My entire life I have seen black and brown leaders celebrated for their accomplishments. I don’t recall a time where whatever racism I may have seen as a child was so overt that people of color were condemned or judged for reaching for the stars. The feedback from my family and my culture was generally positive when someone whose skin was different from my own did something remarkable.
But what I didn’t realize until I had a daughter was that even in celebration and recognition of the importance of representation, there was still a distinct sense that those heroes and heroines were somehow not valuable to me, or worth looking up to myself.
As a white woman, I have plenty of white heroes and heroines to look up to. I don’t need more inspiration. I don’t need more representation. But amazing people like Barack Obama, Mae Jamison, Martin Luther King Jr, Maya Angelou, and many others were introduced to me as representatives “for other people.”
It was as though they somehow maintained the “second rate citizen” status that antiracism sought to abolish, just by being “for the others.”
As though, being white, I didn’t need them. I shouldn’t bother. They were second-tier heroes for second-tier people.
“It’s so great for them to experience Barack Obama as president.”
“It’s so great for them to see Oprah Winfrey as successful as she is.”
It is undoubtedly a beautiful and powerful thing for children with dark skin to see people who look like them doing incredible things. It’s necessary, and it’s part of what will move our country out of a insidious antiquated age of racism and segregation.
But if our white children grow up believing that those darker skinned heroes are only valuable to darker skinned children, that “other” mentality will linger.
My white daughter needs pictures of black heroes on her walls if she is to grow up understanding that we celebrate differences in race and culture, in appearance, and that those differences have no bearing on a person’s worth.
My white daughter needs to learn about these powerful icons in her history who overcame obstacles she personally will never need to face by virtue of her fair skin.
Brown and black heroes in our past do not belong in a category labeled “for the others.” Their struggles and obstacles related to their race should be taught clearly and unapologetically. But our white children need to know that, even though these heroes faced racism and discrimination in a way white people don’t, they are not “other.”
Our white children need to be taught that black leaders are not second-rate, a consolation prize for the minority. That the black leaders, thinkers, heroes, movers, and changers in this world brought brilliance, inspiration, innovation, eloquence, and courage to the table that we should all strive to emulate.
My daughter needs to learn to look up to inspirational black people.