Say Their Name
In March of 2019, I picked up and moved from Houston, TX, where I’d been for 12 years, to move to Dallas TX to become the chief academic officer of a small school district just south of Dallas. By mid-February 2020, Kobe and GiGi’s deaths had already rocked the nation, murder hornets were already a thing, fires raged in Australia and California, and there were already dozens of Black Americans who had been shot and killed by police. Atatiana Jefferson had been murdered by police in her Fort Worth home on my 34th birthday just a few miles away and a few months before, on October 12, 2019. The trial of Botham Jean’s murderer had wrapped up that same month, delivering a shocking 10 year sentence to the white female police officer who entered his apartment and shot him dead in his pajamas with a bowl of ice cream in hand. Now, just days before Ahmaud Arbery’s and Breonna Taylor’s murders and before the COVID19 crisis would shut our country down and begin disproportionately killing Black and brown people, the following car conversation ensued:
“Mom, the kids in my afterschool program are so mean to me. They’re mean to Ezekiel and Eli too…it’s just us white kids they’re mean to there. All the Black kids are mean to us white kids. Why?” My heart dropped into my stomach and my knuckles turned white gripping the steering wheel. I had just picked up my 3rd grader from his YMCA afterschool program in West Dallas, Texas.
“Oh. I’m sorry you’re feeling like the kids in your program are not being very nice. What do you mean that the Black kids are mean to the white kids? What white kids?” In the rearview mirror, my 8-year-old son, Camilo, looked confused by my questions. Not a single white child attended his afterschool program. The program served almost all Black children, except for Camilo, Eli, and Ezekiel, three Latinx kids.
I’m the daughter of an immigrant, my biological father having come to the United States at 6 years old from Montevideo, Uruguay. My paternal grandfather would tell me (in English), “I’m more American than you are. I chose to come here. You’re here because of me.” That’s always stuck with me.
My father’s family, olive-skinned with shining black curls and bright, mischievous dark brown eyes, was over the moon when he married a blond, blue-eyed American woman in the early 1980s. My parents’ marriage, riddled with domestic abuse and cheating, produced two children, lasted about 10 years, with us moving to and from Houston and New Jersey for my first 8 or 9 years. My little brother (4 years my junior) and I were both born with sandy brown hair, loose curls, light olive skin that still browns nicely in the summer. My brother’s eyes are big and brown, mine smaller and green. I remember lots of commentary on my looks as a child from both sides of my family – my dad’s commenting frequently about how pretty my eyes were, and my mom’s family proudly commenting on how much the Stinger family genes had won out. The Stinger clan hadn’t been thrilled when their second youngest daughter decided to marry an immigrant. As far as they were concerned, thank goodness my brother and I “came out white.”
When my mom left my dad for the last time in 1994, we returned to the Jersey Shore. My little brother was only 3 – to this day he remembers little about his early years with my father’s family leaving me to be the only. The only one who remembered anything of our other family, our other culture, our other world. The only Latina in the family. The only. Plucked out of the diversity of the greater Houston area and dropped into white suburban New Jersey in my white family with no access whatsoever to my now-estranged Uruguayan family, hence began my severe struggles with my own racial and ethnic identity. Although I am physically white-passing in most spaces, I grew up as an other, often an only, not white enough for white folks, and surely not Latina enough for Latinxs.
Perhaps this is how and why I began to understand that the degrees of blatancy privilege and racism exist. As I grew up, I mostly took after my Uruguayan family, toggling between leaving my Latinness unsaid and overtly eschewing it, participating when the word, “Mexican,” was used as a slur. I shudder at those moments now, especially with my sweet, brownish, white-passing Mexican-Uruguayan-American little boy with Matamoros-born paternal grandparents. I learned early that just because I mostly “look white,” didn’t mean I would ever be good enough for real white people. Unfortunately, I was no more accepted by Latinxs, lacking sufficient cultural and language fluency to meet some invisible criteria of realness and authenticity as a Latinx person. If my feelings about my identity were complicated before, motherhood amplified it all.
I was in no way prepared to have this direct of race and identity conversation with my 8-year-old. How would I explain to him that in our current society and culture – one in which I believe we breathe in the poison of white supremacy culture every day – he wouldn’t be white (and that white isn’t something to aspire to be). What about the dynamics between Black and Latinx communities? How there is often tension, bias, colorism and antiblackness, hatred between the two? Although we often discussed antiracism, I realized in that moment that I would have to help my son understand that there were, in fact, no white children at all in his program – that neither he nor Ezekiel and Eli, were “white.” How could I help my little white-ish Mexican-Uruguayan-American child with his medium brown curls and beautiful brown eyes that I could understand what it was like to be the “only,” and that he would experience that feeling perhaps less than his Black classmates, but that he shouldn’t be any less outraged about it?
I still have no idea, honestly. I did my best and here’s where I landed:
We are Latinos, you are Mexican, Uruguayan, and American. We are proud of our heritage and we value others’ heritage as well. Your race is white(ish) – and your ethnicity and cultural background is mixed and beautiful.
Some people will hate you, us, or others because of their race or cultural background. The people who feel that way are often white, and Black people and Native Americans are usually discriminated against or harmed the most. We fight against this when we choose to be antiracist.
Because we look a lot like other non-Latinx white people, we will experience LESS discrimination than other people with darker skin, especially Black people. This is called white privilege.
Black lives matter, too, son. As much as yours and mine. We stand in solidarity with Black people and build bridges and relationships between our communities.
I love you more than anything in the world and I am so proud of you! Keep talking to me about these things so we can work on choosing antiracism together AND help you work through tough relationships with other kids.
I talked about these 5 things with my little one and then all was well in the world. In fact, together we deconstructed white supremacy culture and racism, fixed all the bullying in this afterschool program, and we lived happily ever after. Wait – whut? Nah, this is #2020, and you KNOW it didn’t go down quite like that. Two weeks later, our entire country shut down and I was thankful that I already had an 18 pack of toilet paper rolls with which to hunker down. Times were dark and scary; around April, I made the decision to leave my job in North Texas and come back home to Houston. Not long after, I started hearing about murdered Fort Hood soldier, Vanessa Guillén. Vanessa had been a student of a friend; she looked a like many of the students who I loved over my 13 years as a teacher and school leader. Vanessa was so loved. I learned about Breonna Taylor, the justice for her that we would still be fighting for months later. Breonna was so loved.
And then George Floyd. Big Floyd’s murder by the Minneapolis police seemed to push everything over the edge. My rage mounted, as it has steadily since Sean Bell was murdered by police on the eve of his wedding back in November of 2006. This was the first time I became painfully aware of the true insidiousness of police brutality (were 50 rounds really necessary?). Sean, Breonna, Trayvon, Tamir, Emmitt, Sandy, Terence, Mike…so – many – names. So much explaining to do with my little boy to understand the world and what we must do to make it better.
In September, Camilo’s stepmom and I took our kids (yep, together; we roll like that) to the Say Their Names Memorial, a memorial to honor Black lives lost to racial injustice and systemic racism, here in Houston. The four of us (a mix of white, Uruguayan, Mexican, Filipinx, and Indian) were there with a handful of other non-Black people (us, and then a couple of white or white-passing people), joining hundreds of Black visitors to the memorial. We stood masked in line for hours while we answered the kids’ questions. Why do police kill Black people? Is this memorial everyone who’s ever been killed? Why does racism even exist? Why aren’t there more people who are not Black here?
We patiently attempted to answer everything as thoughtfully and developmentally appropriately as possible to a little brown boy and brown girl. We even talked about how Latinx and Filipinx people often also discriminate against or hate Black people – and how we worked together as a family to combat that. Black Lives Matter, kids.
When we finally got to the front of the line, do you know who’s face I saw first? It was a photo of Vanessa Guillén.
The moment my eyes met hers, tears welled up and I wanted to scream. I wanted to scream because I expected that in the city I love most in the world, the most diverse and loving place I’ve ever known, I thought I would experience that in the crowd today. I was crushed to see that here I could clearly see Black people showing up for us - ALL OF US, but so few of the rest of us were there showing up with them.
Anti-Blackness and racism are not Black problems. White folks, white-passing folks, brown folks – we need to show up for Black people, as Black people continue to show up for us. This is OUR problem to solve; I know part of my job is to raise my Latinx child to love Black people and stand together with Black people. We must root out antiblackness, racism, and white supremacy culture.
I know I’m not perfect with all of this, but I’m trying. And I know it’s paying off with my son; here’s how I know. Later in September, Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous dropped on Netflix with a Black boy, Darius, as the main character. Camilo and I binge watched the whole series in a few days.
Camilo: “Mom, my favorite character is Darius. The Black kid.”
Me: “Yeah? What did you like about him?”
Camilo: “He knows a LOT about dinosaurs and he’s not spoiled like the other kid who didn’t know anything about dinosaurs.”
Me: “Cool, kiddo! I like Darius too.”
Camilo:“[pauses]...Mom, you know what else? I really liked that they made a Black kid the main character. That’s really cool. I mean…usually, the main characters or the superheroes have skin kinda...like my color. But this show? They chose a Black kid to be the hero. That’s pretty cool.”
Me: “[speechless and so proud] You’re right, son. That IS pretty cool.”
Camilo: “Yeah. Black lives matter, mom.”
“Yeah, son. They do.”