That sting never leaves me, and as I notice my dark brown skin just inches away from their pale arms, I ask myself: How did I get here? How did this happen? I worked hard. I went to a phenomenal college. I sought opportunities to build a career I am proud of. But I met intelligent, strong, determined and confident women along the way who were brown and black who also deserve to be at this table. Where are they?
It never gets easier to not see myself reflected in the faces of the women I stand shoulder to shoulder with, whether it’s professionally or simply waiting in line at the grocery store.
So as I raise my twin daughters to own their half-Sri Lankan and half-African American heritage, especially in today’s world, I want them to know who they are and what their worth is. My wife and I never give up, and we lead by example to show our daughters and our son that they must go that extra mile to get what they want in this world.
We empower them to be strong, vocal, hard-working little girls. When they feel they can’t push through cutting out the Play-Doh heart they want to accent their Play-Doh necklace, I tell them “keep trying.” It’s a mantra I hope carries them well into adulthood. They will undoubtedly need to keep trying when they don’t make the team, or when their résumé is passed over because of their ethnic names: Aviah and Lera.
I push them not because I am the parenting version of Marie Kondo or Brené Brown but because it is necessary to instill in them that they are different, that they must keep trying, that their “angry black woman” label must be worn as a badge of honor — the anger they are wrongly perceived to possess must fuel their reaching for and obtaining the future they want, both personally and professionally. They will be proud of who they are, what they look like and who their parents are because we are different. We cannot change that. It is my responsibility to give them the tools, even as almost 4-year-old little girls, to speak up for themselves in their preschool classroom, to stand up to the boys who call them chickens, to continue to bring their curried lentils for lunch, because this is who they are.
And I will lead by example. I will continue to show up as the black, queer woman that I am. I will be the voice for the voiceless. In using my own voice, I will add color to conversations and uphold beliefs instilled in me when I was growing up as an African American girl.
Women, particularly brown and black women, constantly feel pressure to do more, be more, give more and push ourselves more. When I sit at the table with my colleagues, I realize this: The only way things will change is if we make the effort to change it. So I will push my kids to make room at the table for themselves, and to push through the adversity they will inevitably encounter as they grow older.
But I cannot help but wonder if people will see their skin color first, or if they will judge them because of their pointy noses or their telltale Sri Lankan features. Will they be judged because they have two moms? Will they be denied a seat at the table because of these differences?
I reflect on my own childhood as I try to raise my daughters into strong women who will be comfortable at that table. I remember the time I was called an Oreo — too white on the inside and too brown on the outside to quite fit in with my white friends. Or the time I was accused of stealing from Claire’s. Or the time the little redhead sixth-grader refused to let me sit on the bus next to her because I wasn’t “popular.” She wasn’t sure if I was one of her kind.
I want better for my daughters. As brown and black little girls, they must continue to push forward, work hard and be smart to prevail no matter the obstacles they face. Even if it is about something as simple as remolding their Play-Doh necklaces, I remind them that the struggle will pass. Their necklace will “shine,” as will they for having stuck with it.
Nikkya Hargrove is a wife, mother and writer based in Connecticut.