A few months ago, I was walking home from the bus stop with my eldest daughter during the last week of kindergarten. She was lagging behind as usual, picking up sticks and shiny rocks, when she casually asked, “Mama, are the kids with browner skin more trouble? Why can some of them not read too well? Why do some people think Spanish is not good?”
In that moment, the heart that lives in my stomach jumped, and a mild nausea set in. At six years old, my now first-grade daughter is privileged, more than she understands, in ways that are painful and complicated for me to discern as both a highly educated, upper-middle-class parent, and as a woman of color who did not start out with such advantages.
During that walk home, I looked at my daughter and reflected on where I was when I was her age, at how familiar yet different the contours of our childhoods will be, and how our stories intertwine and come apart.
My illusion that I could somehow shield her from the world was, of course, exactly that—an illusion. At school she had not only learned to read books, but to “read” the lives of other children, to tell the haves from the have-nots from fragments of shared classroom days. She had matched these daily exchanges to skin color, to background, to class, just as the rest of the world does. I had hoped to protect her from these realities, even as my husband and I regularly discuss hot-button election cycle news at home.
But children are always listening, absorbing, and learning, and though my baby girl didn’t know it, she had entered the real world—the one where everyone is measured, but not everyone is judged on the same scale.
The halls of her local public school are filled with every cross-section of society, from a large population of education-focused Ivy Leaguers and their children, to residents of an economically challenged neighborhood, and everyone in between. Her kindergarten teacher, like most in the public-school system, recognized this, meeting and honoring each child where they were.
My daughter is Puerto Rican on my side, and of Scottish and English ancestry on my husband’s side. She’s accustomed to two languages, each with a culture and weight of their own. At her age, I was the child in class who spoke no English. The cadence of my thoughts was, and often still is, filled with the lilts and tones of Spanish. I scored lower on all of the initial assessments due to lack of language skills, and school officials tried to place me in Special Education as a result. But I was also the child who benefited greatly from parents who were college educated, from having a teacher for a mother, and from encountering teachers who cared enough to help me acquire critical language skills. Once English was no longer a barrier, these same teachers identified me as a promising student and saw to it that I was placed in gifted education classes that met my growing academic needs.
I was even more fortunate that a handful of high-school teachers encouraged me to aim for the stars when it came time for college, despite the guidance counselor who told me Ivy League schools—with which I was wholly unfamiliar—was “not for people like you.” What kind of “people” am I, I wondered? I recall the sting of those low expectations, of getting signals that I was somehow too insignificant to be bothered with, just another Puerto Rican kid in an underperforming school.
Already, my daughter’s early memories lack the jagged edges of my own. I remember watching my beautiful, educated mother shake with rage and indignation the first time she was called an illiterate “spick” in a supermarket, her hot tears all the more painful for her because it was in front of me. At six years old I was told, for the first time, that I should be deported back where I came from—a particular irony given that Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth.
As a child you internalize your world; you often become what people believe you to be. Even if you do productive things with that sense of rage, from those exclusions, they are still there, part of the motor that keeps you going, that reminds you of where you came from and where you are headed, that “American as apple pie” is an imagined narrative, a flattened landscape.
There are so many ways, big and small, in which I remember learning that some lives are more worthwhile than others. Our country tells brown and black kids that they are less than by saying they are “thugs” and arresting them without cause, but also by short shrifting their education, by expecting less, in sideways glances and by saying implicitly and explicitly that they are less, that they are anonymous and expendable.
My daughter is half white, has a non-Latino last name, and navigates a space in between, of mixed heritage and lineage. She is frequently complemented on how “beautifully tanned” her skin is in the winter. When I say we speak Spanish in the home and our family is together, we are complimented on our efforts to make her bilingual. But, when I am out alone with my two daughters, the youngest yet too little to notice, we are looked askance at for not using English. Sometimes at the park I am mistakenly assumed to be their nanny, suddenly keenly aware of how the sun catches the blond streaks in their hair. It is strange that language can stake so many claims; so often are my children presumed not to be my own.
Because of her parental level of education, her name, and her looks, people will presume the best of my daughter, not the worst. She will meet her guidance counselor some day and likely be “the kind of girl” that gets into the great school.
I am grateful for it. The tables have turned. Her life will be very different from mine.
And yet, there is a bitter sweetness to it, a knowledge that things are not so simple, that this does not amount to a happy ending, that the way she is received by the world is a product of a colorism and a rejection of Hispanic heritage that remain pervasive in American society. Even in some segments of the diverse and broad Latino community, the concept of “mejorando la raza” (“bettering the race”) by marrying lighter is not only acceptable, but often desirable.
I want my sweet girl to understand that she may not always be judged by her character, that so many have and will face unfair challenges for their ethnic background or skin color, and that conversely there may be times where she will be at an advantage vis-a-vis others because of those same perceptions. As her mother I want to save her from pain, to give her the tools I lacked as I encountered prejudice early on. She is noticing the world, and it is my job to teach her to discern between what feels right and wrong, and how to navigate the gray spaces in which she will often dwell.
I lament that the veil of childhood is giving way, that she notices these differences already. There is a peculiar and intangible grief in knowing that there will be gaps, breaches in our understandings of one another’s experiences. Our early encounters, those that shape our views of the world and our place in it will have been different, and so a part of each of us will always be somewhat out of reach, inaccessible to the other. It is evident every time I say “Te amo” (I love you), and get a pair of small arms around my neck and an “I love you, mamá” back in English.
My daughter straddles two cultures, two kinds of belonging, in a way I never quite did. I struggle with how best to communicate to her that these children that she is already remarking as “different” are in a way her, and us, to explain that the connections one makes are always a product of more than our observations, that they are the sum of our experiences, of our combined expectations of “who is who” in our world. Identity is a complex thing, and something she will come to question, navigate, craft, and ultimately claim for herself one day.
As gently as I can, I feel obligated to make dents in her innocence to build her strength. It breaks me to do so, but particularly as a parent of color it is my duty to tell her, to explain, to prepare her.
I hope it is enough.