Mami, am I Black?

“Mami, am I Black?”

“No, Sweetheart. You’re Brown.” That’s not much of an explanation, is it?

We remind her that she’s Mayan Guatemalan – the same terms we’ve used for seven years now. These are words she can identify with, but their meaning deepens each time we have some version of the conversation we’re having now. Her questions are about identity. Loyalty. Affiliation. Right now, it’s about skin color. She looks at her skin, and at us with confusion. We try again. “You’re Latina,” we begin – like Grace, her sister, born to a Caucasian mother and an Ecuadorian father. “And you’re Mayan... Native American” like her good friend from school.

We try to stay with familiar words, and build out from there. Born into one culture and adopted out of it. How do you tell that story? We try to keep our language simple, adding layers as she grows. So...

Black. Let’s talk about Black. Many of our daughter’s friends are Black. It’s who she identifies most with at school, as a group. They are beginning to split into groups now as early as second grade. Earlier even, I’m told. In a way, she needs to be Black where we live, because then she sees immediately where she belongs.

Yet she knows she’s not Black. Even before she asks, she knows.

“Black is a word people use for African-American, people whose ancestors came from Africa. People with dark skin whose ancestors are from someplace other than Africa are often called Brown.” Do you ever have those moments when you think: Why didn’t I practice this one verbatim ‘til I got it right, because this right here, this first explanation of a particular piece of the puzzle is the one that sticks, the one she’ll tell and re-tell herself and her family as she grows older and tries to trace things back to their origins? No? Well, okay. You’re lucky then.

At some point, she nods, seems to take it all in, and asks if she can order hot lunch tomorrow.

* * *

A few days later, I give her a children’s book called Freedom Summer, about two friends, a Black boy and a White boy in a small Southern town the day their neighborhood pool was integrated. The two boys walk together to the pool, and find it’s paved over. It’s a heartbreaking book, but she needs to know what happened, how things were. She needs to know this country’s history, bit by bit by bit, and this is a story she can relate to because these boys, either one of them, could be her.

“It’s still happening,” my colleague says when I tell her about giving my daughter this book. I tell her I know, and I want my daughter to recognize it when it happens. When what happens?

“I’m glad I’m not Black,” my daughter says when we finish the book. I am silent probably a moment too long. Finally, I tell her a friend of mine who’s Mexican American remembers segregation, and Brown people were seen the same as Black people much of the time. It doesn’t do her any good to separate herself. It doesn’t do her any good to throw herself in with them either, though. She looks a bit panicked. “But Mami, we couldn’t swim together then!”

“Sweetheart,” I try to soothe her, but I also speak truth, “If we lived then, we would swim in a place where we could be together. And I would fight to make sure that was possible. We all have to fight together for what’s right.” She snuggles into me, grateful, agreeing we all have to fight together for what’s right. She’s mad about the men who paved over the pool. She says if she was one of those men, she just wouldn’t have done it. I admire her clarity.

* * *

Last night, she talked briefly about Justin Bieber, and his dislike of gay people. I introduced the word “prejudice,” and wondered why I’d never thought to offer up that word before. I told her it was a word for these wrong ideas about people or things someone doesn’t understand. I told her it was important to recognize prejudice, because then you can see it’s their problem – not yours.

You say these things as a parent, and feel like you’re playing God. Shaping a person’s world like that.

I pray that I have it right at least some of the time, because these words and ideas are meant to support her as she grows.

“I’ll fight for my two moms,” she said to me.

“And I’ll fight for my girls – for my family,” I replied.

“Good night, Mami.” I guess that's really what she needed, for now.

“Good night, Sweetheart. I wish you wings in your dreams.”

"I wish you wings in your dreams, too, Mami."

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