I have a 16 year old black niece. When my niece was two, and I was sixteen, she moved in with my parents and me. When my niece was four, and I was eighteen, my parents got permanent custody of her. She has lived with them ever since.
My love for my niece is heavy, bearing the weight of sixteen years of life, of a billion dimpled smiles, a million heart-warming laughs, hundreds of hugs, and dozens of fights.
My love for my niece is deep, with layers that show the evolution of our relationship, including her youthful admiration of me (she often refused to eat meals unless sitting on my lap), to a gulf between us when I moved away, to my appreciation of her quick wit, and admiration of her confidence.
Heavy and deep, my love for my niece is weighed down with fear, because she is a young black woman in the United States today. To be clear, my niece is mixed. Her mother is white and her father is black. I deeply appreciate the work Taye Diggs is doing with Mixed Me. I wish I had been able to give that book to my niece when she was younger. At the same time, I call my niece a young black woman because she is very well aware that she is often read as black rather than mixed. When she came home crying in first grade because she had been excluded from a friend’s birthday party because said friend’s father didn’t allow black people in his home she wasn’t crying because she was mixed. She was crying because she was black.
My niece is a junior in high school this year and I am already worrying about when she goes to college. I am worrying about teaching her how to protect herself from young men, particularly young white men, who have been taught from birth, sometimes in ways so subtle they are not consciously aware of it, that her body is always accessible to them. I worry about coaching her to advocate for herself in an academic culture where she will be Presumed Incompetent and subject to questions of why she’s “really” there. I worry that her confidence, which I admire and envy, will wilt under the daily assault of micro aggressions from even well meaning peers, teachers, and administrators.
Then there are the other worries. The worries that she will run into a cop like this. That she will jaywalk, as so many students do daily, and be subject to this. I worry that the young black man she dates, who makes decisions no poorer or more illegal than the decisions my brothers made at his age, will be shot dead by police like So. Many. Black. Men. have been in this country.
I worry that a routine traffic stop will turn into a sexual assault by a cop like this. I cannot even bring myself to contemplate the horror that my niece could be the next Sandra Bland, Kayla Moore, Miriam Carey, Shelley Frey, Michelle Cusseaux, Alberta Spruil, or Tanisha Anderson. I love to hear her voice but I hope to never #SayHerName.
And I can’t protect her. I live over 2,000 miles away but even if I didn’t, even if I lived next door, I cannot protect her by myself so I work, to the extent that I am able, for the systemic change that can.
If I talk to much about race, if I seem too angry, if you wonder why I won’t let it go, if you ask me why everything has to be political with me the answer is because I love a young, black woman in the United States today.
My love for my niece is heavy and deep. My fear for my niece is heavier and deeper–it is the crater in my life which her absence would create–and I am helpless because I love a young, black woman in the United States today.