As a Black first generation American of Jamaican and Cuban descent, there is honestly a lot that I do not know about racism in America. My family never experienced Jim Crow, the civil rights movement and we lack both a historical and experiential understanding of stereotypes related to African Americans. In fact, I personally did not understand what Americans meant when they talked about racism until 2012, when a 17-year old boy named Trayvon Martin was unjustly murdered due to racism and protests swept the nation when his murderer was acquitted. Before that, I thought racism was a thing of the past that I learned about in history class.
Some readers may ask, “How can a Black woman, regardless of ethnicity, not know about racism in the United States?” As a child of immigrants, it is actually quite easy to not know the history of racism in this country. My parents immigrated to the United States in the 1980s. I was born and raised in a mixed, but predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood in the Bronx, New York. Everyone around me was different, but I never felt that anyone treated me differently because of my race, ever. I grew up in a community that was so diverse that having friends and partners of different races or ethnicities was expected. This only increased as I grew older and started attending school in Manhattan, where everyone around me was even more diverse than the community I grew up in.
One of the things that many New Yorkers have in common is that we, or our families, are often immigrants. When we meet someone, one of the first things we do to get a feel for the person’s culture is ask “what are you?” This inquiry aims to understand other people as opposed to assuming we know all about them based on the color of their skin. As a result of growing up in an extremely diverse context, I naturally developed a cultural competence and comfort with people of all colors, backgrounds and even socioeconomic status.
This left me with a rich understanding and ability to connect with people from all backgrounds, but in complete honesty, a naivety towards racism. Regardless of color, no immigrant or immigrant family’s major focus in America is discrimination. We have an understanding that discrimination of some kind may happen, but we are wholeheartedly focused on achieving the American dream that brought our family here to begin with. We also have no desire to immerse ourselves in the history of racism in the United States because we are too focused on accomplishing our goals.
In all honesty, it may even benefit immigrants and their children to not delve deeply into America’s racist history. For instance, I was never told that I had to be fearful of the police. I was never told that anyone would discriminate against me based on race or gender. I was also never told that there was anything that I could not achieve. In fact, like many children of immigrants, I was told the opposite.
My parents constantly told me that in America, I could achieve anything that I wanted because, of course, that is why they came here. Like many immigrant parents, they told me that I just needed to work hard and I would achieve my dreams. What they said was true, at least for me. I worked hard and never expected anyone to treat me differently because of the color of my skin. Being a New Yorker, I also never viewed anyone as that much different from me. After all, most people in New York are immigrants or the children of immigrants. We are bonded by our desire to make it in “the land of opportunity.”
As a result, I genuinely have never felt limited by racism (or even sexism) in any aspect of life. To be clear, not feeling limited by discrimination does not mean that discrimination does not affect me. It just means that discrimination is not hindering me.
Today, I realize that my naivety towards racism, coupled with my feelings of limitlessness, are key factors toward success in all aspects of my life. Until three years ago, I had no understanding of the microaggressions that many people of color face. I had no fears associated with the color of my skin and how it would be perceived by others. For three decades, I have walked through this world not ever feeling limited by my race or even my gender.
Today, I am the first ever professor for the new $15 million Hynes Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Iona College. I am also a wife, a mother, I own homes and I am an entrepreneur. My mother says her American dream came true.
However, I recognize that my path to becoming the accomplished Black woman that I am today was privileged by my lack of experience dealing with and understanding racism in the United States. It was privileged by the fact that my parents came from a country, Jamaica (though not free of oppression), where Black people exist in all professions, at all levels of government and have strong families that are uninterrupted by injustices like mass incarceration. It was also privileged by the fact that, as immigrants and the children of Cuban refugees that migrated to Jamaica, my parents came to this country with an optimism that has faith even in the most difficult of times. For instance, I was named Rasheda, an Arabic name meaning “the one who follows the right path,” because my parents believed that, as their first American child, I would. That optimism has lived in me all of my life. It has told me that I can accomplish anything.
Though optimistic, I am not blind to the realities of racial violence and oppression in America today. Based on the increase of racial violence and killings of Black Americans, the caging and separation of Hispanic families, the xenophobia directed towards Asians and Asian Americans and the genocide of Native Americans, I am well aware that racism exists. I have taken it upon myself to start studying the history of racism in America and its implications on Black and other communities. However, this knowledge has made me wonder if warning Black children about racism actually helps or hurts them.
Based on my own experience, as well as the lives of my relatives in the United States, I know that not fearing racial discrimination has helped us thrive in our personal and professional lives. We have always believed that we could do anything and everything we wanted — and so we do. However, I also know that parents in some communities feel that it is essential to have such conversations with their children. They have experienced the damaging and, at times, fatal effects of anti-black racism. All they want to do is protect themselves and their children.
With both of these experiences in mind, I ask you to think about your answer to the question: Does warning black children about racism help or hurt them? I honestly do not have the right answer, but I am hoping my words will start some important conversations on the topic.