What’s the Real Risk?

Melanie Headshot (1)By Melanie, The Multiracial Mom

The playground – one of the places where kids are free to be kids, right? Well, when I was a brand new mom, playgrounds made me nervous. Not only did I want to bubble wrap my child and protect them from any physical harm, like any new parent, but I wanted to protect them from any emotional wrongs as well – like a playground bully, or someone who wouldn’t share the swings, or someone that would treat them unfairly based on the color of their skin.

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Occasionally, I had to protect them from potential emotional harm from another parent, like the white father who brought his daughter to a neighborhood park we were in. It was just me and my three-year-old, harmless black son. No other children were there at the time. I greeted the father as I would any other parent, and he just ignored me. The kids played on separate equipment and then, my son walked over to the little girl and asked if she wanted to play with him. She seemed to like the idea and started to follow him over to the slide, but the father didn’t like that at all – yelled at his daughter to come to him instead and announced that they would be going to a “cleaner park.”

If you could only imagine the string of words and actions that went through my head… this is a nice park (albeit in a neighborhood where we were very much the minority). My son is just a kid. I bit my tongue and told my (now upset) son to not worry, the little girl had to go home, but I’d play with him until someone new came along. I didn’t want him to have to understand just yet that some people will be mean to him, or encourage others to be mean to him, just because of how he looks.

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Episodes like that were not daily. Even at the same park, we met many lovely families and made some good memories – but I was always just on guard for someone to treat my son differently. Over time, I learned to let go a little more and let my child be his social, trusting, playful self on the playground without me hovering so much. By the time the second little one came along, I had discovered lots of other parks and playgrounds with plenty of friendly children. I made a point of going to local parks as well as others in different neighborhoods because I wanted to expose our kids to lots of different people, that both looked/sounded like them, and those that didn’t. (And sometimes the equipment is better, or there’s also a sprayground, or it’s near Abuela’s house, or it’s connected to other family activities like a jungle gym at the zoo or a playground at an orchard).

The mix of people, sounds, experiences – it’s one of the things I didn’t have when I was really young, but was fortunate to have through middle and high school opportunities, and I now have friends of 20+ years that I might not have met if it weren’t for those chances to meet others. I want my children to have the ability to make friends anywhere, feel comfortable in any room, and lead any group. I’ve seen them code switch a bit, depending on their environment, and their ability to do so will evolve more over time. We teach them to be proud of who they are, what they look like, where their families come from.

I’m not looking forward to the time when I have to teach them that as a part of growing up, they will have to develop a way to protect themselves from people that don’t know them, but hate them. That will have different rules for them – and possible treat them differently from each other based on the lightness/darkness of their skin. Our oldest looks like he is starting middle school due to his height but is only in second grade, and the time is drawing closer for us to have “the talk” that so many black families have with their children to give them the tools to protect themselves through life. And I don’t mean the birds and the bees talk (that one can wait – I’m not ready!). While I want to hold out just a little while longer, already I am wary of where we are if he’s wearing a hoodie or doing something that is harmless but technically “against the rules.”

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One such example is when we visited an orchard for a fun Sunday afternoon. This one has a huge playground, full of fun things to climb into, under and through. One rule however, is to not climb on top of any of the life-size wooden model farm equipment. There were signs everywhere you looked. It wasn’t a particularly busy day, maybe about 15 kids scattered about including our two. As is usual, my oldest had made 5 of them his buddies and they were running around, having a good time. A few of them started to climb on top of a pretend tractor, and to my (then) horror, my oldest was right on top, too. I yelled at him to get down, and my husband was shocked. He told me to let him play up there, we’re watching him and he’s just playing around like the other kids. I told him that I was concerned that our son was the only black kid up there, and that surely the security was going to kick us out for that. The training I got to always follow the rules in public places kicked in and it was hard to stop.

In the end, we let him play just like the others and I calmed down, but was still upset and didn’t know why. My husband had to remind me that in that instance, we were in a friendly place that we knew was inclusive and kid-friendly in general, and that there was no real risk of the cops being called on us (this was pre-2018, the year cops were called on some black people across the country for doing ordinary things like breathing air while having the audacity to still be black). That different situations call for different responses and our son was safe. I stopped being upset once I realized he was right, we do a good job of protecting our children but in that moment, I was the one treating him differently and I should not have done so.

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I know that our version of the eventual “talk” about race will be unique to our family, incorporating perspectives from both parents. I just want to make sure our oldest hears it from us before the world tells him he’s different so it won’t affect the life path he sets for himself. Do racial issues ever play into how daring you let your little ones be at the playground?

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2 thoughts on “What’s the Real Risk?

  1. Bittersweet, lovely post. I have already noticed our oldest GRANDboy code switching, I remember doing it and actually still do it, if I am around highly uptight, educated, and (usually, but not exclusively) white people. I know I still often sound like a little latinx from the Bronx when I’m comfortable in my surroundings, and passionate about what I’m talking about. I often realize it, belatedly, when I’m not in those surroundings and think, “oh dear, I really sound like _____,” fill in the blank. It is very complicated and at 59, I still don’t always get it right.

    Of course the other more important message is the way our oldest GRANDboy “looks” and how the world views him. Much more complicated and dangerous and unfortunately REAL. Abuela will have to channel your wisdom if ever confronted by a playground terrorist and not revert to her “Bronx.” ❤

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  2. We all want the same thing for our little ones at the end of the day – for them to feel love, to unapologetically be themselves, to not be ashamed of who they are, and to know they can aim for the stars. Thank you for sharing your personal examples of how that can remain complicated for us as adults.

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