Monday, July 20, 2009

More Than Skin Deep

Is my baby too white?

I am not talking about the actual baby, Cily, who is in point of fact, rather fair-complexioned. I am talking about Miss Viva, my firstborn baby, she of the gorgeous brown skin which seems to glow from within.

Viva goes to a multiracial, multicultural private school during the year (it doesn’t bill itself as such, but that is one of the reasons we chose it). Most of her closest school friends are boys, and many of them are black. When we got together recently with four other families – including the boys and their younger sisters – Sweet Dub noticed that all of the kids sounded the same. They have this kind of California middle-class accent. “You can tell none of those kids are from the ‘hood,” he said.

“Well, no, they’re not,” I said.

“Poor Viva,” he said, laughing. His mom says that when she takes Viva to see relatives from out of town (Texas), they all comment on how “proper” (not-Texan?) she speaks. “I guess my mom is right, but what’s wrong with that?” he said. “At least she’s not coming home from school dancing the Stank Leg.”

As my grandma would say, “Whoo, chile – let me tell yuh.” One of our friends, K, has a daughter a year older than Viva. Started out in private preschool and then in kindergarten moved to a public school in Baldwin Hills, a predominantly black area of LA. She came home from school one day and showed her mom she had learned how to do the Stank Leg on the play yard. “Thank you, LAUSD,” K said sarcastically. Oh man, I was falling over laughing. Thank God I’m old and don’t have to keep up with this mess. If I was 16 I would have to know how to do the Stank Leg!

(By the way, apparently to do the Stank Leg all you have to do is act like you got a cramp in your leg and lean. What on earth?)

The bookend to this is that last week Viva came home from camp, which skews considerably less multiculti than (but just as solidly middle to upper-middle class as) her school, and started singing “to the left, to the left,” and pulling some Beyonce moves. I shot a questioning look at Sweet Dub and he grinned. “You know what? The white kids taught her that,” he said to me, out of earshot.

Well, of course, because she certainly isn’t learning it at home. That must be because we are not letting Viva listen to any black music*, according to his mom. She has come to this conclusion because as she says, Viva dances like a white girl (!!). You know how Viva dances? She dances like a 6-year-old who wants to be a rock star, which is what she is.

So again, is my baby too white?

Or asked another way, is she not “black enough”?

What makes me nuts about all this (oh God, where to begin?) is this implication that we are making Viva into an Oreo, a sell-out, that we are somehow (deliberately!) whitewashing her. You know what? Sorry, but I don’t buy it. At the end of the day, my child is a black girl. Regardless of what she sounds like or how she moves, that is what people see.

I think about how I was raised, in a predominantly white lower-middle-class neighborhood, with a “mulatto”/mixed-race/light-skinned or whatever-you-call-her mom and a white stepfather, and I know that baggage from my upbringing automatically makes me defensive in this regard. I was not white enough for the white kids in my neighborhood, despite being light enough to “pass.” I was not dark enough for the black kids in the junior high I was bussed to – one girl constantly picked fights with me because, as she said, “You think you’re cute.” (It was junior high! I was in my awkward phase! I totally did not think I was cute.) But as I know now, this says more about them than it does about me.

And I know that this is true, too with Viva. She is a happy kid. She is proud of being brown. She knows she’s pretty and smart and strong and fast and that she’s very creative with an incredible imagination. She is pretty tough and self-confident. Sometimes she cares what people say about her and sometimes not (especially when she knows it’s not true). My mother-in-law grew up in a different time, when she wasn’t made to feel proud of being brown, and then lived through the Civil Rights Era, when she was told to say it loud, she’s black and she’s proud. It’s complicated. I think she is still struggling with reconciling these two things.

Viva can be, if she wants, a black girl rocker. She’s leaning toward electric guitar. I think that would be cool. And if she’s a black girl rocker who happens to speak “proper,” where’s the harm in that?

* Completely untrue. We listen to a variety of music but as Sweet Dub says, “We can’t listen to hip-hop** in front of her!” The stuff we listen to (and we don’t listen to the same artists) has some pretty strong language – profanity and the like - and some of it is sexual, which even if it’s couched euphemistically I don’t want Viva singing along to. That is a post in and of itself and I’ll get back to it someday.

** And it’s not just hip-hop. Okay, I’ll stop.


Mango Mama said...

All I can say is... welcome to my world. This post mirrors the exact same issue we're facing with Olivia and Yannick. In fact, Miss Olivia's dance moves has caused me to label her Miss Rhythm -less Nation! Keep on keeping on and hopefully all of our children will eventually gravitate to each other and the world will be a more colorful place.

EMERGE said...

Wow. So many things to think about. Keep doing what you are doing. Your family is beautiful and you all look so happy, who cares about all that other stuff.

Lisa Blah Blah said...

MM: Yeah, it's just so frustrating dealing with color issues within my own family. Sweet Dub's grandmother (who is very light) said when she saw Cily for the first time, "Oh, look at that skin! She's gonna be stuck up!" Wow. Really? REALLY? I do not know what to say to that.

Emerge: Thanks for commenting. I was kind of frustrated when I posted that and I don't know if it came out as articulately as I would like, but there it is. Thank you for your advice - it is easier to brush things off when a little time has passed. Trying to keep a sense of humor about it!