Helping our sons and daughters get free – Katie Mgongolwa

Katie Mgongolwa
Katie Mgongolwa

The other day, as we were getting ready to head to a friend’s daughter’s 4th birthday party, I asked my 5-year-old daughter if she’d like to see a picture of the birthday girl. My friend and I see each other regularly, but our daughters had not met before.

I pulled up a photo on my phone and showed it to my daughter. “Oh!” she responded, studying it with interest. “She has brown skin like me! I thought she’d have light skin.”

We talk about racial identity regularly at my house, as my daughter is biracial and so such conversations are integral to her understanding of self. But what caught my attention – and my breath – was realizing she was seeing white as the default.

I was reminded of that a few days later, when my daughter tearfully pointed to an old photo of my sister and me. I was about 9 in the photo, and my sister was about 4. We smiled placidly at the camera, identical blond hair and blue eyes. “I want to be in that picture, too,” my daughter said, her voice wobbling. “I want light skin, too.”

My sister, coincidentally, just had a baby, C, in September. C is lively and sweet and so beloved. But it hasn’t been lost on me the vast differences of experiences these two cousins may have. One is a white male born in Arizona. The other is a black girl born in East Africa.

Within the same generation of the same family, two vastly different stories are unfolding. I also see their stories representing a greater narrative for our country.

It has quickly become obvious that despite all the deliberation and intention, the power of whiteness and patriarchy will be a lifelong struggle. When my daughter was 2, she voiced, for the first time, her desire to have light skin and hair – like Elsa from “Frozen,” and like me. When she was 3, she told me boys run faster than girls. And what I’ve truly grown to see is that to affect any sort of change, to shift the narrative so that she isn’t internalizing negative messages about her skin and gender, is going to require the work of everyone.

My hope for my nephew is that the world will expect more of him. I hope that the “boys will be boys” narrative will dissipate, because that will help eradicate #metoo. My hope is that white men in his generation will speak for and vote for others who might not have their power and privilege.

Compared to my daughter, my nephew is less likely to encounter bias at the doctor’s office, less likely to be suspended from preschool or face prejudice in school overall. His textbooks and novels in school will glorify people who look like him. My nephew won’t have the same fear when a police officer pulls him over; and if he has made a mistake, his chances are much higher of avoiding consequences. He will be taken more seriously in school and at jobs (heck, his name and gender alone will help his resume be taken more seriously), and will be less likely to face sexual harassment and assault. He will be seen as a leader instead of bossy and demanding; he will be more likely to get a promotion or a pay raise. The grandparents on both sides of his family obtained college degrees, which studies show has a large impact on generational outcomes. His parents both have American citizenship, and do not have to worry about deportation. Both sides of his family are middle class, practically guaranteeing (relative) financial stability and inherited wealth. His status quo, statistically, will be comfortable.

My prayer for C is that he will choose not to accept the status quo, and that my family is strong enough to make this shift.

As parents, we must choose our children over our comfort. We need to recognize our own agency to work to understand systemic racism, to understand sexism, to understand power dynamics; we need to listen to and believe the stories of the marginalized or disenfranchised. We need to examine how our institutions are breeding grounds for violence in the form of racism and sexism. As we approach the holiday season, where we make choices about gifts and time and conversations, it becomes glaringly obvious that the hardest conversations are the ones where we have something to lose.

What if we all had conversations about racial and gender identity, justice, and anti-racism? What if we held those expectations to our institutions: schools, banks, the government, etc.? What if all kids grew up with a historical knowledge of racial and patriarchal constructs? What if we allowed our boys to experience the full range of emotions- not viewing empathy and sensitivity as feminine? What if our toy aisles and conversations and household responsibilities eradicated gender roles? What if we focused on consent over sexual conquests? What if we were vigilant against sexist and racist behavior? What if we defined “tough” as being able to stand up to intolerance?

Those are a lot of questions. Collective liberation is the answer, and I want it for our children.

Katie Mgongolwa is a high school teacher in Durham. You can reach her at Katie.Mgongolwa@gmail.com. We welcome comments on all our opinion columns online at www.heraldsun.com and at letters@heraldsun.com