I was burying my daughter’s legs on the beach when inspiration struck. “Look, you’re a mermaid!” I exclaimed, fashioning a crude tail out of the sand. And that’s when M broke my heart.

“But, Mom, mermaids can’t be brown.” She wasn’t even angry, my little half “pink” (as she calls me), half Puerto Rican child. She was simply telling me the way of the world as her toddler eyes saw it.

I have seen her scream for an hour in response to the perceived injustice of being denied a third popsicle. But third popsicles exist in the world of possibilities after all. Brown mermaids evidently do not. Hence this tired resignation, this easy acceptance of something unacceptable.

I was stunned. Certainly nobody in her personal life has ever said anything to her that would convey this kind of attitude. We lived in a diverse and warmly affirming community in Decatur, Georgia, where she went to a diverse and warmly affirming school surrounded by diverse and warmly affirming teachers at all levels of experience.  

When we moved from Decatur, it was to the site of the mermaid debacle – the island of Puerto Rico. Here, surrounded by a loving extended family, where she and her father were the ethnic majority, she still somehow voiced this opinion of otherness. More than otherness, of being less than.

I wondered then about media influences on her perceptions. Until M was two, we scrupulously followed the American Medical Association’s guidance for no screen time. Since her second birthday, we have undeniably been more lenient, though we still carefully control the messages she receives.   

Hers is a world not just of Cinderella, but of Tiana and Pocahontas, of Doc McStuffins and her physician mother. M’s toys are the usual range of anthropomorphic animals complemented by baby dolls of multiple ethnicities. I consumed myself with figuring out the origins of her mermaid comment so we could rid ourselves of that poison.

M’s father suggested this was just one of the random things that she spouts out, and that she latched on to it because of the reaction it provoked. After all, she has claimed that Maleficent was preventing her from taking a bath or that Captain Hook gave her the candy that she knew she wasn’t allowed to eat before dinner. She recently jokingly threatened to bite off my nose. She does say random things. She’s three.  

I might have been able to accept that explanation were it not for an incident a few weeks before the mermaid one. One night, as we snuggled close for her bedtime stories, M commented, “Mom, it’s hard being two things. I wish I was just pink, like you.” At that time, her remark felt more like developmentally normal maternal identification than anything else. But now I wasn’t so sure.

I had thought I was aware of white privilege before, was adept at seeing the doors that I walk through that might otherwise be closed. But I have never felt my privilege like I felt it that day on the beach in Puerto Rico, when I realized that the child I had helped create sees her dreams more limited than mine. Not opportunities or aspirations, but actual dreams, those effervescent bubbles of hope and comfort to which we should all feel unreservedly entitled. It felt like a gut punch to the core, and the ache is with me still.

The crisis passed. Over time, M no longer bemoaned the fact that she was brown. She didn’t care that her father and I don’t match each other. She learned to make her own mermaid tails in the sand. We learned more Spanish and explored further on the island. We ate seafood at a restaurant while watching the fresh catch brought in straight from the boats. M found a family of snails at her great-grandmother’s house. Everything was as it should be in our little corner of the world.

F
or now, that’s enough. But the world feels so angry these days. Everything feels so divisive. I can’t shake my anxiety. I dread the day she begins to wonder why so many people who look like me hate so many people who look like her.