Bringing Up Race. How to Raise a Kind Child in a Prejudiced World. By Uju Asika (Book Excerpt)


Be Cool, Be Kind, Be You

My wish for you is that you continue. Continue to be who
and how you are, to astonish a mean world with your acts
of kindness.

—­Maya Angelou, American writer

I talk a lot about coolness on my blog. It’s one of my ultimate values, which might sound strange, as in many ways, I’m the opposite of cool. You’ll find me typing this passage in a baggy T-­shirt and fluffy slippers, hair knotted in an old scarf, kettle boiling for my hot-­water bottle. I wrote a popular post a while back titled “Is Parenthood the Death of Cool?” It feels that way most days. I mean, I remember dancing on tables in nightclubs in New York, and nowadays, I’m all about the Netflix and snooze. To be honest, I relish the memories, but I secretly prefer this version of myself.

When I talk about coolness, what springs to mind? Miles Davis on a trumpet? John Travolta fondling his quiff? Clint Eastwood in a poncho, spitting out a cigar stub and narrowing his eyes? Sometimes coolness seems static, a freeze-­frame moment, something you catch in a half smile, a pair of aviators, a stiff collar turned up. Other times, it’s more emotive: a band of elderly musicians, jamming on a Havana beach, or Frida Kahlo, brimming with too much everything beneath her monobrow.

My definition of cool is much simpler and more expansive than you might imagine. It is about doing your thing and letting others do theirs. Following your own rules without making a performance out of being a rule breaker. Dancing to the beat of your own orchestra or talking drum or mixtape. It is about starting from a place of grace while still having a laugh. It’s about holding life lightly and enjoying the story, because after all, everything is material.

Be Cool

Let me tell you about two of the coolest people I ever knew. My dad, a child prodigy, so advanced for his years that some mistook him for a midget. A belly laugher and lover of the good life. He hung out with fellow cool cats in libraries and salons, swapping radical plans to remake Africa as a leading force on the planet. On the day he married my mother, he picked her up in his beaten-­down Volkswagen, wearing flip-­flops. After the registry, he asked if she had money for lunch, and she burst into tears. Hardly romantic, but undeniably cool.

From politics to personal, my dad lived life on his own terms. He was ultracool after the first stroke, when he was paralyzed on one side and gained a new set of wheels. He spent ten years in a wheelchair, and while it wasn’t easy for him, he never lost his calm, his integrity, his sense of humor. I’ll never forget flying into Enugu airport in the tiniest airplane beside my father’s coffin. Throngs came out to mourn him and claim him as a son of the soil. An Igbo man and a true Nigerian. A gentleman from start to finish.

What my father taught me: everybody is worth your time, no matter who they are or where they come from. You can be an intellectual giant without making those around you feel small. If you are kind enough and cool enough, you can get away with almost any form of self-­expression. You can strut around in the Lagos heat wearing a Chairman Mao–­style jacket, a winter scarf, and golf shoes.

You can take a big traditional title and still be detribalized, pushing for a world without barriers, a nation without division. You can be a homebody and a bridge builder at the same time. You can own your identity and always be ready to meet people where they are, as they are, without judgment.

You can bear the greatest pain with the utmost dignity.

My father always said he didn’t care who we brought home—­marry anybody, African, Indian, Inuit. It’s little wonder that he married someone just as cool.

My mom was born into a prominent Owerri family, the eldest of twenty-­two in a polygamous household. A gifted student, top of her class. When the civil war nearly tore her marriage apart, she stuck by my father. She helped Igbo women get back on their feet. She welcomed countless people to our home. She always fought your corner, always had a word to say in your favor. Nigeria’s number one fan. Like my dad, she could hang with anyone. Her friendships ranged from heads of state to barely literate village women.

She wasn’t just cool at heart—­she looked the part. Fashion-­forward before her time, dark-­skinned before melanin was #blessed. At a period when smoking and drinking weren’t acceptable for women in polite company, she would light up her Marlboros and sink her whiskey with the best of them, chatting up a storm until the early hours of the morning, eyes closed, one leg vibrating with some pent-­up energy.

What I learned from my mother: you do not have to sit quietly in the corner. Your expressions and opinions count, especially as a woman of intellect in a male-­dominated arena. Make your voice heard, and take up space. No matter how bad things might look, you can always find a positive outlook and a kind word to say. Reaching out to people who might not have time for you ordinarily, just to check in on how they’re doing, is worth its weight in gold.

You can be a mother figure to many and still be a mother to your own. You can be the sweetest person at heart and dish out the funniest insults.

You can look Death in the eye and tell him “Not yet.” You can decide to go peacefully in your sleep, with a smile on your face. When you’re a teenager, your parents strike you as anything but cool. Frankly, I thought mine were nuts—Dad in his fez caps and pink leisure suits spending his “morning jog” on the sofa, Mom in her Rick James wigs and every shiny ornament on the planet beaded onto her top. Yet as you grow and discover who they are as individuals, their coolness shines through.

When I think about coolness, I think about my mom and dad. I also think of my boys, who were born utterly cool. They taught me that coolness is innate, but it’s also something you can pass on.

Whenever you are bringing up race or other sticky topics, having difficult conversations with children, friends, and family, searching for common ground with a stranger…here’s a simple rule: be cool.

Be Kind

Coolness is directly related to kindness. Some say kindness is the new cool. It’s everywhere, on movie taglines and social media quotables. Kindness might seem a bit ineffective, like another word for nice. However, being kind is not the same as being nice. There is a history of nice people—­nice women in particular—­whose smiles were like razor blades, whose anger scorched their throats. Nice people who look the other way when someone is hurting. Niceness has a blandness to it, because it’s a cover-­up. There is so much going on behind that nice facade. Niceness is an act, whereas kindness takes action.

Kindness is a choice to go beyond your own and other people’s limitations. It goes looking for the best in human beings. Don’t confuse kindness with tolerance. In conversations around race, people often bring up that word tolerance, and it grates for any person of color. Tolerance means endurance, suffering, something you bear. We don’t want to be tolerated; we want to be treated with fairness, justice, and humanity. Kindness does not suffer or cause others to suffer. Kindness means no harm. Kindness is intentional, always. It is bigger than you or me, because we are all in it together.

Kindness does not mean being silent or sitting on your hands. Often, the kindest thing to do is speak your truth and let your heart be known. It is the way you speak that truth, being considerate about the impact of your words. Kindness calls you out without poking at your wounds. It sits with you in all your vulnerability and your human weakness. In every interaction, how you think about people and how you move through the world, putting kindness first serves everybody.

It’s not always easy. Sometimes anger without kindness feels right in the heat of the moment. Sometimes criticism and mockery are the easiest responses. I teach my boys to practice doing one kind thing every day, because kindness is a practice, not something that happens overnight. I do believe some people are born with kindness at their essence.

I believe racism is one of the deepest, most destructive forms of self-­hatred. It is taking a part of yourself, your own species, and doing whatever you can to debase it because something in you feels lacking. Maybe if you were kinder to yourself, you would be kinder to others. Maybe if we raise our children to treat themselves with the utmost kindness, we can shape a more compassionate world. Because kindness is self-­care, and as we’ve learned, self-­care is good for everyone.

Be You

Being kind to yourself and being true to yourself go hand in hand. If you are fully showing up as who you are meant to be in this world, kindness for others flows naturally. You become effortlessly cool. I believe this is who we are at our core.

If there’s anything I hope you’ve taken from this book, it’s that we are all part of an incredible, evolving story. And in my opinion, the miracle of diversity is not about race but individuality. It blows my mind that each of us is totally unique; not even twins share the same fingerprints. When I walk down the street, I pay attention to the faces I pass along the way, each one with a different way of looking at life, a whole history behind them, an entire world spinning in one human being.

When I interviewed people for this book, I finished with the same question each time: What is it you love about your ethnicity? I thought I’d round off with some of my favorite answers. But before I go, this is my invitation to you, dear reader, to keep talking, keep learning, and keep engaging with your children on race, culture, and identity. Keep walking this journey in the spirit of kindness. Keep holding space for one another—­and for your children—­however that looks for you. I hope you feel empowered to be braver, cooler, and more compassionate with people like you and people who are nothing like you. I hope you raise children who are cool, kind, and utterly themselves too.

Final Question: We talk about the challenges, but what is your favorite thing about your ethnicity? What do you think are the advantages of being who you are?

Tinuke: “I love the richness of Black culture. I love the depth and breadth of what being Black entails. I’m a Dominican Nigerian raised in England. My children are half-­Jamaican. Our experiences and understanding of Blackness are all different. I can’t really place into words what I love about being Black. It’s who I am, and I love it entirely. It’s a shame that Blackness is still used as a weapon to make people feel ‘othered’ when it’s something that should be celebrated.”

Nat: “I honestly love being a Londoner. I’m so grateful to have been born in this city, because I know where my family comes from—­a little Czech village on the Czech border. I’m so glad they chose London. And that I was born in this era. The diversity of the city is what gives so much richness to my life. I came to London as a teenager, and I found such a mix of people who felt the same as I did. I’m really grateful to raise my child here. If I think about myself as anything, it’s as a Londoner first.”

Timil: “Race may be a construct, but Blackness is a spiritual experience. Blackness is equal parts creativity, divinity, and resilience. Overall, I think our boys look to us to know who they are. We celebrate so much of Black (American) and Nigerian culture in our home, and our hope is they not only equate Blackness with joy but also with pride.”

Monica: “I love being Italian, but embracing other cultures and languages—­as I have done over the course of my life—­has made me lose a bit of my ‘Italianity’ to be more a world person. As a result, I feel a much better, tolerant, warm, and mindful individual who is at ease in every environment. On September 21, 2019, I was chosen by Mayor Sadiq Khan to represent Italy in the first public EU Settlement ceremony at city hall during the ‘We are all Londoners’ event. As my name and my achievements were read out loud in front of 350 Londoners, I was incredibly emotional. I know that I have belonged to the London DNA even before arriving here.”

Rachel: “I thank the family I was born into that I have an innate pride in where I come from. And I think that was instilled in me by my grandparents. To feel that my culture and family were important. I grew up surrounded by different generations, uncles and aunties. That for me was the foundation of being a kind, decent human being. I’ve always wanted to expose my kids to the different age groups in the family. In the West, it’s very much about the nuclear family. But the older I get, it really takes a village. I love that I grew up surrounded by so much love from every single auntie and uncle; I don’t even know how closely they were related to me. But they were family. They loved us and looked after us.”

Ebele: “I love EVERYTHING about being Black. I love the community, the different ways of being Black across the diaspora. I LOVE African American culture and the defiance and joy of it surviving despite the staggering brutality of the methods used to try to crush it. I love the arrogance of Nigeria. I love the food across the diaspora, the music, the clothing, the art, the culture, the literature, the STORIES. I love the hair, the SWAGGER. The way there are millions of ways to be Black. The way you can find community even in the most random places. The comedy—­there is no one funnier than Black people everywhere. I love how clothing fits us and how our men like women with padding. I love starting a job and seeing another Black person and doing that thing where you say, ‘Sis!!! I SEE you!!’ with your eyes, and no one else in the room knows what’s going on, and then you have their back forever when some bullshit goes down (because there will always be bullshit going down). I love how Black fathers can be with their children. I love how we find joy and poetry and music in the midst of unbearable pain and how we can make a meal out of scraps. I just wish we didn’t have to so often.”

Vicki: “I adore that people think I’m from so many countries. I think it makes me relatable to so many. I’m stopped in Paris by tourists asking for directions, asked if I’m South Asian, Lebanese, Israeli, Brazilian, Spanish, Italian, Moroccan, Tunisian, Latin American, to name just a few. It’s a great conversation starter and has seen me embraced over the years in many countries on my travels. I’ve made great friends through those initial conversations and people assuming I’m from their own country of origin.”

Shanthi: “Being so mixed, I have a unique vantage point. I know what it’s like to be loved at the level of family by many different races. Ultimately, race is one surface aspect of identity. The main thing is to be secure and confident in oneself and to think of identity in a holistic way. True identity is spiritual and beyond race, gender, sexuality, and the like.”

María: “I love being Latina, being Chilean. I have never ever hidden that fact. In fact, I have to PROVE to people I am Latina because no one believes me because of how I look. I purposely sought to perfect my Spanish because it was all I have to ‘prove’ I’m Latina enough. I didn’t change my last name when I got married because then really NO ONE would think I’m Latina. It’s part of me. And I’ve passed that love for Chile and Latin culture on to my kids. I see both sides without people realizing I can. I am an ‘undercover’ Latina and enjoy the element of surprise when others find out.”

Lekia: “The way I think, the way I see the world, the way I’m raising my daughter. The most important attribute I believe a girl can have in the era we live in now is true self-­confidence. The kind of confidence that defies trends and people’s opinions, the kind of confidence that is truly comfortable in one’s own skin, not the popular skin, not the skin that people fit you in, but your own.”

Natalie: “Despite everything I’ve been through, I can’t imagine being someone else, nor would I not want to be Black, even with everything that comes with it. I don’t know that I have a favorite thing per se about my ethnicity, possibly because I’ve just not ever really thought about it, but I love my rich culture and history, the Jamaican zest for life and attitude that, incidentally, mixed perfectly with my Irish upbringing as culturally, they have a similar attitude. I wouldn’t be who I am and doing what I do without what has come with it. It’s brought me deep empathy, compassion, tolerance, and sensitivity. After spending a lot of my life feeling bad about these, plus a sense of being an outsider, I’ve come to recognize that they’re part of my superpower. I hope that answers the question!”

Talking Points

  1. I teach my kids to be kind, but what if they’re facing a bully or a racist? Wouldn’t kindness just be encouraging the bad behavior?
  2. Don’t mistake kindness for weakness. Letting bad behavior persist is far from kind. It doesn’t help the victim or the perpetrator. What is really kind is seeing the human face behind any ugly words or actions and making an effort to empathize with that human. This means first standing up for yourself or someone being bullied as people who are deserving of kindness and humanity. When a child learns to see an attacker—­a racist or a bully—­as just another human who makes mistakes, it can make them braver in how they respond.
  3. What do you mean by “be you”? Isn’t too much focus on individuals part of the problem? Surely we should teach our kids more about tolerance and cooperation and community?
  4. Our first true act of love as humans is learning to love ourselves. If you don’t know how to love yourself, how can you truly love anybody else? If you cannot show up fully as yourself in this world, how can you show up for others who might depend on your skills, talents, and resources? What the world needs is people who are so happy in their own skin, so delighted with who they are, that they never feel a sense of lack or envy or insecurity around others. Imagine a world in which people didn’t hate on one another for resources, looks, or abilities. Just imagine.
  5. What about teaching our kids to be brave? Isn’t courage the most important thing?
  6. Courage is important, absolutely. However, you can’t teach a child courage any more than you can teach them hope. Talking a child into bravery is one thing, but true bravery comes from stepping out of your comfort zone and doing things that unsettle you or downright terrify you. Bravery is also about doing the kind thing, even when others don’t expect it. It’s about keeping your cool when everyone around you is losing their shit. It’s about being your whole self in a world that wants to break you down into tiny little parts. These are acts of courage, so that is what I teach my kids and what I hope to pass on to anyone who reads this book. Be cool, be kind, be you. That is the bravest thing you can do.

Uju Asika is a multiple award-nominated blogger, screenwriter, and creative consultant. She is the founder of the popular parenting blog Babes about Town and influential digital consultancy Mothers and ShakersBorn in Nigeria, Uju grew up in the UK and has worked in London, New York, and Lagos. Visit her at babesabouttown.com and @BabesaboutTown. Her book Bringing Up Race: How to Raise a Kind Child In a Prejudiced World (5/4/21) is available wherever books are sold.

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  1. One Response to “Bringing Up Race. How to Raise a Kind Child in a Prejudiced World. By Uju Asika (Book Excerpt)”

  2. Absolutely Awesome

    By Pamela on Apr 29, 2021

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