It’s a ritual I began the first day my girlpie, Mari, started kindergarten. I’d fluff her super cutie outfit, adjust the fancy barrettes in her hair, take her little moon pie face into my hands, kiss those beautiful cinnamon brown cheeks, and pump her up all the way from the garage to the front steps of her school, where she was the only black girl in her class. “You are fantastic, baby girl—the smartest little girl I know,” I’d say, looking directly into her big browns, like a trainer does a sweaty heavyweight champ between rounds in a boxing bout. “Be fabulous, because who are you not to be?”
Kids who hear they’re the best tend to believe it and rise to the challenge—particularly black children. A recent study published in the journal Child Development backs me up on this; the study, authored by Ming-Te Wang, assistant professor of psychology in education at the University of Pittsburgh, and Harvard University’s James P. Huguley, found that when parents promote feelings of racial knowledge, pride and connection, black kids do better in school.
Mr. Wang and Mr. Huguley could have saved themselves some time and research cash; those of us black parents in the know would have happily told this to them quickly and for free.
Affirmations chased Mari and my baby girl, Lila, into classrooms in New Jersey and Georgia for years—encouragement I thought important enough to repeat again and again. For the sake of my daughters. For the sake of their psyches and their self-esteem. For their own good.
They wear the armor.
It’s a brilliant coat of self-confidence instilled in them since the womb, not only because I believe them to be clever and beautiful, but because the world conspires to tell my girls different—to ingrain in their brains that something is wrong with their kinky hair and their juicy lips and their dark skin and their piercing brown eyes and their bubble butts and thick thighs and their beautiful brains and their eclectic culture and black girl goodness. I promise you, some days—a lot of days—it feels like I’m guarding them from a tsunami of “you’re ugly/dumb/fat/incompetent/inadequate/insert-your-racial-insult-here” pronouncements; magazines and TV shows and popular radio and movies and all of the rest of pop culture act as if black girls, teens and women do not exist on most days, and on the extra special ones, we are reduced to hypersexualized, drink-tossing, weave-pulling stripper bullies, climbing our way to the top on the backs of rappers and ballers.
Then there’s the micro-aggressions that feel like death by a million cuts: the teachers who assume my girls are below average, until they discover quite the contrary; the store clerks who follow us—even the 10-year-old—around the store, until we pull out the cash at the register; the silly mothers who practice their “hey, girlfriend!” theater around us, until they find out the hard way that we don’t do Ebonics in mixed company.
Don’t believe me? Spend a little time on children’s channels; my daughters can go, literally, for hours without seeing anyone who looks like them. Then flip over to MTV, VH-1, Oxygen and all the other TV homes of “reality” shows (or any show that’s not written and produced by TV “it” girl Shonda Rhimes, an African American woman), and watch the necks swizzle and the weaves fly. Come with us to the mall on a quiet Tuesday afternoon. Or a school mom gathering.
I can’t have my daughters thinking they are invisible. Or worse, that they’re ignorant, loud caricatures unworthy of respect. So I make a point of encouraging my girls to own their beauty—on the inside and out. And I demand that they pull and stretch and reach for the highest rung, because they’re capable of being more talented, brilliant and confident than any other kid who crosses their paths, black or white—in the classroom, on the soccer field, on the stage, in all that they do.
Examples of black folks who’ve achieved this abound: I surround my daughters with books by and about people of color who’ve shined a light on the beauty and complexity of us—fill their ears with the music of masters who rep us with their talent and lyricism. Television and movies are watched with a critical eye, our complicated history is explored and talked about and picked through—our culture celebrated through food and travel and relationships. They are told “we are an amazing people” loudly and often, not just during Black History Month or Martin Luther King’s birthday, but every day.
And most importantly, my daughters are made to understand and know that 24-hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days of the year, they are expected to bring home the top grades in their classes. No exception. I’m not all Tiger Mom about it mind you; just a huge cheerleader and a no-nonsense support system who works hard with my girls to make them understand their true potential.
After all, when a child is told that she is fearfully and wonderfully made, who is she not to be fabulous?
Denene Millner, an Atlanta-based married mom of two, is a New York Times bestselling author and the editor-in-chief of MyBrownBaby.com.