Opinion: The Heartbreak of Raising a Black Daughter in a Red State
By Shanita Hubbard
Ms. Hubbard is an adjunct professor in Pennsylvania.
July 21, 2018
Nearly two years ago, I moved with my daughter, who was then 7, from Yonkers to a small town in Pennsylvania. It’s minutes outside of New Jersey, but right in the heart of Donald Trump’s America. Sixty-one percent of the people in my county voted for him.
We’ve since moved across the county line, but driving through most communities in our area still means seeing large blue Trump campaign signs on perfectly manicured lawns. Chances are, you’ll spot at least two newer-model pickup trucks with Confederate flag license plate frames. As I, a black woman, move through my daily routine, I exchange nonverbal social pleasantries with my neighbors — gestures that are calculated to avoid the kind of actual conversation that could quickly become uncomfortable. A quick nod. A small smile. But all the unspoken words that haunt my interactions in stores and on sidewalks seem to fall freely from children’s lips on the school playground.
Raising a brown girl in a red state is giving me a front-row view of the way the current political climate is affecting young children.
In the past few months, it seems, there is a new, sad, pithy hashtag trending every week or so — a white person calling the police on a black family barbecuing, a black boy mowing a lawn or a little black girl selling bottled water. The interactions are dangerous and also send a dangerous message to children: There are people who believe you don’t belong here. That’s the message I worry my daughter will get every time we drive to school behind a car with a Confederate flag bumper sticker, and worse — when she’s with her classmates and I’m not there to protect her.
When I’m feeling particularly optimistic, I imagine that these kids must have been busy playing, out of earshot, when Mr. Trump’s calling African nations “shithole countries” was reported on the evening news. I try to convince myself that if their parents are defending a man who referred to neo-Nazis as “fine people,” it’s after all the children have gone to bed. I hold out a glimmer of hope that any praise for the “Muslim ban” is saved for when the youngest members of the household are preoccupied with screen time. I assure myself that no mother or father would tell a child that migrant kids from Mexico deserve to be separated from their parents and detained because they are “illegal.”
I am consistently jolted back to reality, and not just by evidence on the internet, like a video that surfaced of two white parents teaching children to be “patriotic” by vandalizing a mosque. My reminders come in the form of my daughter’s answers to “How was your school today?” One recent afternoon she reported that two girls she considered friends could no longer play with her. The reason: She’s brown.
My daughter, who’s 8 now, has been called “the maid” by her white classmates. Even more devastating, in some ways, is when she absorbs the attitudes the other kids seem to have learned from their parents. The other day, she asked me why “Mexicans are so dangerous.” I had to calm the tremor in my voice before I could correct her.
I’m well aware that bigots weren’t invented on Mr. Trump’s Inauguration Day, and I know that these experiences could occur in any state at any time. But I would be naïve to believe that living through a time when racism is spewing from the lips of the president of the United States — and in a place where so many people agree with his views — was not introducing ugly attitudes into my daughter’s life. After all, in the aftermath of the election, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that “a wave of incidents of bullying and other kinds of harassment washed over the nation’s K-12 schools.” The organization called it “the Trump effect.”
I worry that kids with same-sex parents are subjected to similar ridicule. I think about the children who are immigrants, and I can’t imagine what they hear from their classmates when they are out of the earshot of teachers.
I know that even children who do not come from homes with parents who parrot racist messages can be affected by messages that have become more mainstream. That’s why white parents who are attempting to raise their children to respect people from different backgrounds and condemn bigotry when they see it need to have carefully guided conversations with them.
The National Association of Independent Schools advises that when white parents avoid helping younger children understand how to talk about race and racism, it can affect the children’s ability to have effective and productive conversations about race as an adult. It also perpetuates the harmful notion that race is just another topic that “nice” people avoid. We would all like our children to remain innocent as long as possible, but it’s never too soon to start having these difficult discussions.
In an ideal world, I would have waited until my daughter no longer believed in Santa Claus before I had to have “the talk” with her. “The talk” is a conversation that black people have when they inform their children that there are people in our society who would rather see us die than thrive because we are a different color.
But raising a brown girl in a red state means I’m not living in an ideal world. It means being vigilant against the psychological damage of having my daughter internalize the feelings of inferiority that can occur when her peers imply she is less than them. It means I always have to be ready with a response.
I have to do all of this while working to ensure that my daughter knows she’s not inferior to anyone, that she doesn’t become hateful and that she never treats anyone differently based on anything other than character. I try daily to paint a picture for her of the people and attitudes that exist outside her school, and outside our red state. But right now, this is the place she calls home.
Shanita Hubbard is an adjunct professor of criminal justice at Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania.