It was Zumba Tuesday and my daughter, JC, and I had just arrived home from the gym. I love that our neighborhood gym allows me to work hard on keeping my cellulite in check while my kid has access to a jungle gym, arts and crafts and new friends.
This particular Tuesday, on our return home, JC told her Dad and I that a kid was mean to her at Kids Club. As parents of a pre-school kid, JC’s accusation was as common a complaint as they get. However, as we tried to find out what had happened, she asked us the most heartbreaking question,
“Is it because I am brown?”
“Remember, you are not managing an inconvenience; you are raising a human being.” – Kittie Frantz
My stomach literally dropped and from the look on my husband’s face, I wasn’t the only one whose insides had developed an opinion of their own. We were completely stumped for an answer!
“Why would you think that?” We finally managed to ask, dreading what she might say.
“Well, he was white, or a really light brown boy,” she answered, matter-of-factly.
What was happening? Not only was she aware of racism she also seemed to have a clue about the complexities of colorism as well. Still staggering from the shock of her question, my husband and I launched into an ‘equality and diversity’ sermon in five-year-old speak, trying desperately to convince her and also to assure ourselves that diversity is beautiful, equality is our innate right as humans, and that the color of our skin or the texture of our hair should have no bearing on anything.
We told her she was beautifully and wonderfully made – that God chose the perfect skin tone, perfect hair, and perfect nose for her – and God makes no mistakes. We passionately preached these truisms, though we knew deep down that there was an entire world out there that did not acknowledge them.
That day, we were exposed to an additional layer of complexity in the journey that is parenthood. As an African immigrant mother of an African-American daughter, I had to appreciate that my experience in motherhood would include all the typical joys and challenges but would also be laced with the nuances of racial and immigration politics. That made me deeply sad at first but then I realized that I could make this a journey of self-discovery, self-pride, and perseverance for both of us, despite the racial climate of our times.
“….. I realized that I could make this a journey of self-discovery, self-pride, and perseverance for both of us, despite the racial climate of our times.” – Ehui Osei-Mensah
One such serendipitous teaching moment came when JC spent a year in Ghana with her grandparents during my time in graduate school. Although it was incredibly difficult to be away from her, the benefits of JC’s time at home were priceless. Beyond bonding with her grandparents and building a greater sense of identity and family history, she lived in a place where her skin tone and looks were the norm.
Not that there isn’t incredible diversity in racially homogenous countries but because superficial differences were muted, she had the opportunity to be herself – not a black girl – just herself. She was also exposed to a different way of life, different ways of articulation, and different ways of being beyond living in American suburbia.
I have found that this experience, which I took for granted while growing up in Ghana, is such a powerful confidence- and identity-building tool, that makes living as a minority in America a lot less mentally taxing. Despite her time in Ghana, our daughter still sees race and won’t be immune to the consequences of racial tension, but I hope that the experience will empower her with mental fortitude to unapologetically thrive in her own skin.
Other teaching moments come with our weekly mother-daughter bonding over hair. For black women hair is so much more than protein strands sprouting from your scalp and our intimate relationship with our hair begins as soon as we have enough to braid. Our hair is complex and versatile, fragile and yet strong, and because it takes so much time and effort to style, we have whole days dedicated to primping.
On Sundays I spend a couple of hours washing and braiding my daughter’s hair. It’s a wonderful time for us to talk. She tells me how she wants her hair and promptly grades my performance once I’m done. It’s also an appropriate time to talk about why I can’t make her kinky coils look like Rapunzel or Queen Elsa but that an up-do with twist out curls at the sides, like Princess Tiana is a beautiful match for her hair texture.
As soon as she’s a little older she’ll become very familiar with Princess Shuri from Black Panther and her braided hair and hopefully other female black superheroes that will feature more regularly in mainstream media. This is why representation is so important – it helps little chocolate princesses like my daughter have a choice among many role models, who they can realistically aspire to emulate.
Racial undertones and the immigrant experience in America also permeate my efforts to create an academic achiever out of my daughter. I am totally that immigrant mother pushing her hard to perfect her reading, penmanship and spelling, to read above her age and to sharpen her mental math through lots of practice. Every night we spend an hour, reading, writing, and working on basic math because I unashamedly want to be that mom with a child that gets into an insane number of Ivy League schools.
“Every parent, no matter what race, worries about their child’s ability to succeed but for black immigrant parents in America, there is a lot more at stake – a multitude of stereotypes to conquer.” – Ehui Osei-Mensah
Sometimes, though, I catch myself pushing too hard – I imagine innate plans of how in addition to working hard academically, she’ll continue with ballet, swim like an Olympian, pick up an instrument, and attend the best STEM summer camps we can find. It’s difficult not to push, knowing the world we are grooming her to thrive in is complex and prejudiced, but brimming with opportunity.
Every parent, no matter what race, worries about their child’s ability to succeed but for black immigrant parents in America, there is a lot more at stake – a multitude of stereotypes to conquer. We see that her surest path to the American dream is to be intellectually and professionally exceptional.
We know based on our own experience that to be treated almost as well as her peers, she’s going to need to develop and hone superior talents. Of course, this is much too much pressure and complexity to communicate to a five-year-old, but it certainly drives her upbringing and motivates us to develop tenacity and grit in her.
Motherhood is a deeply fulfilling responsibility. A journey of love, laughter, and tears that I am absolutely privileged to be gifted with. As a black mother, the journey is just as thrilling, the love is just as deep, the laughter, just as raucous. But our ‘brand’ of motherhood is woven with certain intricacies that demand an adjustment of perspective – your task is to teach your child to be successful in spite of the unique challenges that accompany their ‘brand’ of life.
Ehui Osei-Mensah is a woman of faith, seeking to make a positive impact in each encounter she has. Originally from Ghana, she lives in Texas with her husband and daughter.
She works in Tech Sales Consulting, helping her clients to transform their businesses through the power of technology. In her free time, Ehui loves to read biographies, write introspective pieces, and travel with her family.
Can you relate to Ehui’s experience with raising your children as an African and/or an immigrant? How do you seek to make this a positive experience for you and your children? We would love to hear about your experiences too!