whether the world wants to admit it or not.