Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Hate It Or Love It, This Brown Girl Won't Be Conforming To Your Definition of "Black."




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


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13 comments:

  1. Cami sounds like a girl who is wise well beyond her years. I love that she doesn't think people should be judged for how they look....that goes well beyond just race...but also speaks to external beauty or lack there of. Why judge someone on things they have no control over....why not base an opinion on the things they do control...like how they behave and whether or not they are kind and decent. It sounds like the world would be a better place if it was filled with people like Cami.

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  2. u know i am over here shouting amen! i'm telling you, having a good social network is so awesome for your kids! you are awesome, don't ever doubt that. u r a fab momma! and that precious girl...i love her already!

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  3. Thank you for your comments! It is hard backing off and letting her find herself, but I know it's necessary.

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  4. You must be so proud of your daughter and the stand she is taking for what she knows is right! And I have to tell you ~ your response to your son about him "wanting to have Michael Jackson's white skin" completely cracked me up. So funny!

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  5. Cami sounds like she'll find her way!

    I LOVE the Michael Jackson question==Priceless! LOL

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  6. Cami has a good perspective on friendships and what it means to her to be Black. My sister and I had a very similar upbringing as Cami. We were ridiculed by our black friends at church for talking white but then the white kids would poke fun at us when we had to wear a swim cap in order to prevent our hair from getting wet. Even now, I'm very comfortable with hanging around others not because of their nationality but because of who they are inside. Good for you Carolyn for raising her to be so wise for her age.

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  7. I can completely relate to Cami...I was her! I was the "oreo". I was criticized by my so-called black friends for associating with white people and liking music by white artists. As much as I can get down with Public Enemy, I love me some ROCK! It sounds like your beautiful little girl has way more confidence in herself than I did at her age. I don't think I truly found myself and felt comfortable with with my diverse tastes and cultural tolerances until I was in my twenties! You are doing great by just letting her be her. This was a fantastic post! Thank you for sharing with MBB and her readers!

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  8. Wow... I can't say how much I know how you/she feels. It sounds like you do a GREAT job teaching your children to be proud of who they are while not feeling like they need to fit a certain mold. Thanks for sharing!

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  9. I had all types of friend growing up. I feel comfortable in most settings. At the age of 10-13, I don't recall the interests of any of the kids I knew being really different...and when they were different they were definitely not divided by race.

    I was into Coldplay, Death Cab for Cutie, RHCP..and most of my black friends weren't.They still are't. That doesn't stop me from having black friends. There's this notions that interests are what make people friends. That may get you together, but that isn't what forms a friendship or bond. If that were the case online dating and social networking sites would actually work! It comes down to personality and sense of humor and whether they mesh. I think by saying, kids didn't like me cause I talked white...that's doing those kids and yourself a great disservice. A lot of kids initially didn't understand me or couldn't figure me out for that reason, but that ended rather quickly. Lastly, I feel like a lot of middle/upper middle class black kids isolate themselves without even realizing it. Or there's a weird level of intimidation they have to face.

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  10. Giving your daughter space she needs to develop and take pride in her own definition of self...Love it!!! You're growing a confident, stong-minded, motivated young woman- who's ready to tackle the world-on your hands before you know it!

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  11. "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."

    Me too

    I'd honestly be bothered if my child (who is black) had MOSTLY white friends and had a hard time relating to black people. I would prefer an equal or at least healthy mixture for the sake of his self image and esteem. Of course I actually LIVE in a diverse neighborhood and bring him around a diverse group of people and families. So while he is like your daughter in his thinking that skin color doesn't matter when it comes to being friends, he actually lives it as well. He seems to be able to relate to black, white, latino, etc. and build genuine friendships and relationships with them all.

    While encouraging him not to allow other people to determine who he is, I would not be ok with him giving up on building strong relationships with people who "look" like him. That is not ok to me. Because I figure, "culturally and socially, what is he learning?" I refuse to feed into the idea of my child being "one of the few" black people who like rock and roll, speak proper English, or(insert some socially engrained perception of something black people just don't do).

    With that said, our children are still growing and learning. It's a process we all go through I suppose. The search for self, and self awareness. Because I know that the awareness I have about myself today is much different than it was when I was 11 or 21.

    I really appreciate you sharing this with us.

    Bless!

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  12. "I like the way some blacks have to prove their blackness!" Are you living the "be-proud-to-be-African-American lecture" or just preaching it?

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