“Why are your hands two different colors? It’s white on the inside and black on the outside?”
There are certain things that happen in one’s life that remain colorfully vivid, even 25+ years later. I’ll never forget that day. I was in 3rd grade, sitting at the lunch table when my classmate asked me those two questions.
I don’t remember if I perceived any inkling of innocence or maliciousness, but I do remember how small and insignificant I felt in that moment. I didn’t have an answer for the melanin on the outside of my skin, I hadn’t realized in all of my 9 years of existence that it was of any concern.
Yet it was that moment, being one of 5 black kids in an entire grade level and 1 of 2 girls who wasn’t mixed, that I realized my black was different and it made me feel inadequate.
Being in a “gifted school” was an academic feat, yet being a minority presented a burden I learned to carry. It didn’t become a chip on my shoulder but a weight on my back that forced me to learn how to walk straight despite the compressions. I worked 3x as hard with much less. I didn’t have any excuses for mediocrity, regardless of the external challenges I faced as a child living in poverty. For all intents and purposes, I was destined to fail, as I consistently had to prove that I deserved to be in that school amongst the others.
Living through those times and now being a mother, I consistently sit and reflect on the impact my life has had on me as a parent. As parents we do the best we can, yet there are times I wonder if my experiences have negatively colored my lenses.
I am raising a black daughter in the south.
Within that statement lies a connotation of implied racism that is synonymous with “the South”. Having the experiences I have had in school throughout my adolescent years, I approach my daughter’s educational experiences with leery lenses, clouded by the perceived anticipated thoughts I have internalized over the years. I don’t shy off when fighting for my daughter. I strap up my combat boots figuratively and sometimes literally when I must encounter the all-white administration and teachers of her school. I purposefully dress down to “throw them off”, hoping to elicit their honest thoughts of who they are encountering by reading their demeanor in how they approach and begin our meetings. Yet my body language immediately signifies, “I don’t play about my daughter” while concurrently commencing to intentionally speaking in intense academic jargon when speaking with them to exhibit my thorough knowledge of education.
While this seems elaborate in hindsight, it is something so ingrained in my consciousness that I don’t realize I do it until it's done.
My daughter is a statistic. She is the only child of a single mother, bearing the last name of her father, indicating her family unit make-up without even asking. I’ve been in education long enough, as a teacher and administrator, to know automatically what the consensus is of children of fatherless households.
That is why I fight.
Or do I fight today to make up for the transgressions of my past? Do I fight for my daughter or am I fighting for the 9 year-old me? Am I seeing her teachers and administrators authentically or do I judge them out of the eyes of “little Marlena”?
Being Black with Kids raises more questions than answers. There are many times I have prepared questions of racial undertones at my daughter when she recaps her day. “Do you think your teacher acted that way because you are black? Did she treat “Susan” the same way she treated you when you did XYZ?” Many times, my daughter looks at me confusingly; I’m sure she’s unsure how she should answer because she knows her momma.
Because she knows her momma, I will never forget the apprehension in her spirit the day she told me about being falsely accused by her teacher and subsequently reminded of her “place” by her counselor. She followed what I taught her – If your teacher is being unfair, request to speak to another adult, then come home and let me handle the situation. Her counselor’s words were what she remembered. “Every teacher doesn’t have to like you”.
If her aunt, cousin or peer would have said those words, it would have been from a place of empowerment and purpose, because its true. If I would have said those words to my daughter, it would be perceived as a lesson in life, to stand regardless of opinion. But because her counselor is a white woman in her 30’s, those words struck me as a direct implication of her Blackness.
And I geared up for a fight.
Even if the intent behind some of the actions of her teachers are pure and without prejudice, the fact remains that being Black with kids comes with a heightened level of consciousness, an intense desire to teach our children what to do in the face of injustice and a cautionary stripping of innocence of just growing up.
It’s a constant reminder that we raise our kids differently, purposefully, intentionally and without apology.
Unfortunately, being Black with kids also means I understand wholeheartedly how far we think we are in years but how close in reality we are to pre-civil rights segregated America right now. Being Black with kids is a constant fight - to be heard, to be seen and to be treated individually first. Cause equal aint even an option if you can’t see me individually.