Today is my daughter’s first day at nursery. At 10 months old she doesn’t know what is going on, only that after a lifetime of constant love and affection, Mummy has left her side. While my heart is in my mouth as I walk home, feeling naked without a buggy or the comforting weight of her in my arms, I think about all the things starting nursery signifies for my fast-growing daughter; her first friends, first falling out, first grazed knees and perhaps her first wobbly steps (although I hope I catch this one myself). And if she’s anything like me, this is probably the first time she’ll develop a sense of wanting to fit in. In fact this already started last week during her induction. She was the only baby with a bottle and not a sippy cup and she cried her eyes out, so today I made sure to bring her favourite sippy cup. At 10-months-old she wanted to be like everyone else. Already, she is me.
Being the only black face in a mostly white crowd ensures I will always be noticed first and my face will be remembered the most - obviously mortifying for a teenager. It meant I was pushed to the front for every school photo, asked to read the part of the black characters in English class (to make it ‘more authentic’) and of course I had to answer every race-related question. All I ever wanted was to blend in with my friends, not to be white, but to be equal. No special treatment.
Even today, the feeling of being an ethnic minority in my workplace is an odd one. Every step feels heavier than those around me, my laugh sounds louder and my words carry further. I call this an odd feeling because, with time, it has become familiar, almost normal, but never quite right. Right, would be equal-footing and slotting in with my peers, like a playing card into a pack. But we are not playing cards, we are people; we are black, we are white, tall, short, fat, thin and many other beautiful and unique attributes that don’t fit neatly into packs. Sometimes it is better to shuffle the pack altogether and be something new, something that doesn’t quite fit.
Fitting in can feel great and might make things slightly easier, but that isn’t what life is about. Being the afro in the room, the giggle in the meeting, the odd one out, these are the things that set us aside and let us breathe in our own skin, no matter the colour. So while I don’t have the security of anonymity, I do have the freedom to be something that nobody has seen before - a fantastic, amazing thing that can’t be replicated, I can be me.
If there’s anything I can teach my daughter to prepare her for life in this world, it is that difference isn’t always bad. Yes, people may look a little longer when you enter a room and you might develop a greater sense of self-awareness, but that also means you’ll be remembered - so give people something to remember. Show them there is more to you than your skin colour; show them the tenacity in your heart, the integrity of your character and the strength of your words. Don’t let your differences overwhelm you and definitely don’t change for other people. Be proud to be different - choose to lead and not to follow. Standing out can be scary, terrifying even, but standing tall is a wonderful thing.
And darling, if all else fails, I will always pack your sippy cup.