It’s very difficult to know what to do with your children.
When they came out they were adorable little babies…the most beautiful children in the world. As you watch them grow, you don’t want them to feel pain, but they will. There’s nothing you can do about that.
When my babies were little, they had to stay in the yard. But as they grew, it would’ve been abusive to make them stay put. So I let them visit friends and friends came to visit them. But I was apprehensive.
When does race come into the picture, you ask? I can tell you explicitly when I saw the culture of racism enter into my children’s lives.
Racism comes from racist moms and dads
We lived on Renssalaer street in Oak Park, Michigan in the 1980s. It was and is a street of neat, well-manicured bungalows spaced apart nicely, with a wide-enough street and lots of green, leafy mature trees. They’d been built in the 1940s. In the beginning, it was all white. There were restrictive covenants built into the sales contracts to keep out Negroes and Jews. These were outlawed in 1967. Somehow, though, vestiges of that environment remained.
When I lived there, it was 45% White, 45% Black, and the rest, I don’t know. But this is the Detroit metro area, one of the most segregated places in the country. I remember that the color of our skin was so important…I didn’t grow up like this, so it was both shocking and distasteful, to say the least.
Once I was standing in line at a gas station, waiting to pay in advance. A young, dirty blond was in front of me. Her hair was in a ponytail, and she was dressed in jogging pants and a t-shirt. She would not shut up.
“And that officer gave me, me!” She kept repeating herself. “A damn ticket. Can you believe it? He’s white! I’m white! I can’t believe he gave me a ticket.”
That’s the Detroit environment. Some, not all, mind you, sincerely believe that traffic tickets are only for the black and brown. They grow up like that. They expect unearned privilege. Or a free pass. It took some getting used to. I never did.
So, we had three little girls, and the two oldest were invited to play with two little white girls three houses down. Then one day, their mother rushed over in a panic. Her girls had lice. She accused us of giving her girls lice…
Now, all of our children attended the local elementary school, which had no shortage of lice that year. We had actually received a notice to that effect from the school district. But I didn’t know anything about lice. I knew it was something that could leap from head to head. It’s not a judgment on my part. Perfectly clean people get lice. It was at their school. But in my life, I’d never known anyone who’d had it. If they did, it must have been a secret. But that woman believed that because our skins were dark, we had to be unclean.
They grow up like that.
I took my girls to our doctor. He examined them and determined that they had no lice-which I already knew. But I had gone to see him with a specific purpose in mind. I asked him to print out an official medical statement saying so. He was smiled sardonically when I told him what happened.
“It’s been my experience that this is rare in the Black community. The way you prepare the hair is not conducive to lice. Those critters don’t like hairdressings. And many mothers use a hair creme when braiding.”
“Exactly,” I said. “For example, we’ve never had it in our family.”
“I’m not saying that it’s impossible. It’s just unlikely. But I think I know what’s going on.”
“Yes, I do too,” I said.
I visited the neighbor and forcibly restrained myself from throwing the document in her face. Instead, I gently handed it to her. I told her that we had visited a medical professional, had never had lice and I had no idea even how to address her problem. I was going to have the keep the girls home from now on…since they didn’t have lice, and never had it, I didn’t want to take a chance on them getting contaminated by her children. I admit the look on her face was priceless.
I was angry.
This woman thought she was giving my girls the privilege of breathing the same air as her little white girls. And she was convinced that she paid for that charity…by getting lice.
Of course, our children wanted to know why they couldn’t go over there any more…and I gave them some weak excuse. They needed to be children for a little bit longer. They didn’t need to know how racists viewed them. At least, not yet. My children were not charity cases for the ignorant.
This woman thought she was giving my girls the privilege of breathing the same air as her little white girls.
One thing I never understood. Our people (black people) have cleaned many houses throughout the decades, in many cases houses that were not our own. My mother worked for a family in Philadelphia when she was young — in the 1950s. She can whip through a house so tough you can eat off the floor. My mother-in-law believes that cleaning the floor by hand is still the best…they will not accept less than perfect. When I go to their homes, I’m still learning some tricks. Did you know that used dryer sheets are perfect for cleaning shower stalls? Faucets?
Now we’re dirty. Seriously?
Adults perpetuate racism
When one of our daughters joined the middle school track team, she did quite well.
“The coach says we can run faster because we have an extra bone in our knee.” my eighth-grade daughter said. She and her friend Ashley were telling us about their latest pep talk from their track coach.
So that’s why we run so fast…
I didn’t know until that moment that I was superhuman.
Of course, when we mentioned it, we were told that the girls misunderstood. Hush, hush. Everything’s alright. It’s ok.
It was the last meet of the year. Move on. Nothing to see here.
When they’re teenagers, they will think you’re racist
Another daughter (high school) had a slumber party for her birthday. I supervised everything. One particular friend couldn’t come. But later she did come to our house with my daughter after school one day.
Everything was fine. Her mother came to pick her up. However, her vehicle wouldn’t start so she called her husband. It was going to be a minute.
My husband came out and looked at the vehicle. He’s one of those car guys; (he worked at GM at the time) and he got it going by giving it a jump. That’s when the woman’s husband drove up.
The hood was up on the running car.
“All indicators are that the battery is going dead-” My husband began to speak.
“Well, who are you? You just walk around looking for cars to work on?”
“Daddy!” his fifteen-year-old daughter was mortified. Actually, so was I. My daughter, though, was nearby. She was getting a lesson on racism. We had already warned her about people like this — and she thought we were racist. Now we knew why this girl hadn’t come to the slumber party.
“I live here in this house, and the car just happened to stop in front,” My husband said.
The man looked at us, and at our house, then back again. We weren’t rich, but it was a nice house. We’d sacrificed much to move there so the kids would be in a great school district. We had moved away from the neighborhood with the lice accusations. (Boy, were they shocked!)
I admit, though, that we were house poor. You know what that means, right? We got in the house (yea!), we sewed our own curtains (we tried), we used coupons, we ate a lot of chicken, rice, and ramen, because once the house payment was made, we were poor.
But we loved that house.
“Daddy, noo!” His daughter was on the verge of crying. You could tell she had listened to many a racist screed from her father since she was buried in the womb.
There was such a chill in the air. The woman, her husband, their daughter, and our daughter…were so embarrassed. My husband and I were not. We had traveled along this path before, in our personal and business lives.
The wife said thank you. My husband put the hood down for her, and her daughter joined her in the car. The man mumbled something and jumped in his vehicle. They both left, never to be seen again.
We are aware
It wasn’t that we were racist. We were aware. Nowadays, they’d say we were “woke.” That’s all we wanted for our children. I’ve met people of color who weren’t woke. They were friends, good friends with people, and then important events would happen, and they weren’t invited.
Vernon Jordan, an influential political advisor, and attorney wrote a memoir called Vernon Can Read! In it, he explains a formative moment. He was asked to be the best man at his best friend's wedding. But neither his friend’s parents nor the fiance’s parents would accept such a thing. It just wasn’t done.
He was then disinvited from the best man role and the wedding. Vernon stayed friends with them —and years later the fiance apologized. She wished she’d put her foot down. All the same, this must-have hurt.
We were always getting hurt in the weirdest ways…and sometimes we didn’t know why. I didn’t want that for my children.
So I began to teach them. And over the years, they do pray for discernment.
Be woke. Recognize true friendship. Understand the unbelievable.
And yet, still love the unloveable.