I thought I knew and understood racism. I’d read a lot about it in school, joined marches to protest it and was always challenging others on their prejudices. I thought of myself as someone who was aware and sensitive, but I never really realized how blind I was to my own privilege.
All of that changed when I became the mother of a biracial daughter and saw how different things are for her. I got the first inkling that the way my life went wasn’t the way it went for everybody when I started dating a man from Morocco while at university in Germany. All of a sudden, the bars and nightclubs I had frequented for years denied me entry when I was with him. We got all kinds of strange looks when we were together. I was never checked by airport security, even while wearing a cast on my leg large enough to hide a machine gun, but when the security personnel saw us saying goodbye, I had to pass through the metal detector three times before they let me continue.
And that doesn’t even compare to what he had to go through when flying. The more I left my comfort zone, the more I realized how sheltered and protected my upbringing had been.
While dating and marrying a guy from Morocco sharpened my senses to the racism and injustice people endure every day, becoming the mother of a biracial daughter took it to a whole new level. My daughter has dark hair, dark eyes and caramel skin; I am blonde and blue-eyed. When she turned one, my ex-husband and I broke up, and my daughter and I moved to Nepal. I was prepared for her questions about why we look so different from each other, but I was completely unprepared for other people’s take on that difference.
No matter where we are—visiting family in Germany, living our life in Nepal or travelling to another country—this is always a topic that people feel the need to address in one way or another. Children on the playground in Germany will say “She is not from here and doesn’t understand us,” even though my daughter speaks perfect German. People constantly ask her where she is from. And wherever we go, people talk about her skin tone.
When she was five years old, my daughter suddenly started drinking lots of water—I mean lots of water. Sometimes she chugged down an entire bottle in one go and kept asking for more. At some point, I thought it was getting weird and asked her why she was doing it. After some stuttering, she told me, “The guy at the shop told me that my skin will become as light and beautiful as yours if I drink enough water. I don’t want to look dirty; I want to look like you!”
How to talk to kids about racism: An age-by-age guideIt is difficult for me to express what I felt in that moment. She was hurt in a spot that I don’t have because, throughout my life, no one has ever questioned my skin tone—ever. I also felt guilty because I hadn’t prepared her for attacks like this. For the first time, I realized how my privileged views and expectations don’t support my daughter and can actually hurt her. I felt overwhelmed because this was something I urgently needed to get a grip on but didn’t know how to overcome.
I started to read anything I could on the subject. One article I found about a teacher who tried to explain privilege to her students really helped. She made them sit in rows of chairs in the classroom and gave everyone a certain number of paper balls. She placed a trash can in front of the class and asked the students to get as many points as possible by throwing the paper balls into the can. Of course, it was easiest for the ones in the front row, and even more so when they blocked the shots from those at the back of the room.
This is how privilege works: When you sit in the front row, it’s easy to score. And, because you’re looking forward, you can’t see the people behind you and sometimes even block their way. Because you don’t see the people behind you, you also don’t see any need to make way for them.
I’ve been sitting in the front row my whole life. My daughter wasn’t sitting in the front row beside me but rather behind me. By sitting there and not turning around, I realized that I’d been missing out on an entire set of experiences—those of others who are not as privileged as I am. I’d never thought of myself this way: I had many friends from other countries and I’d spent most of my adult life abroad, working on development projects—I was on a good path, right? But when the experiences of my daughter forced me to reflect on my own behaviour, I finally saw that I had been looking but not really seeing. I had never really turned around to see how others react and see the world, and I was ignoring an important part of people’s realities.
I’m a little bit more prepared now. I speak up in situations and try to support my daughter and others in any way I can. Reading and talking with her has helped. She is especially interested in her heritage and in our personal family history. We put up photos of her father and half-sister so that they’re more present in her life, even though she can’t see them as much as we’d like to. She likes to listen to Moroccan music and loves Moroccan food, and we are planning a trip to Morocco. Some challenges are easier to overcome than others.
Even with the different challenges my daughter will face, she is still very privileged in other aspects of her life and I want her to be aware of this at an earlier age than I was. Obviously, I can’t speak for her and how she feels about this, but to me, at least, it seems as if we are starting to get a grip on it. We have to.