If race is a “social invention,” a “biological fiction” as Shirlee Haizlip believes, what is racism? When asked to explain the term, Lisa Delpit—a scholar, a teacher, and the author of an influential book about race and education entitled Other People’s Children—expressed her ideas in the form of a letter to her nine-year-old daughter. It says in part:
My Dearest Maya,
You are amazing. Your golden brown skin, your deep black “ackee” eyes, your wiry, gold-flecked hair that seems persistently unwilling to stay contained in any manner of braid or twist I devise. I listen in amazement at your interpretations of the world and laugh at corny nine-year-old’s jokes. I can’t fathom how you’ve managed to turn those little baby digits I loved to kiss into the long, graceful fingers—adorned at the tips in blue and purple designer colors—that now dance so expertly across your violin strings. Yes, you are amazing.
As much as I think of you as my gift to the world, I am constantly made aware that there are those who see you otherwise.
Although you don’t realize it yet, it is solely because of your color that the police officers in our predominantly white neighborhood stop you to “talk” when you walk our dog. You think they’re being friendly, but when you tell me that one of their first questions is always, “Do you live around here?” I know that they question your right to be here, that somehow your being here threatens their sense of security.
I didn’t tell you exactly what was going on when we took that trip to the Georgia mountains. You and your friend played outside the restaurant while his mom and I visited the ladies room. Later, the two of you told us that a white man and his wife—he with a minister’s collar—stared at you “with mean looks” and made monkey sounds and gestures. You asked why they did that, and I told you that some people were just not nice. I made you promise to come to me immediately whenever an adult was giving you trouble.
I did not have to be told much when I was your age. When I was growing up in Louisiana in the 1950s and 1960s, the color lines were very clearly drawn. I followed my mother to the back entrance of the doctor’s office, marked “colored.” I knew which water fountain I was supposed to drink from. On the bus ride to my all-black school, I watched white children walk to schools just two or three blocks from my house.
In large part, my childhood years were wrapped in the warm cocoon of family and community who all knew each other and looked out for one another. However, I remember clearly my racing heart, my sweaty-palmed fear of the white policemen who entered my father’s small restaurant one night and hit him with nightsticks, the helpless terror when there were rumors in our school yard that the Ku Klux Klan would be riding, the anxiety of knowing my college-aged foster sister had joined the civil-rights marchers in a face-off against the white policemen and their dogs. And, I remember, my Maya, the death of your grandfather when I was seven, who died of kidney failure because the “colored” ward wasn’t yet allowed the use of the brand-new dialysis machine.
Your world is very different, at least on its surface. In many ways now is a more confusing time to live. In Seeing a Colorblind Future, Patricia Williams says we are saturated with insistent emblems of brotherhood—multicolored children singing “We Are the World;” television shows with the obligatory child of color; teachers’ adamant statements that “we are all the same” and “color doesn’t matter.” Yet, attacks on rectifying past discrimination are made unabashedly under the flag of “color-blindness,” white hate crimes are on the upswing, many communities and schools are more segregated than they were 20 years ago. I receive at least a call a week from frantic African-American parents living all over the country who are terrified at the hostility shown regularly by the schools to their brown children.
As any mother would, I have a great need to protect you, but it is hard to know how. My childhood experience was different from yours. As was the case in many African-American Louisiana families, our family was a rainbow of colors from chocolate-brown brunettes to peach-colored blondes. (The history of that reality is a story we’ll need to talk about later.) I was the light-skinned, freckled, red-headed child, who always got the sunburn whenever we went to the beach. Because of my coloring, I had another role, too. When traveling by car, African Americans were not allowed to use the restrooms or other facilities white travelers took for granted. Black families had to develop all sorts of strategies to make a road trip workable. When it was time for a rest stop, one of our ruses was to pull around to the side of the service station and send in the one who looked most like white to get the key. Then, outside of the attendant’s view, everyone would use the facility.
Decades later, when you were an infant, your aunt and I drove to Mississippi. I had not made that trip for many years, and although segregation was officially over, I still felt uneasy at the rest stops. Any African American would. There were Confederate flags printed on every possible souvenir in the gift shops, and restaurants and gas stations were filled with burly, white, cigarette-smoking men with gun racks mounted in their rear windows. Heart racing, cradling my beautiful brown baby, I suddenly realized I did not know how to protect you from the vicious hatred in some of the eyes that stared at us. Or, for that matter, from a society whose very structure privileges some and marginalizes you.
I have tried to protect you from the disease of internalized racism—of seeing yourself through the eyes of those who disdain you—that infects the souls of so many of our young people. When I was in my segregated, all-black elementary school, we were told by teachers and parents that we had to excel, that we had to “do better than” any white kids because the world was already on their side. When your cousin Joey was in high school, I remember berating him for getting a “D” in chemistry. His response was, “What do you expect of me, the white kids get “C’s.” Recently a colleague tried to help an African-American middle-schooler to learn multiplication. The student looked up at the teacher and said, “Why are you trying to teach me this? Black people don’t multiply. Multiplication is for white people.” You know, Maya, I think that may be the biggest challenge you and other brown children will face—not believing the limits that others place upon you.
It is not easy to know how to keep you believing in yourself, even believing in your abundant radiance and beauty. I know there was a time when you couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t allow you to wear a white character mask at Halloween, or why I told your grandmother to stop sending you white dolls.
It’s hard for a mother to know just how far to go with principles, though. And I think you helped me develop a somewhat less strident attitude in your own brilliant, unpredictable way. I remember refusing to buy a white Barbie—even though the store didn’t have the black one with equivalent turn-colors-in-the-sun hair. You were not happy with me, even though I explained at length the reasons regarding not bringing dolls into our family who looked like they would not possibly be a part of our family. “You don’t see any of your white friends begging for a black Barbie doll, do you?” I asked, adding what I thought would be the final word. But several days later in another conversation, you asked, “Mom, do you have any white friends?” “Of course, I do, Maya, you know that,” I answered. “Do you like your white friends, Mom?” “What a question, Maya, if they’re my friends, then I like them.” “Well, Mom,” you delivered your knock-out punch, “my black Barbies want some white friends, too.” Well, my dear, from that moment on your doll collection became interracial.
It is so hard to know how both to engender the possibility of color not mattering—where people will truly be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character—and to give you understanding that will create a protective armor for the real world of racial bias that exists around you. I don’t want to limit you, to have you always on edge (as I sometimes feel) questioning the intentions of white playmates or teachers. Decisions based on color are so pervasive, and people of color so demonized in this country— though racist comments are often thinly camouflaged by such terms as “teen-aged mother,” “the criminal element,” “welfare cheaters,” “drug dealers,” “school drop-outs,” “at-risk students”—that understanding societal realities does not come as easily as it did in my childhood.
Yes, Maya, I really do want to believe that a color-blind future is possible. I never express my doubts when one of the parents at your school calls at the last minute to invite you to a birthday party, adding that “Suzie [whom you hardly know and seldom play with, but who is the only other black girl in your class] is coming.”
I am proud yet torn when I hear you come to some understanding on your own. Like when you were seven and playing with a little friend who had brought his cowboy and Indian figures, and you said, “OK, I’ll be the Indians and you be the bad guys.” Or when you went bike-riding with a friend and came back upset that “a white boy”—as opposed to just “a boy”—said he was going to hurt you. Or when you asked me why there weren’t any black teachers in your school and added that you hoped that the school “didn’t think black people weren’t as smart as white people.” When I told you that you needed to talk to the principal about that, you went right up to her the next day and asked your question. She, to her credit, took your question seriously and explained that they would like to find more black teachers, but that the salaries the school paid made it hard to attract them. Not one to let anyone off easy, you immediately came back with, “Well have you tried Morehouse?”
I am pleased that you have realized that brown skin is good. Yet I am saddened that you cannot be innocent to the unfortunate realities surrounding you. You have understood that the color line lives."A Letter to My Daughter on the Occasion of Considering Racism in the United States," by Lisa Delpit, 1999. Reproduced with permission of the author.