Kids, Race and Public Space: Who Makes the Rules?

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At first glace, racial interactions in public spaces seem to only involve those engaged in the conflict. Often a racist person is blamed. However, this post lifts a deeper structural analysis that needs further exploration.

A few weeks ago, my 4-year-old and I, went to the birthday party of one her good friends at a bounce house play space. Little did I know when we left our house that day that I would have to break up a heated, highly racialized exchange between two moms – one Black, the other White.

Kids, Race and Public Space (4)

Here’s more context:

A Black boy was inside one of the bounce houses before gleefully bouncing out behind a White woman, who was inside the structure with her child. Suddenly, she spun around and shouted at him, “Stay away from me. You were bouncing all over me.” The boy stared back at her in confusion. Mind you, the boy could not have been more than 6 years old.

Shocked by her behavior, I walked toward her to confront her about how she spoke to the boy, when the boy’s mother approached her. I sat down nearby as the two mothers began to argue.

Suddenly the White mom shouted, “If your son goes to jail one day, I will understand why – it will be because of you.” My heart dropped in my chest. My eyes zeroed in on the Black mom, as I sensed her hurt and her anger. I felt it, too. The two continued to argue, until the White moms says, “If you say another word, I am calling the police.”

Say What?

Say What?

How are you threatening to call the police on another mother who is responding (appropriately) to a situation that you started AND continue to escalate?

At those words, I leapt up from my chair and stood between the two of them.

I turned to the White mom and said to her, “You had no business speaking to her child that way and you’re out of line now.” She responds, “I don’t need you to get involved.” I said to her, “Walk. Away. There are children here. Walk Away.” Grumbling, she took my advice and walked away.

Feeling awful for the Black mom, I said, “Mom, are you okay?” With a pained expression, she thanked me and returned to her party.  I searched for her a little bit later, and she and her party were packing up to leave. Play time ruined.

The struggle for racial equity in public kid-centered spaces has a long and painful history.

If the world could be all rainbows all the time.

Notice that I didn’t mention any attempt to de-escalate the situation by the staff of the play space. There were plenty of staff standing around, but no one did or said anything – but me. My guess would be that the staff didn’t know how to resolve this kind of racialized conflict without further escalating it with worse consequences.

This experience reminds me of our nation’s long history of race in public spaces, like playgrounds, swimming pools, school yards and parks – all kid-centered play areas. And, I struggle with how as a Black parent to navigate these sometimes racially contentious spaces.

Critical race theorist, john a. powell uses a term called spatial racism to talk about how spaces become racialized: 

In many respects, the civil rights movement in this country was about the South, and attacking the ways that the South has constructed White space. For years, Blacks and other marginalized groups fought to get into public space as full members, in part to have access to opportunity, but also to change the rules around space. [The creation of White space] is not about individual preference on the part of Whites. Whites did not and could not create this space without the economic and legal support of the government.

As I write this, I think about the White mom’s threat to call the police – the use of the institutional power of the police to reinforce social norms. I thought about the fear that statement likely provoked. In my experience, White folks tend to take up a lot of public space generally—but particularly in child-centered areas. Not just the physical space, but the social and institutional norms that govern those spaces.

Are You Serious?

Parents, how do we manage racialized encounters like this with our kids in tow? Challenging Whiteness in this context can be infuriating, hurtful and sometimes humiliating.

Here are a few strategies to consider:

  • Prepare your kids. If your kids are old enough, talk to them. Let them know that people say and do wrong things because they have a problem with our brown skin. Be clear. It’s not us – it’s the other person’s wrong thinking. It is a heartbreaking but honest conversation to have. Kids tend to make snap judgments about people who are different than they are, for example in appearance, size or ability.  I use these moments as a platform to teach my MiniMocha that people are all different and special in their own ways. These conversations are a precursor to the race conversations that we are going to have when my child is older.

 

  •  Do nothing.  You can ignore the situation. I was in the “do-nothing, just ignore it” camp for a long time. I was raised in the South, so my natural response (used to be), ignore the other person’s ignorance, in true “bless their heart” fashion.  In my years of being a racial equity consultant, I have since learned that doing nothing actually hurts me. It centers Whiteness and (White privilege) in ways that elevate it over my experience as a Black mother. It minimizes the wrong or hurt that I am feeling.

 

  • Confront it.  Needless to say, confronting racist microaggressions or macroaggressions in the moment is hard and exhausting. I choose to confront it directly, because not confronting leaves me feeling powerless. I hate that feeling.  I remember my shaking voice the first few times I confronted racist behavior in kid spaces.  I also remember how good it felt afterward. Parents, what you are doing is not only standing up to an individual, but you are also standing up to a power structure. It’s bravery in real time.

 

  • Leave the situation. Sometimes leaving a situation is the best option. Although that doesn’t mean that confronting doesn’t also happen—before leaving. It could be you’re angry; could be you don’t want to spend your money in a place where you have received poor treatment. It could be you don’t want somebody to catch these hands. Whatever the reason – leaving is always an option.

 

Hopefully, these strategies will help you plan a response before you actually need it.

Dr. Joanna Scott

 

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About Author

I am Dr. Joanna Scott, creator of Mocha Parents, Awesome Kids. I am also a mother, researcher and racial equity consultant. I have worked with numerous organizations across the country who aspire to be more intentional about race in their organizational policies and practices. In this space, I borrow from my work and my parenting experiences living at the intersection of race and gender. I have an extensive background in public policy analysis, family counseling and years of experience as a child advocate. I hope my work mirrors my heart’s song – a deep belief in the brilliance of every Black child.

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