‘Oh, that poor baby! Why don’t you do something with her nappy hair?’ The other kids weren’t allowed to play with me, the ‘little mixed girl.’: Mom to bi-racial family details experiences with racism

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“I have never been very open about my race. I haven’t hidden it, and I’ve always told people my race when they asked. I just haven’t been open and as upfront about it. When I was a teenager, I began to notice the racism and the way people viewed and treated me changed once they found out I was mixed. It was never a big deal to my family. My mom told us about our heritage and ethnicity, but skin was just a color. She instilled the utmost confidence into me and my siblings. We were, and still are, often called conceited. My mom would always say, ‘Oh, they’re not conceited. They’re convinced, that’s exactly how it should be because my kids are gorgeous.’ Even though it wasn’t a big deal at home, doesn’t mean it wasn’t a big deal everywhere else.

From the time I was a baby until I was 5, I lived in a very small town, on and off. My parents divorced when I was 1 so I don’t remember my parents being together. My mom, brother, and I lived with my grandma for a lot of the time. Many people were kind and thought I was adorable. However, I remember people giving my mom dirty looks, people saying mean things to her about me, and just being all around awful. My mom also told me that some kids weren’t allowed to play with me, in kindergarten, because they didn’t want their kids playing with a ‘little mixed girl,’ among other horrible names. They would say things like, ‘Oh, that poor baby! Why don’t you do something with her nappy hair?’

Courtesy of Aly Toothman

I always thought my hair looked pretty. This was also a time before the Curly Girl Method and systems similar. My mom always did her best with what she knew to do. She carried a brush and detangler in her car for when my hair would get messy. She still carries hair products with her everywhere she goes, 26 years later. There were so many people telling her the same things, she became a fanatic about my hair. I remember sitting on the floor in my grandma’s living room while my mom meticulously brushed and did my hair, sometimes crying because of the rude, racist people we had encountered, and worried what others would think or say. She would spend so much time fixing and maintaining my hair, sometimes I wished I could have just played and been like the other kids. She did a lot of pigtail braids because they were the easiest to maintain while I played.

When I was 6, I moved to Kaneohe Bay, Oahu, Hawaii to live with my dad. I remember it being so different there. There were so many different people, different ethnicities, people from all different backgrounds. That is one thing I really loved about Hawaii; diversity and acceptance of other people and cultures. Fort Leonard Wood was also very diverse and accepting. The only person that I really remember having any kind of issues with the way I looked, being mixed, or my hair was my stepmom at the time. I had heard her say things to my dad about my ‘nappy hair’ or that I looked different than them. She also chopped off all my hair, to my ears, at one point because she didn’t want to deal with it. She was even more mad when the haircut made my hair even more of an afro.

Courtesy of Aly Toothman

I have endured a lot of trauma over the years, so I don’t remember a whole lot of my childhood. I’ll skip ahead to when I eventually moved back to Crown Point to live with my mom when I was 11. I was in 5th grade. My mom told me I came home from school and was upset. I was told by another kid, my friend, that they wanted me to come to their house, but they didn’t think I could. Their parents didn’t want them playing with any black kids and I was the only black kid in their class. They reassured me that they wanted to be my friend. Their parents just wouldn’t allow it. When people found out I was mixed, many changed how they thought of me, treated me, or just didn’t want to be my friend anymore. I came home crying more times than I can count, due to racism. One of the biggest things I remember my mom telling me is, ‘This is just the way it is, honey. I was treated like that, and worse, when I was your age too. You just have to accept it. This is who you are, but it says a lot more about who they are.’

Courtesy of Aly Toothman

Now, as a mother myself, I have had to have these talks with my kids about racism. My daughters have asked me many questions over the years. One of the biggest ones they used to ask is, ‘Mommy, why is your skin brown but ours is white?’ Adalynn was 4 and Ariana was 3. I explained to them that I am part black and so are they. They were very confused because they don’t look black and their dad is white. They have also asked why Caleb, my brother, is black and I am brown. I have told them the same thing, they just don’t quite understand. They do to an extent, for being 7 and 6 years old.

Courtesy of Aly Toothman

A few days ago, when the protests and riots began, I had just woken up and was crying in my bedroom. Adalynn and Ariana are not the type to leave my side until they find out what is wrong. I explained to them, in the most kid-friendly way possible, what had happened to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other black people who have been senselessly killed. I told them that it broke my heart, that black lives are in danger, and some people are bad people and do things like that for no reason. I also explained to them that not all cops are bad, but some are just bad people. Especially after I found out they had seen the video on the news.

One part of this conversation truly broke my heart. They said to me, ‘But Mommy, we don’t look black. Does that mean we’re safe? But what about you and Mawmaw, Uncle Bub, Auntie Gabi, Auntie AJ, and Caleb? Will you be okay? Will you be safe?’

How do I answer that? There is no clear answer. We might be safe but what happens if we’re not? How do I explain to my 6- and 7-year-old daughters that some people are just disgusting human beings? Then to have to turn around and explain racism all over again when they witnessed, firsthand, racism towards my family and I. That was even more heart wrenching. My kids have been very sheltered. Them being exposed to this just breaks my heart. I know it is important, but it doesn’t make it any easier.

I have been told that I don’t ‘look black’ therefore, I don’t get a say. That I don’t know what racism is and I’m not allowed to be angry, upset, or scared for myself or my siblings. They say I don’t have any idea what black people go through with racism. The funny thing is every single person that has said that to me has been white. Every black person I have spoken to about this has embraced me with open arms. They have cried with me, held me, talked to me, and supported me.

I will no longer hide who I am. I am proud of who I am. I am proud of my heritage and background. I will not just keep sitting on the sidelines and accept how I and my brothers and sisters, blood or not, are treated. No one deserves to be treated as if they are less than especially just being based by the color of their skin. Neither race nor color determines who a person is. My kids deserve to grow up in a much better world than we have right now. We deserve respect, compassion, and understanding. Most of all, we deserve equality.”

Courtesy of Christina Dunnagan Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Aly Toothman of Harrisburg, IL. You can follow her journey on Instagram and Facebook. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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