Guest column Cherryl Jensen: An apology to my daughter

  • Cherryl Jensen and her daughter, Aschleigh. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 8/15/2019 6:00:20 PM

My daughter is afraid to be living in the United States. And I am afraid for her. She is part-black, and we live in a country that is killing people of color.

She wants to move to a place where guns are not so pervasive, where hundreds of people are not being mown down by angry, young, white men.

“I’m afraid to go anywhere,” Aschleigh says, “because people like me, people of color, are being killed.”

When I was pregnant with Aschleigh, my parents worried about how a black child would be treated. I was determined to protect her from anyone who would dare to discriminate against my child. I would make the world safe for her.

We lived in university towns for all her childhood — Mt. Pleasant and East Lansing, Michigan; and Ames, Iowa — mostly white, true, but full of liberal college professors and Democrats and National Organization of Women members.

There was subtle discrimination, but discrimination, like sexism, is often hard to detect. A teacher told her junior high was sink or swim. A person at the swimming pool asked if I was her mother. A child at day care wondered why Aschleigh was brown.

“My father is black and my mother is white,” she said. “I came out brown.” Certainly just simple curiosity from the child. Not so sure about the swimming pool person or the junior high school teacher.

I was naïve. I thought we would always live in safe places. I didn’t prepare Aschleigh for what is happening in this country today. I didn’t teach her how to be black in the United States. Because I didn’t know how.

I am daily depressed by what I read in newspapers and see on television. I despair that I cannot protect my own daughter. I am ashamed of what white people have done, of what white people are doing.

People said “Love it or leave it” when I was in college protesting the Vietnam War and the shootings at Kent State University. But even than I did not feel the despair I feel now. Then, we were full of hope, sure that we could change things and make a difference. And we did. We helped to end that war.

I feel no such hope now. I feel like I am surviving, holding on, dreading what I will see and hear each morning when I wake up. I’m trying to not watch too much news, to not get too depressed.

But how else to react, what else to feel but depressed, as we hear of the dead in Texas and Ohio and Nevada and California and Florida? Of the dead in mosques and churches, at elementary and high schools, movie theatres, music festivals and shopping malls. How else to react when children are torn away from their parents in Texas and Mississippi?

There is no place safe to be a person of color in this country. There is no place safe for anyone.

I had friends, people of color, who told me they were not surprised when Trump was elected. I felt naïve, like I had been blind to the underlying racism pervading our country. I believed for a while that it was mainly economic issues, not racism. I believed that people who voted for Trump were simply people who had been through tough times, maybe auto workers or coal miners who had lost their jobs or farmers from my home state of Iowa who could no longer make a living on their family farm. I believed we could talk, still connect at least in some ways.

After all Trump has said and done, I no longer even want to try to talk with a Trump supporter. Because that person, the person who supports Trump, is supporting racism and white nationalism. That person is supporting words that encourage killing people of color. That person — whether he pulls the trigger himself or not — is supporting the killing of my daughter.

When Aschleigh was a teenager and was late getting home, I would try to think of the most terrible things that could happen in order to forestall them. If I could imagine the worst, it would not happen. Now I can imagine her being in one of those places where someone with an automatic weapon opens fire. I don’t trust that my imagination will save her.

What I want to say to my daughter is how sorry I am that I didn’t prepare her for this. That I am sorry for not knowing, for being naïve. That I am sorry for all the things white people have done. That I am sorry for not being able to raise her in a safe place.

So what do I say when my daughter wants to move to another country? Do I try to stop her? Do I join her?

Cherryl Jensen is a writer who lives in Northampton.

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