Close to six years ago, my wife and I discovered she was pregnant. At the time, I made the decision to background the racial aspects of having a transcultural child and focused on being a daddy to a daughter. I’m Jamaican and Puerto Rican and my wife is African-American and Filipina; I was sure that our daughter would get all of the racial and cultural exposure she needed by virtue of us being grounded in our identities. While we were never (initially) explicit in our talk about race, we were damned explicit when we introduced cultural practices and language into her life. But the painful racial attitudes of others were always hovering just at the edge of our awareness.
At nearly 5, our daughter is culturally anchored. She’s eaten the food, heard and sang the songs, been with family, traveled, and has been exposed to the languages. She has never been, or never will be, one quarter anything. She is 100 percent of all the cultural groups that conspired to bring her into the world. So when she witnessed her father’s cultural pride and confidence momentarily obliterated by an overtly racist act, it was all I could do to not, as the kids say now, “go bad.”
There’s no reason to get into specifics about how racism and prejudice entered my child’s life—I’ve detailed it thoroughly in another essay. I will offer that it involved the word “ni**er” and the accusation of me harming a (White) child, when I was actually assisting the child because she was hurt. While my child had never heard “ni**er” before, she knew that it was powerful because she saw Daddy cry after the aforementioned incident.
When she asked, “What does it mean, Daddy?” I was stuck between shouting: “It means nothing! Don’t you dare hold that word! Forget it!” and “It means everything! I want you to hold on to this word. I want it to start a fire in your gut. Never let it go out. You have to be ready to unleash that fire at a moment’s notice.” But I did not have the presence of soul to say anything other than that timeworn parental go-to: “I’ll tell you when you become a big girl.” And like the remarkably resilient child she is, she promptly (or so I thought) forgot. But as I stated, negative race attitudes are known to flare up like social herpes.
It happened (again) while we were at a park. The kids and parents playing and occupying the benches were almost evenly split between White and Asian—all were a certain kind of upper middle class (if these things can be judged by high-end diaper bags, sculptured strollers and a general air of “you’re beneath me”). I was recovering from knee surgery, and couldn’t play with my daughter as I normally would.
None of the other kids played with her. She was entertaining herself, but getting bored. She made overtures to the White children, but was rebuffed. Same with the Asian kids. She came towards me, looking so sad.
“Those kids won’t play with me, Daddy.” I comforted her, but it wasn’t enough. She craves contact with other kids, so not playing with them was painful for her. She asked, “Is it because I’m what that lady called you at that other park?”
I was confused for a minute, but then it smacked me. My daughter had been carrying the burden of the hateful influence of “ni**er,” for over a year.
“No! They just don’t know how to handle how fly you are.”
Afterwards, it was so easy to beat myself up for knowingly excluding the idea of racism from my daughter’s social and cultural vocabulary. We want her to celebrate her heritages, and not ever have to explain, justify or defend them. These are things that just are. They’re a natural part of her and should be above reproach or critique.
Damn. People are still clinging to notions that race makes you more or less than. While we’re secure as parents in our Black-girls-rock-and-can-do-anything-they-want stance, we’re increasing our sophistication when it comes to “race talk.” We no longer shy away from it, but illustrate the beauty and the ignorance of it all. We’re training our daughter to spot racism, call it out and, if need be, defend herself with her mind and her body.
“Brain before fists” is our motto. But if it comes down to it, my baby girl can throw down. You may take a dim view that I’m teaching my daughter how to fight, but I don’t care.
Shawn Taylor is the author of Big Black Penis: Misadventures in Race and Masculinity, and People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. He lives in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife and daughter, and can be found sporadically on Twitter @reallovepunk.