Technically Brown

TW: anti-Black sentiments, racism, colorism, anti-immigrant sentiments, suicide, brief mention of Freddie Gray

My daughter TJ and I are Hispanic. We’re light-skinned and have curly hair. TJ’s hair curls into ringlets. My curls are a bit messier. Many times we’ve been told that while it’s a shame our hair isn’t straight, we’re lucky it isn’t “bad hair”.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, I always heard people talk about “morenos” in a negative light. When I moved to NYC several cousins warned me to be wary of Black men. My totally not White grandfather used the “n” word against African-American people. He used it against Afro-Latinos. His mother was not light-skinned and she had what he called “kinky hair” but she was loved in our family. He and his mother were brown but they weren’t THAT dark so they were OK.

When I was in elementary school in PR I was made fun of because of my nose. I had a mess of curls and a big nose. To my classmates I was “negra”, clearly from the Dominican Republic. I obviously must have sneaked into the country and lied about being Puerto Rican. There was another classmate who was dark skinned. He was so bullied he contemplated suicide. We were in fourth grade.

When I took my daughter to PR to meet my family, I heard a lot of back-handed compliments about her “white” skin and light-almost-blonde hair. Such a ‘shame it’s so curly’, but thankfully she’s “tan blanquita y linda” (so white and pretty). They were shocked to learn that her father is half-Dominican. “Como puede ser si es tan blanquita y rubiona” (how can that be when she’s so white and sort of blonde”?

I thought perhaps naïvely that I wouldn’t have to talk to my five-year-old daughter about racism just yet. In a previous post I wrote about having to explain to my daughter about oppression and some of the types she faces. We had to have that conversation again when her teacher’s White “cop friend” paid a visit to her class. Having the cop visit wasn’t what bothered me. What bothered me was that he handcuffed the kids. Her class was made up of primarily children of color. This was not long after Freddie Gray’s murder in Baltimore. It just seemed like this cop was normalizing this to these kids. I was upset and TJ asked why. “But we are peach, mama.”, TJ said after I explained systemic and institutionalized racism in the most age-appropriate way I could think of. “Yes, but we’re technically Brown too”, I said not sure if any of this stuck.

Once again, these will be ongoing conversations which will be expanded as she gets older and better able to understand. She’s only five yet she’s already had to learn about sexism, racism, misogyny, and classism. She’s already experienced them and will continue experiencing them.

I feel so powerless. All I can do is continue talking to her and make sure I arm her as best I can with the knowledge and self-esteem to know she isn’t limited by her gender, race or social status. All I can do is hope that as she gets older that previous sentence becomes true.

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