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How I Teach My Children to Love Their African-American Heritage

Denene Millner of MyBrownBaby

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.