You are only five years old but I keep having this recurring nightmare about your teenage years. In this nightmare, you are in New York City where we live with a bunch of other kids your age. The cops are questioning your friends, but they skip you. You tell everyone you have to get home. So, you dip out and head back as if nothing happened.
Every time I have this dream, I wake up sweating intensely.
Before you were born, your dad was all prepared, reading and learning what it would be like for a white man to raise a brown child. But when you were born, you weren’t brown. You weren’t black. Instead, you were born with pale skin and red hair.
Embarrassingly, as your mom, I felt a sense of relief.
THAT conversation – the one forewarning you about potential bullies and struggles because of the color of your skin – we don’t need to have with you. We don’t have to worry that if you wear a hoodie someone will assume you are dangerous and harm you. You are less likely to be hurt by the police without cause. Instead, you will live a life with more privilege and opportunity than if your skin color matched mine, which is black.
However, I want you to know what you look like doesn’t change who you are or where you come from.
You have a lineage and a legacy of conscientious objectors, including my papa, Madison Shockley, who was the most important man in my life before you, your dad or your Uncle Sage came along. Papa was ahead of his time. He stood up for social justice and fought hard for civil rights. From Tennessee to Los Angeles, he advocated for the desegregation of lunch counters. He took part in the March on Washington when Dr. Martin Luther King gave his historic “I have a dream speech” in an effort to end racism. Decades later, he attended the Million Man March, which aimed to unite African-Americans as they combated inequality.
Part of the reason you look the way you do is not only because your dad is white but because my great great grandfather is also white. In 1897, your great great great grandfather, Isaac Jolly, married a black woman, Minnie Minor. At the time, this was remarkable. Back then you didn’t see couples that looked like me and your dad. People married people of their own race. Your great great great grandfather was socially disowned by his family, as he openly walked the world married to a black woman. Together, they had 12 children.
More than 100 years later, I am sure you have already noticed moments where people upset me – like at school when your classmates’ parents thought I was your caregiver or in the streets when people assume I am your nanny. There is nothing wrong with being a nanny, but I am your mom and I am proud to be your mom.
In your life, you might hear mean words about people who look like me, people who are black or brown. People will talk differently in front of you than they would in front of me because they will think you are white.
You, in all likelihood, won’t be targeted by biased teachers or administrators. You won’t unjustly miss out on a promotion at work. You won’t be impacted by stereotypes that lead people to assume black people aren’t as smart or as educated.
Right now, you don’t have much of an understanding of race or racism. But as a child, you are already picking up on subtle cultural messages that say black is bad and white is good. Often the good guys are dressed in white and the bad guys are in black. As you move through the world as a good-looking and seemingly-white person, I am afraid of how society will influence you.
I am worried that one day you will say, “I’m not claiming my heritage.”
I am worried you will say, “I am not black.”
I want you to know that you ARE black. Even though you won’t experience much racism and people probably won’t even inquire about your background, as they do to me, it doesn’t mean you are better than anyone else. You just have a plethora of genes that happen to sort themselves out in this way.
I still want you to identify with my family and be proud of the people who came before you, the stance they took and the progress they made.
When you meet people, I hope you take more than half of a second to draw a conclusion. Our faces are very similar but when people assume I am your nanny, it is because they don’t look past our complexion. When you had two black girls in your class, who were both new and around the same height, you assumed they were twins but they looked nothing alike. I want you to always pay attention to details.
You need to ask people questions about their cultures, look at how people interact with each other and listen to people when they tell you who they are and where they are from. It will show others that you respect them and you will hopefully get that respect in return.
When you witness racism, you will have a choice in how to react. I don’t want you to align yourselves to the point where you get locked up or hurt. However, I hope you call someone’s parents or stay with your friends or even, if it’s appropriate, place your body in the middle of a situation in order to de-escalate a potential problem.
My biggest fear is that you will walk through life with blind entitlement, unaware of the privileges you possess.
I want you to know that it’s not appropriate to watch people being treated poorly or judged unfairly based on the fact that it doesn’t happen to you.
My nightmare is not that you one day will abandon your friends but that you will not feel connected to the struggle of most black people. My fear is that you won’t fight against racism. And if that happens, you won’t only be rejecting your heritage but you will also be rejecting me.
We will figure this out together.
I love you,