While exchanging with my bloggy friend Amber about my blog post on Wednesday, I was reminded of the weird “positive” aspects of being brown in a “liberal” part of the nation. I put “positive” and “liberal” in the quotes, because sometimes things just aren’t what they seem when it comes to the playground and my beautiful little boys.
My husband and I have joked, while driving through some of the posher towns of Massachusetts (like Belmont and Weston), about sending our kids to the schools there, where “all of the moms will insist on their kids being friends with ours, simply because they are Black.” We’ve chuckled because of the absurdity of it–that 50 years after the Civil Rights movement, there would be parents who would go out of their way to make sure that their kid had a “Black” friend. You know, to feel less racist.
The thing is, though, that this joke isn’t really a joke. We’ve met people like that. I’ve met a mom like that. It took me a minute to get what was going on, but when I finally got it, I was horrified.
It started in October two years ago. It was Halloween and I was in the first trimester of my pregnancy with Ursa Minor. It was Ursa Major’s first Halloween, and we went ahead and got him an adorable Jedi outfit. He was so flipping cute. The apartment complex was having a party for the kids, so I got him dressed up, took some pictures, and took him downstairs. One of the women who works in the front office introduced me to another mom with a son of similar age. “You’ll get along famously,” the woman said to me. “She’s really nice. And I think her son and your son have the same birthday.” Turns out, they are a week apart. I’ll call this woman Sarah for protection, and we’ll call her son Silas. Sarah and I really did hit it off: I was 9 months into motherhood and overwhelmed by being pregnant again. I didn’t have too many mom friends (outside of the moms from my former job, who I couldn’t see as often anymore), so I was super lonely. She was also doing the stay-at-home mom thing, though she had a part time job that she did from home. While our boys didn’t play together, we spent the entire time in a corner talking about this and that.
So when she offered to meet up again the following week for a one-on-one playdate, I jumped at the chance.
There were a few things that I noticed during our playdate that bothered me:
1) Silas was really aggressive–pulling Ursa Major’s hair, and sometimes pushing him. Sarah disciplined immediately, but it made Ursa Major cry a few times. Sarah said that he’d picked up that behavior at daycare, where I guess kids have to navigate that sort of thing…I said, you know, that’s fine…. because I was an idiot.
2) She had a Coach diaper bag. A COACH DIAPER BAG. What the hell? It was a gift, she said. Now, look, I don’t try to judge people about their class….that’s wrong. It seemed a little ridiculous, though. Just a little.
3) She kept telling me about how gorgeous Ursa Major is and wondering about how mixed babies turned out to be so gorgeous.
Number one and number three were total red flags. Number three, especially. It is really awkward when White women go on and on and on about how my child looks. I’ve had women tell me that my children should be baby models. “Look at his hair. It’s nearly blonde. Oh I can’t believe it! And those curls! Amazing!” It’s like they are exotic animals, or some other weird thing. No, I’m not complaining about my gorgeous kids. I know that they are beautiful, but I just wonder sometimes about the interest. It also gets awkward because am I supposed to return all of those compliments? Don’t we all have beautiful children?
But I digress…
We had a nice playdate. Enough that we kept meeting up. Each time, I felt a little less lonely. I had a mom friend and she was pretty cool. She was Jewish and her husband was White (I can’t remember if it was German) so we had a lot to talk about when it came to idiot in-laws and raising children who needed to understand two cultures and traditions. She had a master’s from Brandeis and her husband was into science, so we giggled about paying for expensive degrees while on maternity leave, and about dealing with nerdy husbands. These things made me forgive the fact that her kid was still aggressive, and he was always sick when we had a playdate (“He’s had this runny nose forever. It keeps going around daycare. I don’t think he’s contagious”). We’d leave our playdates and I’d immediately give Ursa Major a bath and a dose of Tri-Vi-Sol in order to avoid whatever cold Silas seemed to always have.
A few months into the friendship, stuff began to get real. It started with a shove and a pull of the hair. I scooped up Ursa Major, who was sincerely sad to be visited with violence during a playdate again, and heard Sarah discipline her son and then say “Please, I really want you to be nice to [Ursa Major]. I really want you two to be friends.”
“Yeah, friends!” I repeated, absently.
Later, as the boys started play again, Sarah said “I’m so glad that [Silas] has a friend like [Ursa Major]. That’s really great. I really want him to be friends with all sorts of kids.”
This seems innocent enough, and indeed, I blinked at this comment but let it fly. Childhood friends shouldn’t be like pokemon. You can create opportunities for your children to forge diverse friendships without collecting children of color for your personal needs.
I let it go. I talked to my husband about it, but then I let it go.
Until the next playdate a few weeks later. “We were at a meeting for other mixed faith families and I was so excited to talk about [Silas] and his friendship with [Ursa Major]…” she said. Then she was having a housewarming party in a few weeks. “We’d really like it if you came. A lot of our friends are going to be there. It would be so nice if you and [Husband] could come, too!”
It confirmed exactly what I feared it was–we were the “Black Friends.” The special people who she knew and could claim to know, and people who made her feel good about her White liberalness. We were her excuse for whatever issues she had. We were, literally, the people that she referred to when she probably said after a racist joke: “oh no, it’s cool, I have Black friends.” And now she wanted to show us off, to prove to people that we existed. That Silas was super cool because there was a pretty little Black boy that he hung out with once a week.
It made my stomach hurt. The good news was that Ursa Minor was due to be born within that week, so I told her that we were going to take a break until he was born and settled. She checked in from time to time on Facebook, but otherwise we went about our lives.
Until June. Pool season. She still lived close by, and she wanted to take Silas to the pool. Could we get together and go to the pool?
Fine. We hadn’t seen anyone in a while. I could use the sunshine. Ursa Minor napped for about 2 hours in the afternoon. It would be great to get out and play.
So here we go, everyone dressed for the pool, sunscreened up, ready to play.
The water was freezing.
Soooooooo off we go, to my apartment, to dry wet bathing suits and pass the time until her husband came by and they’d take the car home.
“It’s so great to see you. We really missed you guys! We really missed our special friend, right, [Silas]?”
Silas was tearing up my apartment. Throwing and snatching toys. Ursa Major was watching him in bewilderment. “You let that guy into our sanctuary?” He said to me with his eyes.
Ursa Major began to play with his favorite train. Silas came over (after playing with something else) and took the train. Ursa Major cried and took it back. Silas took it again. Ursa Major finally got it back, and now it was Silas’ turn to cry. Sarah walked up to them both, took the train from Ursa Major and put it up on the counter. “No one needs to play with this.” She said and then she gave Silas a hug.
The injustice of it brought Ursa Major to the wettest, saddest tears I’ve ever seen. I had never seen him so sincerely hurt and sad. My heart broke for him. He was in his own home, doing the right thing, and he was punished for it. I picked him up and took him to the nursery to calm him down. “I’m so sorry,” whispered to him, fighting back tears of my own. “I’m so sorry that I did this to you. You never have to play with [Silas] every again. Ever again.” I whispered. I rocked him for a long time, and I could hear Silas tearing up the rest of my apartment and I didn’t care.
“I am sorry about that,” Sarah said upon our return. “I really, really want our boys to be friends. I’m sorry that Silas is so aggressive. He isn’t that way at home. He must have learned that at day care.” She said with a chuckle.
I was no longer amused. I wasn’t rude to her, but I wasn’t cheerful, either. She felt it, I know. Her husband, blessedly, came about 10 minutes later. I took their clothes out of my dryer and put them in a bag.
“We’re thinking about going to the zoo next week. Want to come with us?”
“We won’t have the car…and we have a playgroup…”
“Well, maybe we can make arrangements? I can move around my schedule if I need to…”
“Don’t kill yourself over it, really. We’ll be in touch.” I said, moving them toward the door.
“Well, just message me on Facebook. I’m happy to change my schedule.”
“We’ll talk,” I said at my door. “But really, don’t kill yourself trying to change your schedule. We’ll figure out something.” I said. Then I waved them off and closed my door. I calmly walked to my computer and unfriended her immediately. We have not seen them for over a year.
Often, when I think about my skin color or the racial make-up of my sons, I think about the liabilities and potential negatives: That people are going to call them foul names, that they won’t invite them to places, that they’ll be passed over for key opportunities, that they become (when they are older) victims of racial violence. I’m worried about the obvious and overt racism, because that’s what you see on television and read about on the internet. Because I know how to guard against overt racism: it’s stupid, it’s easy to spot, it’s easy to avoid or deflect. I am, usually, really good at the subtle racism. The backhanded compliments, the seemingly innocent, yet ignorant, comments. I have come to navigate those fairly easily as well. It becomes almost fun to dispel myths and beat people at their own game.
But I didn’t catch this one, and it cost my son his comfort, if only temporarily. It makes me angry that I allowed a woman into our lives who made us token figures within her own. Just as overt racism can be hurtful and dangerous, so too can this kind of racism. As the boys become older and begin to choose their own friends—to assemble their groups of chosen brothers (and maybe sisters)–I’m going to be less concerned about the bully who calls them Nigger and much more concerned about the guy who says “I mean, you’re mom’s Black, so shouldn’t you really like basketball? Maybe you should play and practice more…don’t you want to be in the NBA?” or the friend who says “I thought that Black guys didn’t have to study. Don’t you guys get into college because of Affirmative Action?” or the one who says “What do you mean you don’t want to steal that soda? I thought that Black people steal all the time?” Not to mention the ones who say “I want to invite you to my party, but this isn’t really for all of my friends, just certain ones.” or “Oh man, I can’t wait for you to come to the party. Black guys always make parties better” or “You have a crush on Cindy? You’re not allowed to have a crush on her. Why don’t you date La’Keisha instead?” It’s the kids who are going to let my boys in for their own self assurance, for their own self esteem, for their own devices, but have no intention of building up my boys as well…those are the ones that I’m worried about.
And I’m worried about their parents, too. The ones who will say, “I’m sure your mother probably fries chicken all the time. I just baked mine tonight” or the ones who say “I don’t know what your mother values, but we value education in our house, so you need to do your homework before you start to play.” Do I think that my sons are going to be “othered” by everyone all the time? Of course not. Do I know that there are going to be instances where this is going to happen? Yes, I do. It’s these small moments that are going to become large echoes as they begin to explore their identity as adolescents.
I firmly believe in integration. I think that children should grow, play, and learn with as many different children as possible. I want my sons to have friends from every color/creed/country/gender possible. I want them to be able to listen to an ignorant comment and think to themselves “I’m pretty sure that my friend, [whomever] would firmly disagree with that.” My husband and I are tying ourselves in knots trying to find a diverse community in this segregated state, and even when we do move into this house, we’re still going to have to look for opportunities to make sure that our boys play with all sorts of different types of children. We didn’t have to think about living an integrate life because all of our schools, from elementary school to high school, were incredibly diverse. I went to school with kids from China, Nigeria, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Japan, France, russia, Sweden, the Dominican Republic, Ethiopia…etc etc. I’m not kidding, I really did that. Montgomery County, Maryland, is a crazy awesome place.
But I will not collect friends for my sons. I will not send my boys to school and say “Now sons, be sure to make a Chinese friend today. I want you to learn how to use chopsticks properly.” or “Now sons, please be sure to make friends with an Indian kid today. I really want to enroll you in a Bollywood Dance class this summer.” That’s crazy. It makes no sense. And I won’t let other parents collect my sons for their own personal agendas. If children become friends organically, that’s fantastic. That’s as it should be.
Next week, the preschool that we selected for Ursa Major is having their first meeting. Parents only. My husband and I went back and forth about who should go (someone needs to stay with the boys). I’m the one who will spearhead the boy’s education, so I’m the one who is going. I’m nervous as hell. I’m preparing myself to be the only Black person to show up for this meeting and deal with the implications for my son. Half of the people I meet are going to say “We’re so glad to have you.” While I know that there will be others who will grit their teeth a bit in a “there goes the neighborhood” kind of way. This is something that we’re always going to have to navigate. When The Husband and I fell in love, we knew that we’d create children who would have complicated identities thanks to the history of this country. Only now is the fullness of the nuances and complexity of what we and they are going to have to deal with coming into view. And just thing about it: My eldest is only 2. We’re at the tip of the iceberg, here.