A few weeks ago a friend of mine posted a series of child’s drawings on Instagram. The first drawing shows a smiling young girl with black pigtails and a tan face, arms outstretched under a smiling sun and a swatch of blue sky. The second, drawn a year later, is also a self-portrait, but the girl in the picture looks different. She is wearing a princess hat, standing at the top of a castle, and smiling demurely behind a sheet of golden hair. Her skin is the white of the paper – the only part of the picture not colored in, besides the snow capping the mountains in the background.
My friend is Korean. She never has been, and likely never will be, a princess with paper-white skin and blonde hair. Her caption below the pictures reads: Look how much my self portrait changed from kindergarten to first… I went from Asian to white.. From commoner to Queen. #wholetmedrawthat #whyamiwhite
Though her post was meant (at least in part) to be funny, it hit me in the gut. As a white woman – one who sports freckles and a sheet of blonde hair myself – I feel increasingly worried about how I am going to raise a daughter who will look much more like the little girl in the first drawing than the one in the second.
She hasn’t been born yet, and ultrasound pictures don’t show color, but I already know my baby won’t look like me. Genetics dictate that she will likely look much more like my Indian husband, who doesn’t worry about sunscreen and needs a haircut every two weeks. In that first year or two, she probably won’t notice or care who she looks like or how people look at her. As she gets older she’ll start drawing those same joyful self-portraits: a little brown girl with black pigtails standing in a field, or playing with her dogs, or swinging on a swing. But what will I do on the day she proudly shows me a self-portrait that looks more like Aurora than Jasmine?
Honestly, will I be able to relate? Growing up, I always looked like the archetype presented to young girls as the American standard of the 1990’s: thin, with blue eyes and blonde hair. People who looked like me were always well-represented in TV shows and on magazine covers. Most of my classmates looked like me, and so did the dolls I played with and the characters in the books I read. It wasn’t until I went away to college that I heard the phrase white privilege, and it wasn’t until my master’s program that I started to understand what it really meant – and that it applied to me. Now, thinking about the way my daughter will see the world, I feel as though I’m looking through a completely new lens. When I page through my pregnancy books, I feel irritated that nine out of ten of the babies in the photos are lily-white. When I hear politicians sow hatred for people with brown and black skin, and abdicate responsibility for the actions of white-power zealots following their lead, it chills me to the bone.
I’m not proud that it’s taken me over a quarter of a century to get to a place where I can not only acknowledge my privilege, but feel genuine empathy and concern for the way people of color are treated in this country. I’m not proud that it has taken my having a dog in this fight to realize this is a problem, in more than the superficial, This is wrong! sort of way. But it still begs the question: What am I going to do about it – both for my daughter, and for the world she will grow up in?
I hope to be able to show her that while there are many, many things about her that are more important than her appearance, it would be a disservice to her to pretend that race doesn’t exist. I don’t want to invalidate her experience as a person with brown skin, or gaslight her into feeling as though some people don’t treat her differently. I hope that we can have frank conversations about it and that I can help empower her to be proud and resilient.
I hope to get involved, as a family, in issues of social justice – not to educate ourselves, but to push this country to do better. I hope to surround her with peers and media in which people like her are represented. I never want her to feel, as my friend once did, that a move from commoner to queen requires white-washing.
I hope to help her acknowledge and understand what it means to be a mixed-race person, because whichever side of her family she resembles, she will ultimately be walking a line between two identities. I hope she never feels pressure to “pass” as one or the other. I hope that she feels she belongs – in this family, this community, and this world – even in those times when she doesn’t feel wholly white or wholly Indian. I hope that while navigating all of this she always, always feels loved.
My husband and I still don’t know how we’re going to accomplish all of this. We’ll be reading, studying, and recruiting family and friends to help us along this journey – because, as they say, it takes a village. I’m scared of messing up – even though, inevitably, we will.
Through and between all of this worry, though, I’m excited to meet her for the first time and tell her, “Welcome. I love you. I’m going to do my best.”