My biggest worry was that I wouldn’t be able to protect her. From a nasty world. From nasty men. That she would be forced into roles too small for the largesse of her gifting. That her only real choices in life would be to become some stylized version of “Mammy” or “Ms. Thing” or “Mule.” Or to be ostracized as angry or attitudinal if she refuses those roles. That this world, which seemingly loves to dehumanize and/or oversexualize black girls while simultaneously colonizing our genius, would do all it can to leave her permanently broken; that her spirit would be killed before it even had a chance to grow. I wanted nothing but life for my baby girl.
But then time passed, and a veil of comfort and familiarity cloaked those feelings with the pseudo-hope of middle-class privilege. Barack Obama was president, and we could afford private school, if necessary. The ever-present racism and racial microaggressions I experienced were something I figured I’d talk to her about when she became a teen and started driving. Or when she started dating. Or maybe I wouldn’t have to talk about it at all because her father and I will have built a community of folks, a village, to support her when she encountered these things on her own. She’d be okay, right? She’d know without any doubt that her blackness was beautiful and brilliant, right?
And so far, this child has lived up to everything I imagined black girl magic could be in pint-size form. She is strong-willed, super smart and compassionate. At 8.75 years old, she has started her own small business all because she saw Mommy do it. She writes books and stories because she sees Mommy do it. She loves riding bikes with Daddy and calls him “adorable” on a regular basis.
I was in the clear.
Until I wasn’t.
It was a quiet moment before bed. She likes to cuddle with me and have what we call one-on-one time. It’s something I learned from my therapist about a year ago, after explaining how worried I was that my work schedule was impacting my time with my daughter. During one-on-one time, I put down my laptop and phone and set a timer for however long I have that day — 10, 30, or maybe even 60 minutes. I look her square in the eyes and say “I’m so happy to spend this time with you,” and then we do whatever she wants until the timer goes off. And I mean, whatever.
Sometimes, like that day, we just snuggle and talk about her day. Other days are more active. I’ve gone to her imaginary world — called “Bubble-land” — twice, done the Kidz Bop version of the Toosie Slide at least a million times, and babysat my grand [doll]babies. I’ve played staring games and even watched exactly 10 minutes of “Raven’s Home” because why not? It’s not the amount of time that matters really, but more the fact that she has my undivided attention. And this particular night began the same way.
“I’m so glad to spend this time with you,” I said.
“Mommy, I wish I could paint my skin white.”
“I wish I could paint my skin white so I can blend in and nobody would hurt me.”
I suspect if one listened closely, they could have heard my heart crack open.
Apparently, my child had overheard a white man screaming at a black woman outside her window during the height of the recent protests and uprisings. The man said things he probably would not have said to a black man. So even with the limited details she knows about the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, my sweet, magical, black girl was now terrified. My perfect timeline for unraveling the complications of being a black woman in America was obliterated.
To be clear, we’d had the talk. About racism. About the Black Lives Matter movement. After losing a family member in 2018 to racial violence, I was also forced to have those conversations earlier than I expected. But this revelation of hers was prompting another conversation. Yes, about race, but also about identity. What does it mean to be a little black girl in a world that often doesn’t see you? How does an 8-year-old process that information?
I have no idea how to explain intersectionality to her. To help her understand what she heard through the myriad lenses she will one day juggle. I can carry that intellectual heft in my classrooms, as a professor of English, Writing and Black Studies. There, we dissect literature and deconstruct those narratives through a sociological lens. My students and I examine how race, class and notions of gender impact a person’s personal, psychological and spiritual understanding of themselves. But teaching this sweet little girl to feel safe in her own skin is a much harder lesson — one with no syllabus.
Yet here we are.
The fact that my child — who has always only expressed love for her brown skin and thick black girl hair — decided that the one way she could stay safe was to erase her blackness tells me that she has begun to internalize the hatred of other people as something that she is responsible for fixing. And if there is one thing that she must know, that I’m determined to consistently teach her, it’s that she cannot control other peoples’ perceptions of her.
I will teach her that most peoples’ perceptions are actually projections. They project onto a person what they believe or don’t believe about themselves and, in a lack of self-awareness, respond accordingly. So feeling insecure about their own degree of intelligence, a classmate may call her dumb. That doesn’t mean she needs to overextend herself to prove that she’s not. She doesn’t need to do anything but be herself because those words have nothing to do with who she is or her capacity. She is enough.
Yet I’m clear that issues around race and gender are way more nuanced than “that’s their problem.” So many of the confrontations she’ll experience at that intersection are reinforced by the institutions surrounding her. Systemic racism and patriarchy, along with their hate-child misogynoir, are not necessarily things we can shrug off. But it’s also not something we can paint away, either.
“Sugah, unfortunately, there is no amount of paint that’s going to change what a racist person thinks about you. And since you know that, you should just go on and be the most fabulous you possible!”
It certainly wasn’t Dr. Spock or Jean Piaget. It was just the words of a black mama who’s lived a season or 10 in this beautiful black skin and wants her beautiful black baby girl to be more free than she could ever dream to be.
“Like the queen of Bubble-land, Mommy?”
Yes, baby, like the fabulous queen of Bubble-land.
Tracey M. Lewis-Giggetts is a writer and educator whose work explores the intersection of culture (race, class, identity) with faith/spirituality. The author of 13 books, she is the host of the podcast HeARTtalk with Tracey Michae’l and is the chief creative officer at NewSeason Books and Media, an independent publishing and content creation company. She can be found online at traceymlewis.com.