Cultivating Racial Identity in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter
What do you say about race to a 3-year old who speaks of race as though they were shades of crayons in a Crayola box? A child who existed these three years in a body without ever knowing it was brown? But knowing you are brown is different from knowing what being brown means, and knowing what being brown means is scary.
As a parent of three, beautifully nappy daughters I’ve been very careful of the introduction of race, tiptoed around the topic in careful strides. I remember the first time my oldest realized her skin color. She sat on the edge of her bed, getting ready for the day. I held up a pink and brown striped t-shirt with matching pink shorts. She demanded all pink because she hated the color brown. I told her, “Honey, you are brown.” She looked down on to her arms, her stomach, her fingers, met my eyes and exclaimed, “Mommy, I’m brown all over,” as if her race was a disease she had unknowingly lived with for some time.
That daughter is 11 now. Last summer I stopped protecting her from the truth of lynched and murdered black bodies by the hands of police officers. One particular instance, I saw fear creep behind her eyes when she asked, “Why won’t Obama do something?” as if the most powerful man in the world was powerful enough to stop this.
It was after this murder that she started calling me a racist. Her own mother. If I said that I am black or that another woman is white, my daughters would reply back, “Mommy, you’re a racist.” She and her sister refused the label “black” and the racial binary of “black/white.” They insisted that everyone is, instead, some shade of brown, and, therefore, no one is black or white. Periwinkle is to navy as white people’s beige skin is to my deep chestnut skin. To my daughters, if both colors can be blue, then all people can be brown.
This desire to claim sameness is different from that of black girls who date white boys and say that all of their friends are white in valley girl voices while twisting strands of Puerto Rican wavy color number 4 on fingers. My daughters are not rejecting blackness with intentions of claiming whiteness. Yet their claim of sameness is an assertion I struggle to understand. I loved being black when I was my daughters’ ages. I celebrated Kwanzaa making gifts for all my family members, wrote poems about Sojourner Truth, and lectured teachers on the inaccuracies of our very white American history textbooks. The difference? I was unafraid of my blackness. I was nestled twenty years after The Civil Rights Act of 1964, legislation that sought to end segregation and organized discrimination, and a couple of years before the beating of Rodney King reminded black folks that the struggle still belonged to us. My children, on the other hand, live in the age of fear, a time when everyone is scared of black people and black people are scared to be black because blackness can literally be a death sentence.
As an African American Studies professor, I can easily theorize Emmitt Till, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice: the abolishment of slavery was the worst thing to happen to the lives of black men. While in slavery, black people were property with actual monetary value. The murder of a slave would be the equivalent of poisoning someone’s horse, burning someone’s barn, burglarizing someone’s home. Upon the abolishment of slavery at the Civil War’s end in 1865, black lives were in danger. The government knew this and, during the Reconstruction, sent Federal troops to the South to protect those freed slaves from their former masters, from the poor whites who worried about their job security, and from the growing fear and accusations that began the criminalization of black people. With the removal of Federal troops in 1877, we see an increase in lynchings in the South with a remarkable spike in the 1890’s. This history shows a frightening truth: slavery’s end marked the end of America’s value on black lives. Consequently, beyond the scope of slavery, black lives don’t matter.
While this is the explanation I give my students in my classroom, this cannot be the answer I give my daughters in our home. How do you tell a child that she does not matter to the world, that the value I see in her ends at our home’s threshold? Instead I allow them this moment to claim sameness, to see all people as brown people, if it allows them a space to ignore how the world truly sees them while they cultivate self-value in the safety of our home, of our now.
My daughters do not claim blackness because they fear what being black means in a country in which black people must demand acknowledgement of their value. It is weight too heavy for their fragile colored bodies. Racial identity is a shifting process, but this is the beginning of theirs. The trauma they see attached to blackness today they will carry with them tomorrow. If being black means being gunned down at a park by a police officer, then they choose to feign ignorance and ignore their blackness. If you were them, wouldn’t you?
(Credits: Photograph taken and provided by the writer.)