I remember my biggest parenting mistake with perfect clarity. The shame still turns my stomach when I recall the moment I sided with white parents, who look like me, instead of my Black son.
We had stopped at a Chick-fil-A for breakfast on a road trip to visit my grandmother. My 4-year-old son immediately ran to the Playplace, while my husband and I sat nearby with our baby daughter—though not at a table with a great view. When I peeked over the booth, I saw he was happily playing with a Black boy his own age, and sat down to enjoy my meal.
Three more children joined them, and the raucous laughter and shouting began. The kids were pretending to be superheroes, one of my son’s favorite games. I saw a dad pull his (white) daughter out of the room. A few minutes later, I saw another dad pull his two (white) kids out of the room. “It’s getting too rough in there,” he said.
I was worried my son might be playing too physically, but my husband reassured me he was fine. Still, I marched over, flung open the door and shouted, “YOU BETTER BE PLAYING NICELY IN HERE.”
The mom of the little Black boy, who was also Black, stopped me. “Oh, they are playing just fine,” she said, her voice dripping with bitter wisdom. She was sitting in a booth with a perfect view of the Playplace, working on her laptop. “I’ve been watching the whole time. It was actually the other little boy who was antagonizing them.”
I felt sick. I had watched parents pull their children from the play area, and I had assumed my son was partly at fault. It hadn’t even occurred to me that their actions might have been motivated by bias against two little Black boys. But my Black husband knew better. The Black mom knew better.
I was born and raised in the deep South. I am perfectly aware that racism is still pervasive, especially in its less overt and more insidious forms.
Even though I have been careful to teach my son about his history, talk to him about racism and surround him with Black role models, I was still, in some ways, parenting him as if he were white. My free-range tendencies make me inclined to step back and encourage his independence, but moms of Black children cannot do that in white spaces. It was surely no coincidence that the Black mom picked a table with a perfect view of the play area.
Because they know very well what happens to little Black boys and girls when they aren’t carefully guarded. At best, they are viewed as instigators during disputes. At worst, they are shot on the playground by police while playing with a toy gun, like Tamir Rice.
Now, I interrogate every interaction with other parents for prejudice. When a white mom shouts at my son for throwing sand at a birthday party, I recall the time she said our nearby playground “gets rough on the weekends when the Dominican kids come to play.” (Side note: “rough” is the new code word for “Black and Brown.”) Sure, my son shouldn’t be throwing sand, but would she raise her voice as harshly to a little white boy? I can’t be sure, so I let the friendship go.
It is a never-ending balancing act: I must discipline my son, while remaining cognizant of the fact that the world is far too eager to discipline him for me. In the back of my mind, I know that Black students are nearly four times as likely to be suspended as white ones. I know that Black girls as young as 5 years old are seen as needing less nurturing, protection, support and comfort than white girls of the same age. I know that, despite growing up in relative privilege with educated parents who own a home in Manhattan, my son is still more likely to end up poor than white boys raised in the same circumstances. That 10 percent of affluent Black children still end up in prison. That no matter if he gets a Harvard degree, an Amy Cooper will report him to the police when she doesn’t get her way.
I gave those parents the benefit of the doubt. One of the many privileges of being white is the ability to assume positive intent when interacting with strangers. Or, at the very least, you can count on the absence of malice. If your family is white, no one is looking over their shoulder when you walk in the door. No one is giving you a second glance. Your presence—in a grocery store, restaurant, resort or playground—is unremarkable.
Those are just a handful of the places my children have been reprimanded by strangers for offenses as minor as not holding my hand. Where my husband and I have been heckled or watched.
Until the turmoil of the past couple of weeks—the marches against police violence, the stories of bias against Black people everywhere from publishing to prisons—I had forgotten many of those incidents, because casual, offhand sorts of racism are almost expected by my family. The time a crowd of frat guys chanted “jungle fever” at us during a football game. The night we stopped at a Ruby Tuesday’s in Tennessee, and like a record scratch, every single (white) diner paused mid-bite to turn and stare. Or the day my son, then 3, asked, “Mommy, why is everybody staring at us?”
And my family is fortunate. We have never feared for our lives. We have never had a negative encounter with the police. I am also aware that my white skin, and their lighter skin, shields my children from some judgment—but only in my presence.
Which is why I must remain vigilant. My son and daughter deserve to play, just as other children do, without prejudice. They deserve a fair hearing during playground squabbles. They deserve to make mistakes and learn from them, without trauma. They deserve advocates who will be fair but fiercely supportive. Until I can count on other parents to do better, that advocate must always be me.