Ebonye Gussine Wilkins: I was born and raised in Queens, NY, in the 1990s. I grew up in a neighborhood that seemed to have roughly equal numbers of African-Americans and Afro-Caribbean people. I experienced a lot more ethnic and cultural diversity when I went to high school. I became so used to it that it was only when I attended college at a predominately white institution that I realized that not everyone had the same idea of what racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity meant. When I moved to California, a series of incidents really challenged what I understood about my identity. It was there that I became a mother, and it helped shape the narrative of what motherhood was going to mean for me. I grew determined to give my child a blueprint outlining the kinds of racial prejudices, assumptions based on ethnicity, and difficult conversations that she will be faced with all of her life — and help her navigate these with her value and self-esteem intact.
In the past several years, there has been so much discussion about white privilege that I am now much more aware of my own. But I can’t pretend to understand, on a visceral level, life as a Black woman.
My daughter's life experiences will always be strikingly different than her white friends, and I am trying to prepare her for it without letting on how tricky it is.
EGW: The hardest thing is not only keeping her safe and alive, but also keeping myself and my husband safe and alive to raise her. As we saw with Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and Korryn Gaines, that isn't easy. Telling folks that acting a certain way is enough to keep a Black or brown child or adult alive is not only damaging, but we've also got tons of proof that that's not the case. EGW: What are your observations when your daughter interacts with other children of color? VM: Her new language-immersion kindergarten is mostly white and Latinx, but in her old preschool, she hung out with a group of friends that was Cheerios-quality diversity: one Ghanaian girl, a Japanese-American girl, an Armenian girl, a biracial boy, and white twins, one of whom may be gender-fluid. In the past, she talked about beauty and associated it with light skin. I’m concerned that there isn’t more celebration of different shades of beauty in mainstream kid media and toys. There’s usually a sidekick of color, but hardly any heroines. It was hard to explain that it’s cool to love Pocahontas, but not cool to play "Indian princess."
I’m concerned that there isn’t more celebration of different shades of beauty in mainstream kid media and toys. There’s usually a sidekick of color, but hardly any heroines.
EGW: I'm always going to be fighting negative stereotypes and assumptions about who I am, how much education I have, and what I have accomplished in life. And every single last one of those assumptions will reflect on my child. I won't likely be seen as just a mom doing her best. Everything I do and say will be colored with other people's biases of what Blackness is and means.
VM: We don’t watch TV news so that’s not a thing she’s regularly exposed to. I don’t think she could comprehend a bad cop right now. That’s part of our privilege — I don’t have to prepare her to prove her innocence when an authority is suspicious of her in a store, at a traffic stop, or just walking down the street. She needs to know that other people don’t have it so easy. VM: I’ll ask the annoying white lady "What can I do?" question now.
EGW: Hearing stories from people you can ask questions of will go pretty far. We shouldn't expect them to bear the burden of educating us, but we need to go out there and seek information.
I won't likely be seen as just a mom doing her best. Everything I do and say will be colored with other people's biases of what Blackness is and means.
VM: We talk a lot about ways to handle bullies and other situations — the other day, she said she was “heartbroken” because boys teased her when they saw her underwear — and how to be friends with people who are left out or shy. I keep trying to model behavior for her by how I relate to people. It’s an ongoing process. EGW: Modeling behavior is hard but so important. I think the takeaway here is that neither of us should be feeling guilt or shame about the work that needs to be done to raise thoughtful and socially conscious children. VM: In a way, I feel whiter than ever because I don’t have the same challenges you do, solely because of the color of my skin. I need to chip away not only at systemic issues through my work as a writer, but also keep checking myself with everything I do or say, down to a micro level: Is what I’m doing improving the life of my sisters and brothers, and if not, how can I do it better? EGW: I think if more people were taking their everyday actions to a more conscious level, and we were having more open conversations like this one, we’d be laying the groundwork to resolve a lot of these issues. This is a baby step, but it’s necessary. Ebonye Gussine Wilkins is a social justice writer and editor focusing on changing editorial standards and advocating for inclusion of traditionally marginalized peoples.Vanessa McGrady lives in Los Angeles and writer about money, parenting and eco-socio consciousness, sometimes all at the same time. The views expressed here are their own.