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After The Tulsa Shooting, This Conversation Between 2 U.S. Mums Is Even More Important

Photo: Courtesy of Ebonye Gussine Wilkins.
Ebonye Gussine Wilkins and her daughter, Autumn.
Editor's note: On Friday, officers in Tulsa, OK, fatally shot 40-year-old Terence Crutcher after he had put his hands in the air. Crutcher's death comes at the end of a summer dominated by news of police killings of Black men, as well as the shootings of five Dallas police officers in response. These incidents have put the question of how we interact with race in our daily lives at the front of our minds.

They are also raising questions for two moms: Ebonye, a Black mom with a 3-year-old daughter, Autumn; and Vanessa, a white mom with a 5-year-old daughter, Grace. We decided to publish a conversation between the two mothers in which they would ask each other hard questions. They hope that this public dialogue will encourage other moms from diverse backgrounds to speak plainly, without fear of judgment or criticism, and that together, we can learn how to better navigate this crazy, impossible time for our kids.

Ebonye Gussine Wilkins: I was born and raised in Queens, NY, in the 1990s. I grew up in a neighborhood that seemed to have roughly equal numbers of African-Americans and Afro-Caribbean people. I experienced a lot more ethnic and cultural diversity when I went to high school. I became so used to it that it was only when I attended college at a predominately white institution that I realized that not everyone had the same idea of what racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity meant.

When I moved to California, a series of incidents really challenged what I understood about my identity. It was there that I became a mother, and it helped shape the narrative of what motherhood was going to mean for me. I grew determined to give my child a blueprint outlining the kinds of racial prejudices, assumptions based on ethnicity, and difficult conversations that she will be faced with all of her life — and help her navigate these with her value and self-esteem intact.

In the past several years, there has been so much discussion about white privilege that I am now much more aware of my own. But I can’t pretend to understand, on a visceral level, life as a Black woman.

Vanessa McGrady
Vanessa McGrady: I grew up in Manhattan in the 1970s. My dad wanted me to speak French, so he placed me in a class with all the Haitian kids who had come over during the refugee crisis. I was one of three white kids in my class through third grade. I didn’t notice much about race except that the girls would play with my hair because it was different. It wasn’t until seventh grade, when we moved to the country in Washington state, that I heard someone actually say the "N-word" on the bus. I’d heard about racism, but I’d never seen it up close or knew anyone who was openly racist.

In the past several years, there has been so much discussion about white privilege that I am now much more aware of my own. But I can’t pretend to understand, on a visceral level, life as a Black woman.
VM: How would you characterize this time in history, and how do you interpret it for your daughter?

EGW: This time in history is more or less the same as it was before, but events are getting filmed and shared a lot more because of technology.

Because my daughter is 3, I have to look out for different things than I would for an older child. For instance, I have to fight negative stereotypes before they take root. I have to go out of my way to show her that there isn't anything unusual about her: not her skin tone, not her hair (hair is a big one), not where she lives. Her life experiences will always be strikingly different than her white friends, and I am trying to prepare her for it without letting on how tricky it is.
EGW: What kinds of questions, if any, does your daughter ask you about race? How do you feel when faced with those questions?

VM: I don’t know if she understands race as a cultural experience, but she does notice Black skin and white skin. We read biographies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, and she was sad that they were gone and she couldn’t meet them. She dressed up like Tiana, the Creole Disney princess for her 4th birthday, but sees her as the princess with the green dress, not the Black princess. I think this is just the age when she notices some people are big, small, brown, white, etc., and just takes it as that.
VM: What's the hardest thing about being a mom to a small Black girl?

EGW: The hardest thing is not only keeping her safe and alive, but also keeping myself and my husband safe and alive to raise her. As we saw with Alton Sterling, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and Korryn Gaines, that isn't easy. Telling folks that acting a certain way is enough to keep a Black or brown child or adult alive is not only damaging, but we've also got tons of proof that that's not the case.

EGW: What are your observations when your daughter interacts with other children of color?

VM: Her new language-immersion kindergarten is mostly white and Latinx, but in her old preschool, she hung out with a group of friends that was Cheerios-quality diversity: one Ghanaian girl, a Japanese-American girl, an Armenian girl, a biracial boy, and white twins, one of whom may be gender-fluid. In the past, she talked about beauty and associated it with light skin. I’m concerned that there isn’t more celebration of different shades of beauty in mainstream kid media and toys. There’s usually a sidekick of color, but hardly any heroines. It was hard to explain that it’s cool to love Pocahontas, but not cool to play "Indian princess."
VM: Has Autumn ever been exposed to overt or subtle racism? If so, how, and what did you do?

EGW: Once, a doctor asked if she could touch my child's hair, but before I could even respond, her hand was already deep into my child's Afro. She was too young at the time to stand up for herself, and I had not yet given permission. The follow-up questions about her hair's manageability made it worse. A lot of times shock takes over, so responses aren't always as swift as they should be, but I'm learning.

EGW: What responses to — and interactions with — white parents and children of color have you seen in your experience of motherhood?

VM: Grace is adopted, so I feel especially sensitive and protective when I see kids that are obviously racially different from their parents, and go on high alert that someone will say something stupid about race or adoption or both.

VM: What else do I as a white mom need to know about you as a Black mom?

EGW: I'm always going to be fighting negative stereotypes and assumptions about who I am, how much education I have, and what I have accomplished in life. And every single last one of those assumptions will reflect on my child. I won't likely be seen as just a mom doing her best. Everything I do and say will be colored with other people's biases of what Blackness is and means.
EGW: When a police shooting is publicized on TV, does your daughter ask questions?

VM: We don’t watch TV news so that’s not a thing she’s regularly exposed to. I don’t think she could comprehend a bad cop right now. That’s part of our privilege — I don’t have to prepare her to prove her innocence when an authority is suspicious of her in a store, at a traffic stop, or just walking down the street. She needs to know that other people don’t have it so easy.

VM: I’ll ask the annoying white lady "What can I do?" question now.

EGW: Hearing stories from people you can ask questions of will go pretty far. We shouldn't expect them to bear the burden of educating us, but we need to go out there and seek information.
EGW: What have you tried to instill in Grace about asserting herself and how that might be seen by others?

We talk a lot about ways to handle bullies and other situations — the other day, she said she was “heartbroken” because boys teased her when they saw her underwear — and how to be friends with people who are left out or shy. I keep trying to model behavior for her by how I relate to people. It’s an ongoing process.

EGW: Modeling behavior is hard but so important. I think the takeaway here is that neither of us should be feeling guilt or shame about the work that needs to be done to raise thoughtful and socially conscious children.

VM: In a way, I feel whiter than ever because I don’t have the same challenges you do, solely because of the color of my skin. I need to chip away not only at systemic issues through my work as a writer, but also keep checking myself with everything I do or say, down to a micro level: Is what I’m doing improving the life of my sisters and brothers, and if not, how can I do it better?

EGW: I think if more people were taking their everyday actions to a more conscious level, and we were having more open conversations like this one, we’d be laying the groundwork to resolve a lot of these issues. This is a baby step, but it’s necessary.

Ebonye Gussine Wilkins is a social justice writer and editor focusing on changing editorial standards and advocating for inclusion of traditionally marginalized peoples.Vanessa McGrady lives in Los Angeles and writer about money, parenting and eco-socio consciousness, sometimes all at the same time. The views expressed here are their own.