On the meaning of striking a child with a stick, from the perspectives of race, class, and gender.

This afternoon my wife and I took our daughter strawberry picking at a farm in rural Maryland. Because I’m a professor on summer break and my wife runs her business from home, we have the luxury of going on a weekday when it is otherwise uncommon to see two parents with their children. Instead, you usually see the solitary mother, or the nanny, or the counselor with a passel of campers. A father with his child is rara avis.

On this day the alternative to the two-parent model was the chaperones of an elementary school field trip from what we later figured out was southwest DC. After picking strawberries and sliding on slides, we decided to eat a snack while our daughter played on the playground. Because it was blisteringly hot in the middle of the day, I decided to take a cool spot in the shade on a picnic table next to one of these chaperones. We had a small, insignificant conversation for a few minutes. As one o’clock approached, the chaperones started herding the kids to prepare for departure. My table companion acknowledged that one of the little boys, maybe four or five, was straggling behind. “I’m going to have a conversation with him,” he announced to another chaperone. I could tell by the way he massaged the word “conversation” that this was going to entail some discipline, a real “talking to.” I watched him walk over to the boy and say something about how he needed to stop whining. His whole tone seemed measured and instructive, if a bit stern for such a young charge. I paid the two no further mind and got up from the picnic table to play with my daughter on the playground.

A few minutes later I looked up to hear a woman rushing in the direction of the man and the boy, shouting, “Sir, that is not allowed here! You can’t do that here!” More in a bit on what the “that” was, but I don’t want to lose the heat of the moment. “Look, ma’am, I’m not causing any trouble. This is my boy! I can do what I want to. I’m being respectful of your values. Please be respectful of mine.” I can’t quote verbatim the tense dialogue that ensued, but suffice it to say that the two spent the next minute or so deciding how far to push and how far to push back. The man gradually retreated to the company of the field trippers while the woman vowed vaguely to “notify the authorities,” which in this case meant a couple of nonplussed teenagers who were selling popcorn — “crackle corn,” to be precise — out of a barn.

If your mind does not already have a clear picture of what was going on here, let me fill it in: the man was black, in his late twenties, dressed in baggy pants and wearing a crooked but pristine NY Yankees cap on top of a skull cap. The woman was white, in her mid- to late-thirties. She drove one of those SUV’s that’s the size of a Tiny House and probably costs a bit more. She had two or three children with her (the amount of baby/toddler gear she had with her obscures my memory of just how many kids it was).

I did not know what it was that she saw the man doing to his son. I imagined anything from a light spanking to a slap across the face. I wondered to myself whether she had just saved this child from a brutal punishment or had humiliated his father for doing something that plenty of parents still do to their kids without censure? I thought for a moment how unfortunate the whole situation was. Here was a father, a black father, one of the rarest species of the weekday-middle-of-the-day parental figures, spending time with his kid. Had he taken off work for the day? Did he work a job with odd hours that afforded him relief in the middle of the day? Was he unemployed? Whatever allowed him to be there, he seemed to me to be truly invested in raising his son, in spite of the questionable methods he might be employing.

After partially witnessing this event, I was plagued with the uncertainty that I might never know exactly what had happened. But as luck would have it, we stopped off at the farm’s little grocery store on the way out, and the woman happened to pull in at the same time. So, to sate my curiosity, I just asked her what the man had done to his son. As she was closer up and calmer, I could make out more clearly her southern accent, one of those clenched-teeth accents that sounds like it’s being spoken by a fist rather than a mouth. “He had pulled the leaves off a branch and was waving it around in the air. And he asked the boy if he knew what it would feel like if he hit him with it.” “Did he hit him?” I asked. “He was about to, if I hadn’t said something,” she replied.

Now, let me be clear that I am opposed to corporal punishment, at least three years into parenting and many years before this. I can’t really imagine anything my daughter might do to warrant it. Nevertheless, I know lots of parents who spank their kids, and I was spanked a lot with all sorts of things: belts, hands, even a small piece of wood from a lumber pile. It never seemed outrageous or unmeasured; so, I don’t think it was the end of the world for me. In the predominantly Scots-Irish community I grew up in north Georgia, corporal punishment was generally seen as a necessary and even a positive good, in the way that the Furies in Greek mythology are seen to instill a “healthy” fear of punishment in the communities they guard. I don’t think I was ever struck by a stick or “switch,” as it was more commonly called; this punishment seemed archaic even in my time but occasionally you heard of someone getting it. The full ritual was to make the child himself (or less often, herself) procure the very switch by taking it from a tree, denuding it (along with himself), and then handing it over to the administrator of the punishment. For some reason I remember grandmothers or “grannies” being associated with this ritual more than elder men. Whoever the administrator might be, he or she was revered by children and the wider community. Even if the person were seen as a throwback to a prior generation, all the better: they had lived through the Great Depression and WWII. They, along with their modes of punishment, thus served as a noble reminder of troubled times and how good we had it now.

All to say, such punishment was never publicly condemned that I can recall; it was venerated because it supposedly made its recipients good: stronger, more restrained, more appreciative, more self-reliant. Mr. Eckert, the father of Matt and Jed in Red Dawn (1984), embodies this ethos very well. Harsh treatment is not seen as an act of wanton aggression but of deepest love. In fact the punisher (it is believed) has to overcome his own feelings of pity in order to inoculate the child against future hardship.

So here is where the story becomes interesting. After the woman explained to me how she had saved this child from his father’s wrath, I attempted to switch her perspective and mused, “I bet it was humiliating for the father to be called out like that.” “Good!” she said and characterized the father’s discipline as “a great way to make him [the son] more ghetto.” I completely missed the word “ghetto” the first time she said it, so I asked her to repeat, which she did. “Ghetto,” said her fist-mouth. From good to ghetto: how much race colors our interpretation of a switch!

With an irony that seemed completely lost on her, but which I hope might later sink in, I said lightheartedly, “well, it reminds me a lot of my childhood.” She nodded and said with a laugh, “yeah, me, too.” With that we ended our conversation.

I left the farm feeling very bad for the father. Was he humiliated? Will he feel discouraged from chaperoning other field trips? Will he doubt himself as a parent because all his values have been excoriated? Does he feel even further alienated from the modern world?

A final irony: I bet the woman who called him out would defend her actions as un-racist: she might argue that she did not succumb to the stereotypical white woman’s fear of the angry black man but courageously stood up to a bad father as (I imagine she imagines) she might stand up to any bad father. And (she might argue) she did not sit idly by while a innocent child of another race was threatened.

Hers was a racist pursuit of protection for all races.

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