By CAROLYN EDGAR
When my 11-year-old daughter said she wanted to go dressed as an Oreo cookie for Halloween last year, I laughed.
“Cami. Really. Think about it.”
“What?” she asked.
An “Oreo” costume worn as social commentary would have been clever. But my daughter’s thinking was much more literal. She loves Oreos. She loves the Oreo commercial that pits Serena and Venus Williams against Eli and Peyton Manning. Why not be her favorite cookie for Halloween?
But at 11, she’s also savvy enough to know the other, derogatory meaning of that term. Understanding washed over her face while I fought to turn my guffaw to a chuckle.
“Ohhhhh.” She ended up wearing a ‘60s mod girl costume instead.
Cami has been called an Oreo often enough in her 11 years. She can't dance. She has no rhythm. GPS navigation couldn't help her find the beat. She couldn’t “code switch” to speak the street language of our Harlem neighborhood if her life depended on it. She’s tired of being told she “talks white,” but I’ve drilled it into her that no one race has a monopoly on proper grammar and diction. She has two or three black friends, but most of her friends are white.
As Cami figures out who she is, I try to stay out of the way. At four, she hated her curly hair and brown skin. Her white preschool classmates never let her play princess with them “because princesses don’t look like you.” Now, she loves her hair and skin. She is proud to be a black girl. She just refuses to let anyone else define for her what being “black” actually means. As she said recently, “I don’t have to like Lil’ Wayne to prove that I’m black!”
Cami has no patience for notions of what black people “do” and “don’t do.” She also does not require the presence of other black people to feel comfortable in a new environment. This past summer, she had her first sleep-away camp experience at a camp just outside Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Before deciding to send her there, I met with the camp director and asked a ton of questions about the camp, but none about the race or ethnicity of its campers.
When the director asked “Do you have any more questions?” for the third time, I realized he was expecting me to ask about the camp’s diversity. I asked the question, knowing the answer would have little bearing on my decision. Cami would be fine whether or not there were other black children at the camp. And things went pretty much as I expected. Cami had a great time at camp and made lots of new friends. The camp did have a handful of black children, but none of Cami’s new friends was black.
As Cami nears her 12th birthday, she tells me the black and Latino kids in her new school criticize her for hanging out with the white kids. She believes people should be judged for who they are, not for what they look like. She argues passionately, to me and to the kids at school, that “it shouldn’t matter” what race her friends are. I agree.
Still, I know from my own experiences that being involved in black social networks also will be important for her social development. By living in Harlem and attending a racially and economically diverse public school, Cami will gain a broad understanding of—or at least exposure to—class, and national and cultural identity issues among black Americans. But I’m a little concerned about what she may be missing by not being a bit more steeped in black culture, and how that might affect her socially.
As much as I hope and believe that we are in a time of true change, I also know that all of the things that divide black people simply will not fade away. I want Cami to continue to decide for herself who she is and who she wants to become. I want her to choose her friends based on common interests rather than common appearance. But I don’t want her to be shunned by other black kids because of those choices. I have considered joining various organizations to expose her to other black children who share her interests, but I wonder if it’s really necessary. I love her independence and her idealism, and a big part of me wants to just leave her alone.
And then there’s my 7-year-old son. I assumed he was still too young for race to be an issue—until the day he asked me how Michael Jackson got his skin to turn white, and could he do that to himself when he grows up.
I gave him a be-proud-to-be-African-American lecture on the spot, and added, "You can't do ANYTHING to look like Michael Jackson, you hear me!" Self-determination has its limits.
About our MyBrownBaby contributor:
Carolyn Edgar is a corporate attorney based in New York City. A mom of two, she writes frequently for the New York City Moms Blog