Raising a Woman of Color, Part I

While I was pregnant with Eve, one of the questions I received on a regular basis was, “Do you want a girl or a boy?” It was a question that I rarely answered honestly because the honest answer was too long and involved for casual inquiries. The question for me was not whether I wanted a boy or girl. It was whether I would prefer the responsibility of nurturing a child that would grow to become a black man or a black woman (of course, she may turn out to be neither or both, but that’s a whole other topic of discussion that I’ll save for another day. For the purposes of this entry I will assume that she is a cisgendered little girl until she is able to indicate to us otherwise) in a society that devalues black women and fears black men.

On one hand, I’m glad to have a little girl, because I feel like I will be able to relate to her life experiences. After all, I’m a black woman too. On the other hand, there are so many things that are so common to the black female experience that I wish I could protect her from, and it breaks my heart to know that she will probably experience them as I have.

I identify as a lot of things, but if I could only pick one identifier to go with, it would not be cis, or middle class, or able-bodied, or queer, or female. I would identify as black. It could be my privilege that allows me to consider my other identifications as secondary, especially since not all of my identifications are marginalized, but considering the amount of people of color that are frustrated with their continued exclusion from the mainstream movements of marginalized bodies (and the very reason I eventually ditched feminism for womanism), well…maybe not. My skin color makes me a visible minority. While I am sometimes mistaken for a guy, or for someone with a college degree, or whatever, I am NEVER identified by others as anything but a person of color.

This is not to say that racism trumps any other oppression. I just want to make it clear that for me, personally, when I interact with various peoples, my race is the one thing above all others that makes me feel consistently othered. I can hide my attraction to women, especially because of my marriage to my husband. I can hide the fact that I’m female just by changing the way I dress, because my face is neither particularly masculine nor feminine. But when face to face with other people, I cannot hide my skin color. Ever.

One of the shitty things about being a member of an oppressed group is the lack of fair and accurate representation. After a lifetime of not seeing people that are like you in movies, books, history class, news stations, and positions of power, you can become convinced that people like you must not exist. And when you’re surrounded by a majority that insists upon this same falsehood, it gets especially convincing.

I read a lot growing up. I DEVOURED books, reading at least 4-5 books every week in middle school, not counting my schoolwork. In the VAST majority of books that were at my disposal, there were no people of color. The ones that did have people of color usually only had one or two (at most), unless they were about poverty or slavery or some other POC-related hardship. The mysteries I read were not about black people. The thrillers were not about black people. The only narratives about black people were the ones in which they were depicted as poor victims. There were no stories about black people that did not focus, somehow, on their blackness…unlike the unlimited treasure of stories about white people that did not focus on their whiteness, but on numerous other themes and character details. Black people were never depicted as everyday, average people.

When I started writing my own stories as a child, I focused on horror. I had a variety of characters, ranging from werewolves to average kids to ghosts, and they all had one thing in common: they were very, very WHITE.

I did have the occasional POC as a friend to the white protagonist, to add some variety. But my stories focused on what I had internalized and understood to be “normal” people: white people. I remember specifically, as a teenager, thinking about writing a story in which the characters were black like me. But I didn’t, because I thought that if I added black characters, I would have to change their dialogue to broken English, and I didn’t want to have those kinds of characters. Because despite the fact that I was a LIVING BREATHING EXAMPLE of a person of color that speaks standard English, I was still convinced that my writing could not include POCs that spoke standard English or else it would be UNREALISTIC.

What. The. Fuck. RIGHT????

This worldview was not created in a vacuum. It was based on my observations of the world around me and the media that I consumed. No one that ever read my stories thought it odd that my casting was completely white. It was never noticed or commented upon. I doubt very seriously that it would have gone unnoticed, especially by my white peers and teachers, if all of my characters had been POCs with the occasional white supporting character thrown in for “balance.”

I know that I am not alone in this experience. A couple of years ago, I asked my husband why almost all of the women he drew were white. It’s something that we talked about, and he has since made some efforts to correct this in his artistic expression.

It is because of this that I will be going particularly out of my way to limit the amount of white-dominated media that Eve consumes at home, and offering more diverse media in its place. I have no intention or expectation for Eve to NEVER see or read all-white entertainment; I only intend to do what I can at home to supplement what she sees and deliver a bit of balance. I will probably not buy DVDs of many children’s shows featuring all-white casts (I’ll be focusing on Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer, Little Bill, etc), but I’m positive that she’ll see plenty of all-white shows at her friends’ houses; I will probably not offer to buy many books for her featuring all-white characters, but I know she’ll read plenty of those at school (IF we choose to put her in a school, but that’s a blog for another day), will find recommendations for them in “Best ____ Books” lists (which almost always exclude books from and about POCs, unless the list explicitly focuses on POCs), and will have access to the hundreds of white-dominated books that I already own. I’m sure at Christmas, she will receive plenty of white baby dolls and other such toys from our friends, both POCs and whites alike. While she learns about white history (usually called just “history” but almost exclusively featuring the lives and actions of white people – except in February) at school, I’ll be requiring her to do some extra work at home learning about what people of color were up to during the same time period.

I have every intention of preventing my daughter from normalizing whiteness, because one cannot normalize one kind of body without simultaneously rejecting all other bodies as abnormal. I want her to recognize that interesting characters come in all manner of shapes and colors and expressions. If she chooses some day to write stories or draw pictures, I don’t want her to exclude and erase from her imagination people who are like her, because for her to do so is a rejection of her own self.

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One Response to “Raising a Woman of Color, Part I”

  1. Link Self-Love « She Has My Eyes Says:

    […] which I wrote while reflecting on the meme of trans folks as deceivers. All of my posts in the Raising a Woman of Color series have been quite popular with the exception of the first, which has received only a fraction […]

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