Saturday, August 04, 2012

How a child sees herself

Typically, I am very aware of the people around me. I naturally observe what each person brings to the table and what that means to the goal of the encounter or situation. Even so, I have been oblivious to something—something right under my nose.
This recent relocation has opened my eyes to my daughter in ways I could not have anticipated had I tried. I assumed she will experience highs and lows throughout the transition from Brasil to the southern part of United States, but she is resilient, so I was confident the move would be positive. She has lived in three states and two countries in her short life. Now her cognition is on overdrive and perhaps I was not aware of how much thinking is truly going on.
The second day in our new home, my almost 14- year-old daughter nonchalantly asks, “Have there always been black people in Alabama Mom?”
Looking at her, unsure of what she is asking or where the conversation may lead, I tilt my head and reply, “What exactly do you mean? Like since the beginning of time, the history of the state/country.”
When she replies yes, I deliver a clear, albeit brief, run down of the history of the state of Alabama. How after the “discovery” of the Americas and Westward Expansion, part of the economy that supported the southern parts of the United States depended on slave labor. I remind her that which she already knows regarding slavery and the robbery of millions of human beings from Africa and how so many people were forced to the “New World”, predominantly, but not limited to, areas of the South in the United States. Finishing my mini-history lesson with a definitive, “so, yes, there have pretty much always been black people in AL.” Satisfied, she had no more questions.

A little while later, that same day, my daughter randomly says, “Mom, I am not going to find anyone who looks like me.” (Notice the level of processing going on in her mind. She, for obvious reasons, is concerned about making new friends, and it is human nature to seek others who “look” like us to forge friendships.)

I ask, “What do you mean?”

To which she replies, “I just think you chose to live in a part of the city that has mostly black people.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, and honestly with almost no thought, I turned to her and asked, “Do I need to remind you that YOU are 50% black?”

To this reply, she giggled, demonstrated a bit of embarrassment and said, “Oh yeah! Never mind.”

The significance of this observation is truly amazing to me. Living outside of the US for the past six years, my daughter has not been forced to look at herself through a North American racial lens. The history of this country and its impact on the race situation has not been personal for her. This is not to say that race is not an issue in Brazil. It most certainly is. It is just different and worthy of a separate post.

What matters right now is that this conversation reminded me to think about what it means to be a bi-racial child of a single parent? I understand the daily effects of white privilege I carry with me as a middle-class, white female in the United States. I forgot, however, how much that privilege has indirectly influenced my bi-racial daughter throughout her life.

For a bi-racial child of a single parent, it means that one half of the child’s ethnic identity is not present in her day-to-day. Actually, this is the case for all single parent children. However, in a society where race is visible and the history regarding race differences is not so distant, bi-racial children—perhaps—face a different element to “coming of age” and “defining oneself” than children of mono-race parents in particular when one parent is not present.

I took for granted that my daughter identifies with both sides of her genetic make-up. I assumed that the conversations about history, current events, family tree, and life were enough.

We know how we see ourselves. We know how we view others. We have an idea how others view us. But nobody knows how the other views herself.

What I can say proudly is that I watch my daughter encounter new people and interact with strangers in a store, and I witness her generous openness and kindness. I see her greet others with sincerity and respect regardless of each individual’s outward appearance. For this I am proud. After all, it is this very acceptance of differences that I have hoped to instill in her. I hope to foster the tools she will need to be part of a diverse global community because I know that self-identification is an on-going process that doesn’t magically end after adolescence.

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