By TARICE L.S. GRAY
I entered parenthood fully embracing the idealism that can be associated with uncertainty. I believed my daughter would be different in the exceptional kind of way. Before she arrived in August of 2008, I researched bilingual schools (Mandarin and French), swim lessons taught by former Olympians and baby yoga. My role, as I understood it to be, was to prepare her to be an exceptional citizen of the world — grand, and worthy.
Society can and does often insinuate children of color are not worthy. Not exceptional. I became sensitive to the racial undertone that gnawed at the investment I was making in my child. Casual conversations on the playground had me paying too much attention about what others assumed about my daughter.
“Maybe she’s just a little slow. I mean, it doesn’t make sense, you’re so articulate,” said a well-meaning redhead about my then-2-year-old daughter’s inability to say “hi.”
“She could be an Olympian! I mean my daughter can talk, but look how well yours can jump and climb!” said a tan brunette a year after that.
Slow. Physically capable, but mentally under-developed. I saw the stigma attached to her and didn’t know how to put it in its place. We soon discovered my daughter Missy (her nickname was given to her by my mother) had a severe speech delay. By the time she was 3 years old, she had only twenty words in her language arsenal. It was a crushing discovery that transformed me and altered my advocacy on her behalf.
I had already been her advocate, which is why I had intended on adopting the Tiger Mom principals of willing my child to succeed. I needed her to crush the stigmas already attached with being black. Too much of the media’s portrait of black children is unflattering.
For decades, schools have tracked our children’s educational journeys and lowered academic expectations—as well as their self-esteem. Success stories of “exceptions” in our community are drowned out by the chorus of tragic verses like urban school dropout rates, a ballooning wealth gap that highlights childhood poverty, illiteracy and limited opportunities to do better. The message continues to be deafening and influential. I swore, NOT MY CHILD. Then the doctor determined she had a speech delay.
My family and I had been told it would be something she’d grow out of in her time. “Every child develops at their own pace,” said one speech therapist. “Give Missy time.” I did. All the while I increased her therapy, read to her, sang to her and used flash cards to speed her up. It seemed necessary.
That was the assessment I made after our third lesson on the playground. When Missy was barely 2, we went for playtime. Her exceptional motor skills needed fostering, and what better place? I watched as she played next to a young girl who looked to be around 7 on the wooden climber. The girl frowned at Missy.
“She stinks!” The little olive-skinned girl with straight amber hair sounded insulted. “You must not have changed her diaper.” She looked at me, and I at her.
“She smells fine.” I said, turning my attention back to Missy.
“Well, I don’t play with black babies so you need to take her away.” In an instant, this child had managed to to turn the hue of my skin from golden brown to the reddest shade of rage. Missy who’s expressive-receptive language disorder prevented her from understanding the message of ill-intent, watched my reaction. I had to cool off. But the lesson was learned.
I needed Missy to understand the world her father and I had invited her into. It would judge her according to skin tone. It would dismiss her for having a language disability. It would expect that she be much less than exceptional. She needed to find her voice. But how?
The loneliness of that realization, that my daughter might have to shoulder the consequences of these stigmas, made me heartsick. I’d made myself believe she would only be challenged by her race and gender, not the basic ability to speak her mind.
In my isolated state, I found other mothers of color who shared stories of life in the shadows with a child who happens to be atypical. I was inspired by the advocacy of the one whose 6-year-old-son now hates school because his teacher chastised him instead of suggesting a test for ADHD. The pain of another parent who continues to fight against a school that placed her autistic son on a school bus forty minutes early because the teacher didn’t know how else to control him.
We continue to fight alongside mothers who don’t look like us and don’t fully understand our “other battle.” But in this fight—a fight for understanding, for the improvement of my child and for her validation—I’ve also found inspiration in Missy.
My daughter has come a long way. She can tell me what she wants, what she sees and much of what she knows. Missy is not incapable of learning, of growing. She absorbs the good in practically everything she sees. She points toward the sky and says, “look mommy, beautiful moon,” forcing me to stop, take notice and agree. Missy celebrates after finally reaching the top of the rock-climbing wall she’d been attempting to conquer for months, inspiring me to acknowledge the small victories. She offers comfort and concern to classmates who are upset which inspired a teacher call her “the heart of her classroom.”
I relish in my daughter’s joy, her love for a world she is still getting to know at her pace, and I’ve come to understand that she is not just my responsibility, she is my gift. While I know her innocence will fade as she continues to “catch up,” I cannot falter in my commitment to advocate for her, to learn from her and to simply love her.
Tarice L.S. Gray is a freelance public radio journalist and writer in greater New York. A member of the Writers Guild of America West, she has reported and produced stories for National Public Radio and has written for the NAACP LDF site “The Defenders Online,” The Huffington Post, and Black Enterprise Magazine. This piece, which appeared originally on the Huffington Post, was reprinted with the author’s permission.
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