By: Marie Williams
I didn’t join the Black Student Union in college. Never went to a single meeting. Part of it is that I’m just not a “joiner” but also, my friends and my life were a melting pot of whites of various nationalities, Koreans, Africans, Palestinians and West Indians. The idea that I might have something in common with other people of African descent simply because of a shared racial heritage seemed ludicrous to me. That may sound naïve, but I was raised in Jamaica, a country where it is not uncommon for your family to be comprised of three or more races. Certainly as I matured, I learned that my Black heritage was significant. Many of the defining experiences of my life, once I left the protective cocoon of college, were tied to my being a woman of color.
When the first African American President of the United States was inaugurated, I was with thousands of others on the National Mall, braving the cold, because I knew something momentous had shifted and wanted to be there to witness it firsthand. At the time, my daughter was just over a year old and it occurred to me that she would grow up in an America where parents of African American children could tell them, and actually believe it, that they too could grow up to become President. She might have no recollection of a time when people talked about race as a defining characteristic. The onset of what people began to call “post-racial America” ironically made me think more about what it means to be Black in America than I had before.
As my daughter grew, I faced decisions about her life where race took on new significance: where to live, where to send her to school, what after-school activities to enroll her in, all had racial implications. I could move to the suburbs where, by and large, a majority of families in the neighborhoods I chose were white. I could send her a private preschool near Capitol Hill, but again, mostly white. And I wanted to enroll her in ballet class. None of that should have mattered, but I was leery of making choices that would relegate her to minority status. I worried what that might be like since it was an experience so different from my own childhood. My own self-confidence was, I firmly believed, a product of never having felt like “a minority” in my most formative years, so that by the time I noticed racial differences, they were just that – differences – and not loaded with socioeconomic and other implications.
Have we come far enough, I wondered, that I can send my daughter to a school where she is one in only a handful of brown faces? Can I move to an almost all-white neighborhood and not worry about whether there are latent prejudices among parents of some of her friends? And ultimately, is it safe, is it fair, and is it true to teach her that she lives in an America where race doesn’t matter? I’ve decided that the answer is no. So I enrolled her in private school, moved to a very diverse suburb and enrolled her in African Dance class.
What I hope to teach her this Black History Month is that we still have a way to go. But I’m encouraged by the fact that I had to wonder about it in the first place. It means we have come a very long way from the time when racial prejudice and discrimination were painfully apparent. This Black History Month, I will be taking full advantage of the opportunity to teach my daughter not only about where we came from, but the reasons we will never go back.
1. Image via futureatlas.com on Flick’r.