“You’re a monkey.” “I can’t play with brown kids.”
If only I was fortunate enough for these to be the only insults I ever heard as a child. If only I had to deal with this instead of white kids wearing KKK masks to school in Boston in 1994 when I ran for class president. If only I had to deal with this instead of seeing my Harvard-PhD recipient mother be thrown in a jail cell because a random white girl told the police my mom tried to sell her drugs and the cop immediately took said white girl’s side (yes, we lost the court case). If only I had to deal with this instead of having police officers drive up to my car, flash the light in to ensure I was black and then pull me over and attempt to convince me that I was drinking even though I’ve never consumed an alcoholic beverage in my life. If only. In reality, the two quotations above are worse than all of the aforementioned experiences because they were said to my toddler daughter 2 years ago when she was 5.
There can’t be anything worse in life than seeing your children experience hardship. By the time I became a parent, I felt like I had dealt with all of my issues of racism. I knew it existed and that it permeated every aspect of American society. I was forced to join the anti-racism movement at a very early age growing up in Boston where my siblings and I were bullied everyday because of our background. Rocks thrown at us. Called all types of names at school. My oldest brother shot in the eye with a metal BB gun. Add this to the fact that between grades 7 & 12, I read one book in school by a black author, which was aptly titled “The Invisible Man.” America didn’t even have to work hard at making feel insignificant. By the time I had my kids though, I felt like I had this racism thing down. That was before my daughter came home and told me what her class[less]mates said to her.
When my daughter came home to tell me that her classmates told her this, it was depressing. I really thought I could shield my girls from issues relating to race until they were at least 7 years old. At that age we could have “the talk” that many black parents hate having with their kids but deem necessary in a world where racism exists. “You have to be two times better than everyone else because people expect less of you,” etc., etc. I was shocked to realize that I actually had to start teaching my daughter to be proud of her heritage at the age of 2 thanks to a little thing we call cartoons.
We didn’t watch much TV with our daughter during her first few years but it is almost impossible to avoid cartoon images when you’re shopping for your kids and they are with you. I remember one day I called my daughter a princess and she said quickly that she wasn’t one. It was easy to figure out why. Every image she saw outside of the house was of a non-black girl as a princess. I couldn’t even find products like pull-ups without these princess images on them. This was years before the movie “The Princess & The Frog.” Before that, not only were the princesses mostly white, their names also suggest that they are the purest girls on the planet. Just think: “Snow White.” “Belle” (“beautiful” in French). “Sleeping Beauty.” These names plus the images of them hold white girls up as the standard of beauty, even up until this day.
It didn’t take long for my wife & I to build our daughter’s belief that she was a princess too. Within a month or so, she was walking around telling people she was a princess and asking adults if they were kings and queens. It wasn’t that we wanted her to buy into this princess model as some needy woman who always needed to be pampered. It was more about showing her that she can be anything including a princess. When “The Princess & The Frog” movie finally did come out, I’ll never forget seeing my daughter just looking at the pillow set we bought her with Princess Tiana’s image. Though she had believed what we told her, children who watch cartoons have this weird belief that the cartoon images are real and real people on TV are fake. The black princess image on TV meant a lot for us and many other parents who heretofore had to buy “Dora the Explorer” merchandise to have an image as close to brown as possible. That’s just real talk right there.
Living with everyday racism as a father means always being prepared for my 2 daughters to come home with stories like this. Their hair is locked like mine so I have no issues when kids tease them and say “spaghetti hair” because I just tell them to laugh it off or play elsewhere if the kids don’t stop. Calling them a monkey, however, is different from calling them an elephant or a cat because of the racist history of blacks being compared to monkeys and apes in America. For a child to say that to my kids, that child had to learn that from their parents and that’s what is the even scarier—seeing racist behavior be passed down to the next generation.
The author William Cross talks about stages of racialized development. In short, he says that as human beings, we have experiences that take us all across the racial spectrum. For example, I was so happy to be a black man in America when President Obama was elected, but I was brought back down from cloud 9 when I went to do my diversity trainings at the schools I work in and my colleagues were told not to talk about Obama in the trainings because white teachers were still pissed off. As a white person, you may have a high when you see a multicultural rally for unity but then feel low as a white person when you see a racist attack by your neighbor against a non-white person. This is what everyday racism is about in America. Some days we’re up and some days we’re down.
My daughters motivate me to work even harder towards ending racism in America. Even if I cannot do that, my goal in my work as a diversity consultant is to at least give people the tools to analyze their own racist behavior or the behavior of others and be upstanders and not bystanders when they witness it. I don’t have time to dream about racism ending one day. I only have time to do the work as a youth speaker and diversity educator and continue on the path set for me by Dr. King, Harriet Tubman, Harry Belafonte, and so many people of all races who fought and fight for peace. I do this work because “deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.”