When I married my daughters’ dad, a native of Ivory Coast in West Africa, one of my greatest joys came from knowing that my girls (now 8 and 10 years old) would get to learn about African culture. I’m not talking about the stuff you learn in books. I mean the language, the food, and the pride that comes from knowing what tribe your great-great-great-grandfather came from. I assumed this would thrill my kids, too, but it hasn’t worked out that way. And now, more than ever, I want my kids to be educated — and proud — about their culture.
But instead of learning how to make African chicken peanut butter stew, they’d rather fry Korean ginger-honey chicken. Forget Afro beats; they’re team K-pop all the way. While I love that they can appreciate other cultures, the problem is when they put them all above their own.
It’s no secret that neither history, society, nor the media has been kind to people of African descent. So it’s my job to make sure my girls know the beauty and richness of their culture. If I fail, they fail — because nothing can stand without strong roots. But at the same time, I know that sometimes I can be downright heavy-handed when it comes to achieving my goal. I never miss an opportunity to praise the sheer gorgeousness of dark skin — to the point that my daughters once asked me if I don’t like my own light brown skin.
“All skin is beautiful,” I told them, “but I really love darker skin like yours.”
I put dark skin on a pedestal in our home, because I hope that if they know Mommy loves it, they’ll love it too.
I received the opposite message as a child from my own grandmother, a very light-skinned Black woman with naturally straight hair; I remember her whispering to her friend that my hair was “nappy.” The distaste was so palpable, I immediately realized that my hair was not just “bad” — it was offensive to her.
When I got out in the world and saw that message reinforced in images of Black women with loose curls and straight hair winning, I knew that she was right. It would take me damn near a lifetime to realize that it was all just bullshit.
So here I am, trying to undo all that for my own kids. Recently, when my girls were grooving to their beloved K-pop, I was about to give them another Black history music lesson when my eldest daughter cut me off with a sigh: “I know, this music comes from R&B, they’re just copying us,” she said, exasperated. While I was happy to know these little rascals actually listen, I couldn’t help but feel like the good-time Grim Reaper. Am I harping on Black culture too much?
I reach out to one of my besties to see if I’m making too much of all this. She’s a Black Canadian, married to a white Bosnian, living in Serbia, with two daughters the same age as mine. Does she feel like she’s competing with other cultures?
“Absolutely,” she says with a laugh. “My kids are fascinated with Japanese culture. They love anything Geisha, could eat sushi all day, and my youngest eats everything with chopsticks.”
Come to think of it, I thought, last week my youngest ate Froot Loops with chopsticks.
“It’s natural for kids to follow the shiny penny,” she continued, “so other cultures will always look more exciting than ours.”
She has a point. I was ready to drop my whole religion growing up when I realized that my friend’s Catholic church service was over in 45 minutes while my Baptist church lasted four hours. So much for cultural loyalty. So I asked my friend: How does she deal with her kids’ disinterest in Black culture?
She tells me that she keeps the culture alive in fun ways, like dancing (even though she’s got two left feet) and playing jazz. In fact, she felt encouraged recently when her girls requested to hear jazz while they were homeschooling. (This was after they were already listening to what they consider “boring” classical music, but still: They wanted jazz.)
I think about how I don’t play much music at all in our house, which is a departure from how I grew up. My mom didn’t lecture us about how great soul music was; she showed it, by blasting Earth Wind and Fire, The Isley Brothers, and Chaka Khan. The other day my eldest daughter asked me if Chaka Khan was Pakistani. So I’m clearly not doing my job here.
Perhaps the problem is, I’m making it about us vs. them, when my kids shouldn’t have to choose. For instance, sushi is my favorite food, too; that doesn’t mean I don’t also love collard greens. I used to devour books on the Holocaust; that doesn’t mean I don’t care about slavery. And guess what? I’m a Black woman who doesn’t freak out whenever I see Beyoncé. But, yes, I’m still coming to the barbecue.
So from now on, I’m going to adopt the “show, don’t tell” rule: It simply means I will trust that, as long as I expose my girls to their own culture, I can talk less. And they’ll be just fine.
These Black and biracial dolls are not only gorgeous; they’re important, too.