My beautiful black daughter, Ella, turned ten. No more single digits. No more little girl. She’s grown two inches since December. She’s dealing with her first pimple. She has the beginnings of a teenager’s sarcastic wit. This is both wonderful and frightening. It is wonderful to watch her becoming a young woman and frightening when I remember what it means to become a black woman in America. While I celebrate her growing maturity and independence, I also realize my ability to protect her from racism is diminishing.
Last week, she and I went on a walk. For years, this meant her walking beside me. Now I walk and she rides her scooter, exploring her burgeoning freedom to navigate this world. Vacillating between child and young adult, sometimes she rides next to me and sometimes she ventures far ahead of me, only circling back when I call out to her.
As we walk through our white neighborhood, I notice a new dynamic. When she is beside me, the white people we encounter greet us with warm smiles, wishing us a good day. They recognize her as my daughter or granddaughter and offer her all the entitlements of my white privilege. But when she ventures too far ahead of me, when it isn’t obvious she is connected to me, the demeanor of the white people she encounters shifts. No one smiles and greets her. Some stare at her, obviously disturbed by this unaccompanied black girl in their neighborhood. Only when I call out to her to slow down or come back, do they relax.
I’m not criticizing these people. How can I? They are like me. Their reaction has been my reaction when I’ve encountered people of color where I did not expect them. Discomfort. Suspicion. Even hostility. Yet, as I watch the reaction of white people like me, I am also ashamed. This is white privilege exposed. It is not an academic abstraction, open to debate. It is a visible manifestation of a deeply embedded inequity and cruelty.
It is as if I am carrying a large umbrella on our walk. When Ella is near me and underneath that umbrella, she is afforded all the rights and respects of my white privilege. But, when she ventures outside my umbrella’s shadow, she immediately loses those benefits. She is judged differently. She is greeted with discomfort and suspicion. She is no longer endearing. She is a threat.
So I am finding her tenth birthday bittersweet. I am so proud of who she is becoming, of her intelligence and creativity, her passion for life, her kindness to others and her genuine outrage over injustice. On our walk, I asked her who – in her class – she thought most likely to become the President of the United States and she replied, “Me, of course.” I love the confidence with which she approaches her future. I have so much to celebrate on her birthday.
But I am also aware of the forces that will do everything in their power to keep my beautiful black daughter from becoming the President of the United States. She will spend less and less of her life walking under the umbrella of my white privilege. She is moving out into a world where she will have many opportunities to be outraged at injustice. What she does not fully understand is how often she will be the victim of those injustices.
She is why I write these posts. I wish I had thought and written such things long ago, but I didn’t understand my complicity in racial injustice until I became her father. Without becoming her father, I would still be oblivious. For this reason, I try to be patient with those – who in their ignorance – continue to downplay the role of racism and white privilege in our nation. How can they understand? They can’t see the umbrella under which they walk.
This is why I speak out even though I often irritate friends and family. Speaking out is the least I can do for Ella. I can try to make visible what is invisible, to illustrate what seems abstract or absurd to many white people. I write because I want my daughter to grow up in a world where the possibility of her becoming the President of the United States is neither ridiculous nor improbable, where the white people she encounters see what I see – beauty, intelligence and incredible potential.
I cannot give Ella that gift for her tenth birthday, but that is the gift she deserves.