Interview by Kyra Steck
My mom was born here. She’s Portuguese, so she’s white. My dad is Cape Verdean, so I’m mixed. My mom, her family’s from the Vineyard. My dad is from New Bedford. I was born in New Bedford, and my dad was a police officer there. And you know, we had history here on the Vineyard. My parents got married here on the Vineyard, and my dad, as a police officer, felt like the city was sort of getting a little bit rough at that time, and he didn’t want to raise his kids in that environment. So my dad moved me and my brother to the Vineyard when I was entering the fifth grade.
I was about 10 years old. And for me at that time, it was actually a bit of a culture shock. Nobody really looked like me, so I would often battle with my parents about it. I was so miserable in the beginning. I was the only brown girl in my class. I went to the Tisbury School, and I really wasn’t happy. That probably lasted a couple of years. It was difficult to adjust because there weren’t any other Black girls.
I was never called the N-word to my face. Whereas my son, actually when he was 10 years old, he was called the N-word with one of his other Black friends at the Tisbury School playgrounds, by a 16- or 17-year-old white high school kid. That was a little concerning, because I felt like his experience, already at such a young age, was very different than mine at that time. I don’t know if that was because he was a boy, or maybe it was an era thing. But he definitely experienced things at a young age. I remember one Halloween he and one of his Brazilian friends that lived up the street from us got one of those “boo’s” where you drop the candy on a plastic bag on the porch. It had racist comments on his. It had a monkey and a banana and the N-word. It had all this stuff. His friend who was right up the street from us called and came over, and he had his own version of it. They were all 12 or 13 at the time.
I have to remind my children that in a lot of aspects, they do have a certain level of privilege. But then there’s certain environments where it doesn’t necessarily matter, where you’re judged by the color of your skin. They don’t know who you are, and they definitely don’t care. I was recently having a conversation with my dad, who’s retired from law enforcement, and he said, “If I was put in any of these different scenarios that we were talking about, I wouldn’t even have the opportunity to break out my badge. There’d already be a knee on my neck before I would be able to prove who I am.” And I was like, well, we live in a world where you hope you have that opportunity, just so that it saves your life in some aspect. But those are the things that we have to think about.
I have had that conversation with my son for years, the conversation on how to behave. “The talk,” which is what most Black families have to have with their kids, is basically about the realities of being Black and brown in this society. And how, by just existing, we have to take these extra steps and be conscious so that we can come home safely.
I tell him whether he has an interaction with the police officer or anything else — I say, “What you do is you do everything in your power — you don’t talk back. You may have done nothing, absolutely nothing wrong. You put your hands [out in front of you] like … this. And if there is an issue, you get a name. If you can pay attention to anything, whether it’s a badge or whatever, you document it and keep those as mental notes. If there is an issue, if they do something wrong, if they accuse you of something, you come home. You just get home safely. We’ll take it from there, whether we have to protest or have a lawsuit, come for somebody’s job. You do whatever you need to do in that particular situation — no matter how upset or how angry you might be, no matter how racist the situation might be — to make sure you’re doing whatever you have to do. Even if it makes you nauseous and sick to your stomach, OK? That you have to do that in that way so that you are able to come home safely. Right? If they even get a glimpse or even think that you’re getting an attitude or whatever, you let them have the control, let them have the authority, let them feel like they’re belittling you. Whatever it is you need to endure during that time, so that you can then come home and we can handle it from there. You get home safe, and you get home in one piece, so that we can take it from there.”
Those are the conversations that I’ve had to have, and it feels absolutely awful that we need to have them just to keep our kids safe, because white people don’t need to have those conversations. You can just go wherever you want and go home. You’re not being judged or put into a category. But my son is a big teddy bear. He’s this big lineman type, so his size alone could be intimidating. He’s this soft, handsome football player, but maybe somebody is putting him in a box as a jock or something else. So the impact of those conversations — you know, we say, “They’re not going to know that you have a 3.0-plus GPA, they’re not going to know you go to a prestigious boarding school, they’re not going to know all of those things, or that your father works in law enforcement along with your grandfather and uncle. They’re not going to know all that, and they’re not going to ask those questions.”
I hope all of those conversations, especially when he goes off to college, wherever that might be, wherever he is in the world at any given time, that they will always resonate, that I will always be in his head about how he’s supposed to handle a particular conversation so that he stays safe. I mean, all we can do is instill these procedures in our kids.