My Daughter’s Faces

29 Jan

Ethnicity is a nebulous topic, for me.  I grew up black in a very white community.  My mother is second generation Canadian caucasian (half German; plus a bit of Irish, a bit of Scottish, and some other pieces of the great UK).  My father was a Nigerian here on a student permit when they met, loved, and made me.  Looking through the photos, I can see that there were black people in my life, as an infant.  But my father must’ve taken them with him when he left during my toddlerhood, as I don’t remember them.

I do remember being different.

I remember being the only person of colour in my family, in my neighbourhood, and one of only a handful of people with brown skin in all of my years of grade school.  But I don’t remember being particularly upset by it.  I mean, we were poor, for sure, and recognizing that was hurtful for me.  The long list of things I couldn’t have loomed large in my life.  The way that people looked at us when I wasn’t clean, or when I didn’t have my lunch, or when our always aging always rusting always breaking car broke down again….  I learned all the ways those events impacted the community’s perception of my family, of our single-parent household, and I got better at hiding them.  And from them.  But racial discrimination?  That wasn’t a part of my life, as far as I could see.  Holding the torturous position of “Smart Kid” in a tiny rural school?  THAT was a part of my life.

So, I was sort of blind, at the time, to the racism my mother saw.  But looking back, I remember her rage very clearly.  When we left parties abruptly, because someone had made a n*gger joke and Mum’s face glowed a furious blazing fuschia while that room full of acquaintances laughed and laughed.  Or when strangers told me how cute I was, and then asked my Mum how long she had been looking after me.  At that time, for me, these things were sort of inconsequential, you know?  At the time, she kept these bits of darkness carefully and intentionally away from the light of her life.

I am so grateful.

Danica, my baby girl, was born into an established suburban community.  We have fences and mature trees and neighbours who look after their yards.  Everyone we know has a newish and well-maintained car.  Or two.  When she wants something, she asks for it, and the “can’t” is only limited to how many things I think she should have.  Not how many things I can’t afford to give her.  My kids have no relationship to the cracked asphalt and gravelly pavers of the Low Rentals.  They’ve never had to move away because of bad luck and worse money.  They’ve never been hungry.  They have a pack of friends whose parents watch them carefully, and they don’t know what it’s like to be out of eyesight with the neighbourhood kids until way past bedtime on a summer night.  They were born into a different lifestyle and a different time.

I’m not entirely sure that’s good for them.

My skin is coffee brown, the amount of cream added strongly dependent on the season and time spent playing outside.  My husband, the son of a light-skinned Jamaican and a caucasian Canadian, could pass as white.  And so my children’s complexions are much lighter than mine.  They have medium-beige skin, chocolate brown eyes, and reddish-brown nappy hair.  My daughter can pass.  My son looks enough like me that people wonder, but don’t ask – and perhaps that is one of the blessings we bought with this comfortable home and this comfortable life.

When Danica was not quite two, she and I would bus home from work and daycare, together.  Buses in Edmonton, Alberta, are usually multi-ethnic, even while many communities here are not.  Black people, white people, Asian people, Indian people, Russian people, Fijian people, Aboriginal people, Filipino people, and more, all sitting shoulder to shoulder with their iPods or novels or newspapers or raucous conversations in a musical cacophony of language….  It was not an intentional thing, at the time, to take my daughter on the bus with me.  It was not a careful or self-conscious decision, to expose my almost-white child to the texture of the world.

One afternoon, a black woman hefted her daughter, about the same age, onto the bus beside us, labouriously planted her stroller brakes, and arranged her mess of bags.  We were waiting at the Jasper Place terminal in a very multi-ethnic neighbourhood.  And, yes, incomes are low there, as too often is the case.  Her daughter’s stroller cost maybe thirty bucks and looked very well used, possibly second or third hand.  Mine cost over a hundred.

Both were equally well-smeared with fruit-snack bits and teething-biscuit paste.

She looked at me, at my daughter, then smiled that angry smile.  She said to her baby, slowly and carefully:  “Look, honey.  A yellow baby!”  That woman – who might have called me “sister” in another context, in another place – she called my daughter high yellow and then grinned at me to make sure I understood.

I would like to think I’m above that kind of bullshit, but I’m not.  I’d like to think that I’m educated enough, experienced enough, well-read enough, to view racists as the hurting, ignorant, broken human beings that I know them to be.  And, if anyone had asked me before that moment what I would have done if someone called my baby girl yellow – with that look, with that voice – I probably would have replied with something compassionate and healing.  A teaching moment, if you will.

Right.

But what I did?  What I did was glare at that woman with her flat, angry, eyes.  And then I smiled at her daughter who was just as beautiful as my own.  Heartbreaking and happy in layers of pink and dirty ribbons.  I said, “Yes, honey, she does have a yellow hat on, today.  And just look at your pretty dress!  You’re like a little flower there, sweet girl.”

I didn’t say it to educate.  I didn’t say it to make it better.  I said it to make that tired, angry, struggling black mother feel like total shit.  I said it to protect my daughter.

Danica is almost six, now.  She has dayhome friends who are Ukrainian, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, and Chinese.  All of them Canadian.  She has cousins who are every different colour of brown, every variation of beige, and who celebrate traditions from Germany, Belgium, Ireland, Jamaica, Fiji, India and China.  She speaks English, is learning French, and has been begging to learn Cantonese.  She has no concept of race.  She has no understanding of ethnic features, beyond the way that her Jamaican grandfather has blue eyes, her dad has hazel eyes, her brother’s eyes are nearly black, and so are her beige grandmother’s and brown mum’s.  There is no geographic attachment to facial features, for her.

I celebrate that.

My daughter loves to draw.  LOVES it.  She has been drawing and writing since she was two, and has sketchbooks and notebooks and bits of paper, and vats of markers and crayons and pencils, all around her all the time.  She loves to draw.

Here is one of her first family portraits:

And here are the two of us, together.  I’m wearing a black shirt and jeans, and she’s wearing a yellow hat (her description) and some optimistically dangly “pierced-ear earings”.  I guess a girl can dream, if she wants to 🙂

“Danica, what’s this picture about?”

She looked at me drily (though, to her credit, she did not say ‘Duh‘).  “We’re celebrating.  See?  There’s CAKE!”

“Why, though?  What do we have to celebrate?”

World-weary sigh.  “Well, everything, Mum.  We have SO MUCH to celebrate.”

Oh, honey.  Yes.  We really, really do.

———

I’m a corporate refugee, grad student, quiet activist and child care provider.  I live in Canada and write about grace, joy, hilarity, leg hair, and life looking after other people’s kids, over at The Valentine 4: Living Each Day.

23 Responses to “My Daughter’s Faces”

  1. catplatt January 29, 2012 at 5:53 am #

    What a wonderful post, it really made me think. It’s amazing how multi-racial, multi-cultural families have become so much more common in the past 20-30 years, and how attitudes are changing, though perhaps not fast enough. I once found myself the only white person at a children’s birthday party, everyone else was a shade of brown, and it was fine of course, but it did just make me pause for thought, and contemplate what it must be like to look different from everyone around you all the time. Have you read Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay? She writes very movingly about growing up in Scotland, the daughter of a white mother and a Nigerian father and her search for her birth parents, also how differently she and her brother responded to their experiences of racism. Like you she reacted with intelligence and grace, and she pushes other people to question their assumptions.

    • DesiValentine January 29, 2012 at 8:22 pm #

      My family went to Jamaica two years ago, to visit with my husband’s family there and just have our first real vacation, together. Of course, it was beautiful and amazing and relaxing. But the best part? The most surprising part? Everyone looked like us. Everyone. My family, with all of its shades of brown, looked just like every other family in town and in the local-friendly resorts. What an experience!

      I haven’t read Red Dust Road, but I certainly will, now! Thanks so much for your kind words. I certainly wasn’t thinking “grace” at the time 🙂

  2. natasha devalia January 29, 2012 at 10:33 am #

    Great Post Desi!
    I love Danica’s drawings!
    It’s interesting to notice how she perceives not only the rest of the family, but herself as well. I often wondered how people viewed me when I was in situations where I was the only brown person around, and how I felt about it.
    What you came up with on the spur of the moment on that bus that day was brilliant! Those two little people are lucky…Thanks for sharing the story here with us.

    • natasha devalia January 29, 2012 at 3:27 pm #

      Your post brought up some memories from way back…and so did Cat’s comment. I have a few memories of racism to share with you, only to say it made my heart cringe. I felt angry, and sad. I was around 10 years old when I remember my mother telling off someone in the streets of Lusaka for calling us “mwenye,” which is a derogatory term for Indian. Sometimes there was a “go back to India,” attached. She was a bit defensive and said something about how her family has been Zambian for over 100 years (referring to my dad’s), so we are probably more Zambian than the person saying that. They are usually very poor, and many times (as she tried to explain something to me later), they are refugees from neighbouring countries who’d hardly spent a few years in Zambia. Anyways, I only have fond memories of the people, always smiling, laughing, relaxed. I was brought up by local Zambians (well a Zimbabawean nanny), and some my and my families closest friends are black, so there is much love from me. And then on the other hand, there were MANY incidents of racist Indians. This was unbearable for me. It’s all messed up. And how I dealt with it is different from how one of my brothers did. I didn’t really feel like I belonged – but that’s been my personality always. My brother fought hard to fit in, he had to prove himself on the football field among poorer black Zambians. He did. My brothers both always considered themselves Zambians. I was always in the grey.

      In a completely different setting, much more recent, in Lebanon, my parents came over to visit us. I took them to a restaurant I had been to with Maher a number of times, for a cup of tea, overlooking the Mediterannean. We sat and ordered tea. They didn’t have tea. I knew it was because we were brown. Mostly the brown people around are srilankan maids. The African workers, philipinas, Srilankans etc., are sometimes looked upon as lowly. I stood up, angry, and told my paretns to leave with me. My parents didn’t get it immediately. I was embarrased to have put them through that, and worried that they’d have a horrible impression of Beirut…a city I love that is filled with some racists, but also with some of the most dear people I have ever come across. By then I was “used” to the racism, to the identity checks, (just because I was brown walking amongst others…and then with a Zambian passport if was another story.) Anyways, I could go on and on…just a few stories to say “I hear you Desi.” As always, thanks for your real, and super writing!

      • natasha devalia January 29, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

        Last note! I hope I can deal with such situations, especially if it’s with my children in the future, with as much creativity and grace as you did!

        • DesiValentine January 30, 2012 at 12:05 am #

          It is all messed up. And it’s sad and hurtful and crazy-making that people hold on so hard to these INCONSEQUENTIAL ways that we are different. We’re in an age, now, where an Indian-looking person or an Asian-looking may be three or four generations away from India. Or a black person may be centuries away from any part of Africa. And so these insults have no basis. And these imaginary boundaries or desperate grasps at cultural solidarity, they have no basis, either. I’m not celebrating the death of culture, by any means. Cultural traditions have so much value! I’m just saying that we have to be very cautious when we look at someone and make assumptions about who they are. Funny how most kids just seem to know that, and so many adults seem to have forgotten.

  3. ceciliag January 29, 2012 at 1:24 pm #

    Wow Desi, enormous post, very well written and beautifully honest. You are a wonderful girl. I would like to add something incredible but I just loved it all and your gentle fighters spirit. But truly, truly I don’t even get racism.
    When I came out into the world and saw it for its small meanness and fear I was shocked. Living in good Old NZ. I just thought racism was a thing from history, this division unto colour. I have to admit that i am still confused by it. I have a tall brown son, my first boy and .. I don’t know, I never really thought about him as being different from the others.. If someone looked at us funny, I did not even see it. c

    • DesiValentine January 30, 2012 at 12:10 am #

      Thanks so much, C! I think it’s wonderful that you didn’t see it, and I really, really hope that it wasn’t there. One of the double-edged things about being aware of racism is that once you’ve seen it, that effort to protect yourself from it makes it so much more visible – even when it isn’t there.

  4. Lindy Lee January 29, 2012 at 1:25 pm #

    People can be kind, loving & beautiful, while at the same time, they can be hateful, mean & ugly. Your writing here, Desi, is a poignant reminder for all of us to respect and enjoy one another because as Somerset Maughm once said, “We live so short a time to be happy and we are so long dead”…

    • DesiValentine January 30, 2012 at 12:12 am #

      Yes! Let’s respect and enjoy each other and celebrate these brief time we have! I’m a little embarrassed to admit I’ve never read Maughm, either. Thank you for furthering my education, Lindy Lee 🙂

  5. Hudson Howl January 29, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    I hope the celebration continues forever and becomes global block party.

    • DesiValentine January 30, 2012 at 12:14 am #

      Me, too, Hudson. I’m grateful to live in a time when we can say, without pretension, that a party like that is possible. One day 🙂

  6. kathryningrid January 29, 2012 at 2:42 pm #

    Beautifully said, Desi. The gift that your mother gave you and you are passing on to Danica and Shelton is the knowledge that people are just people, whatever they may look like on the outside, and the more that attitude is inculcated and spread in the world the healthier community we will be. Color, height, weight, hair type–how can any of these even remotely compare in relevance to kindness, generosity, thoughtfulness, inventiveness, patience or love?

    • DesiValentine January 30, 2012 at 12:19 am #

      Thanks, Kathryn. You’ve reminded me of a recent forum discussion with my classmates on whether or not black feminist theory could be applied to any other groups of situation. In my life, I don’t think I’ve experienced any more hurtful discrimination than people in my family who are white and obese, or white and disabled, or white and in foster care. We are all just people. We all live and cry and fall down and get up and love with our whole hearts. I wonder how much racism is a tool to hide behind our shared vulnerability. Real life can be scary, you know?

  7. t January 29, 2012 at 8:24 pm #

    Wonderful post Desi. Thanks for sharing your experience. Thanks for sharing your reason for celebrating.

    • DesiValentine January 30, 2012 at 12:20 am #

      You’re so welcome, T. Thank YOU for reading about it! =)

  8. Dena Weigel Bell January 31, 2012 at 5:49 pm #

    Thanks for your perspective on raising a multi-ethnic family. I’m the adoptive mother of a hispanic/caucasian one-year-old. My husband and I are both of European descent and I’m what you would call ‘transluscent’ next to my daughters wonderfully, gorgeous brown skin. Being a part of a family such as ours is new to both my husband and I (me particularly, since I grew up in a very small, NW Kansas town made up only of ethnic Volga Germans). It’s been interesting to see how people react to my noticably darker baby…and even more interesting since the remarks and confused expressions have come from people in the city where I now live, as opposed to the town where I grew up. When I’ve visited my hometown people have been so excited about having a new baby to hold and cuddle. It was a bit surprising that the prejudices have come from such a multi-cultural city as Portland, OR. Thanks for sharing your experience…this is the new world we live in and I think it’s beautiful!

    • DesiValentine February 2, 2012 at 1:13 am #

      Thank you for sharing your perspective! Because I’ve experienced racism most in small towns, I’ve always assumed them to be less inclusive, less understanding, more judgmental than bigger cities. Especially multi-ethnic cities. This new world, is beautiful, absolutely. Thank you for the reminder to open my eyes, really open them, and take a look.

  9. Heidi Nevin February 1, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

    Oh my, Desi, this is beautiful. Your writing, your daughter’s artwork, your keen insight into the human condition, it’s all awe-inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and for bringing to light these extremely important questions for all of us to ponder. I love the thread that has come from it too. I’ve been pretty horrified to see my own father’s racist attitudes towards my Asian husband, who has limited English–when he got a job at our local hospital washing dishes and quit within the first week because they wanted him to work 11-hour days for minimum wage, my dad said something like, “But dish-washing is what immigrants do! They start at the bottom and work their way up the ladder!” I was so angry. And there have been soooo many comments about my children’s gorgeous, peachy-golden skin…all positive, but enough already? I’m so grateful to be in a mixed-blood family now…the superiority complex that whites have in this world is just despicable, and it’s time to grow up. I suppose, though, all cultures have racist attitudes towards the “other”, and it is only when borders and barriers break down and blood begins to mix that our narrow-minded judgements begin to dissolve. Thank you again…as always, please write more for us!

    • DesiValentine February 2, 2012 at 1:10 am #

      What an amazing comment. Thank YOU! I know exactly what you mean about people complimenting your kids’ complexions. Of course, their skin is beautiful, of course your children are beautiful, but it is exactly that fixation on skin – on what we look like, not who we are – that makes people feel justified in paying immigrants minimum wage to work dishwashing jobs for 11 hours at a stretch. It would be such a good thing if we could just stop noticing, you know?

      And it’s not just a racial thing. I’ve seen white women in my life face equal discrimination and derision for being obese, disabled, unfashionable or any broad variation from our feminine “ideal”. All because it’s so easy to filter our expectation of identity through what we see, NOT what we know. But maybe that’s a post for another day 😉

      • Heidi Nevin February 2, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

        I know…the number of posts this inspires is endless! I have to stop myself from composing posts in my head as I go about my days…good thing I don’t have an inner typist or this site would be flooded with all too blah-blah-blah! Yes, when it comes right down to it, “racism” is simply another expression of dualistic delusion. May we all swiftly realize our innately compassionate buddha nature!

  10. ifiwerebraveblog February 1, 2012 at 7:48 pm #

    Desi, you never disappoint. Wonderful, eye-opening post, and as always, your words go right to my heart.

    • DesiValentine February 2, 2012 at 1:04 am #

      Thanks, Dory. I’m so happy it touched you 🙂

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