My Daughter's Faces

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Ethnicity is a nebulous topic, for me.  I grew up black in a very white community.  My mother is second generation Canadian caucasian (half German; plus a bit of Irish, a bit of Scottish, and some other pieces of the great UK).  My father was a Nigerian here on a student permit when they met, loved, and made me.  Looking through the photos, I can see that there were black people in my life, as an infant.  But my father must've taken them with him when he left during my toddlerhood, as I don't remember them.

I do remember being different.

I remember being the only person of colour in my family, in my neighbourhood, and one of only a handful of people with brown skin in all of my years of grade school.  But I don't remember being particularly upset by it.  I mean, we were poor, for sure, and recognizing that was hurtful for me.  The long list of things I couldn't have loomed large in my life.  The way that people looked at us when I wasn't clean, or when I didn't have my lunch, or when our always aging always rusting always breaking car broke down again....  I learned all the ways those events impacted the community's perception of my family, of our single-parent household, and I got better at hiding them.  And from them.  But racial discrimination?  That wasn't a part of my life, as far as I could see.  Holding the torturous position of "Smart Kid" in a tiny rural school?  THAT was a part of my life.

So, I was sort of blind, at the time, to the racism my mother saw.  But looking back, I remember her rage very clearly.  When we left parties abruptly, because someone had made a n*gger joke and Mum's face glowed a furious blazing fuschia while that room full of acquaintances laughed and laughed.  Or when strangers told me how cute I was, and then asked my Mum how long she had been looking after me.  At that time, for me, these things were sort of inconsequential, you know?  At the time, she kept these bits of darkness carefully and intentionally away from the light of her life.

I am so grateful.

Danica, my baby girl, was born into an established suburban community.  We have fences and mature trees and neighbours who look after their yards.  Everyone we know has a newish and well-maintained car.  Or two.  When she wants something, she asks for it, and the "can't" is only limited to how many things I think she should have.  Not how many things I can't afford to give her.  My kids have no relationship to the cracked asphalt and gravelly pavers of the Low Rentals.  They've never had to move away because of bad luck and worse money.  They've never been hungry.  They have a pack of friends whose parents watch them carefully, and they don't know what it's like to be out of eyesight with the neighbourhood kids until way past bedtime on a summer night.  They were born into a different lifestyle and a different time.

I'm not entirely sure that's good for them.

My skin is coffee brown, the amount of cream added strongly dependent on the season and time spent playing outside.  My husband, the son of a light-skinned Jamaican and a caucasian Canadian, could pass as white.  And so my children's complexions are much lighter than mine.  They have medium-beige skin, chocolate brown eyes, and reddish-brown nappy hair.  My daughter can pass.  My son looks enough like me that people wonder, but don't ask – and perhaps that is one of the blessings we bought with this comfortable home and this comfortable life.

When Danica was not quite two, she and I would bus home from work and daycare, together.  Buses in Edmonton, Alberta, are usually multi-ethnic, even while many communities here are not.  Black people, white people, Asian people, Indian people, Russian people, Fijian people, Aboriginal people, Filipino people, and more, all sitting shoulder to shoulder with their iPods or novels or newspapers or raucous conversations in a musical cacophony of language....  It was not an intentional thing, at the time, to take my daughter on the bus with me.  It was not a careful or self-conscious decision, to expose my almost-white child to the texture of the world.

One afternoon, a black woman hefted her daughter, about the same age, onto the bus beside us, labouriously planted her stroller brakes, and arranged her mess of bags.  We were waiting at the Jasper Place terminal in a very multi-ethnic neighbourhood.  And, yes, incomes are low there, as too often is the case.  Her daughter's stroller cost maybe thirty bucks and looked very well used, possibly second or third hand.  Mine cost over a hundred.

Both were equally well-smeared with fruit-snack bits and teething-biscuit paste.

She looked at me, at my daughter, then smiled that angry smile.  She said to her baby, slowly and carefully:  "Look, honey.  A yellow baby!"  That woman – who might have called me "sister" in another context, in another place – she called my daughter high yellow and then grinned at me to make sure I understood.

I would like to think I'm above that kind of bullshit, but I'm not.  I'd like to think that I'm educated enough, experienced enough, well-read enough, to view racists as the hurting, ignorant, broken human beings that I know them to be.  And, if anyone had asked me before that moment what I would have done if someone called my baby girl yellow – with that look, with that voice – I probably would have replied with something compassionate and healing.  A teaching moment, if you will.

Right.

But what I did?  What I did was glare at that woman with her flat, angry, eyes.  And then I smiled at her daughter who was just as beautiful as my own.  Heartbreaking and happy in layers of pink and dirty ribbons.  I said, "Yes, honey, she does have a yellow hat on, today.  And just look at your pretty dress!  You're like a little flower there, sweet girl."

I didn't say it to educate.  I didn't say it to make it better.  I said it to make that tired, angry, struggling black mother feel like total shit.  I said it to protect my daughter.

Danica is almost six, now.  She has dayhome friends who are Ukrainian, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, and Chinese.  All of them Canadian.  She has cousins who are every different colour of brown, every variation of beige, and who celebrate traditions from Germany, Belgium, Ireland, Jamaica, Fiji, India and China.  She speaks English, is learning French, and has been begging to learn Cantonese.  She has no concept of race.  She has no understanding of ethnic features, beyond the way that her Jamaican grandfather has blue eyes, her dad has hazel eyes, her brother's eyes are nearly black, and so are her beige grandmother's and brown mum's.  There is no geographic attachment to facial features, for her.

I celebrate that.

My daughter loves to draw.  LOVES it.  She has been drawing and writing since she was two, and has sketchbooks and notebooks and bits of paper, and vats of markers and crayons and pencils, all around her all the time.  She loves to draw.

Here is one of her first family portraits:

And here are the two of us, together.  I'm wearing a black shirt and jeans, and she's wearing a yellow hat (her description) and some optimistically dangly "pierced-ear earings".  I guess a girl can dream, if she wants to :-)

"Danica, what's this picture about?"

She looked at me drily (though, to her credit, she did not say 'Duh').  "We're celebrating.  See?  There's CAKE!"

"Why, though?  What do we have to celebrate?"

World-weary sigh.  "Well, everything, Mum.  We have SO MUCH to celebrate."

Oh, honey.  Yes.  We really, really do.

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I’m a corporate refugee, grad student, quiet activist and child care provider.  I live in Canada and write about grace, joy, hilarity, leg hair, and life looking after other people’s kids, over at The Valentine 4: Living Each Day and about being black and white in Canada at Multicultural Mothering.

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