Like, what kid doesn’t dig the park? Mari loved the slide, you know? And the monkey bars. And especially when I pushed her on the swing. Her plea was stickier and sweeter and more delicious than a cherry pop: Higher, mommy! Higher! I want to kiss the sky…

I delighted in watching my baby jump and twirl and fly and pucker up toward the sunshine. Her happiness was infectious. But my hate for the park was equally passionate—searing. Particularly when visits with my then 2-year-old daughter fell outside of official playgroup playdates and it was just me and the kid and my swollen, pregnant belly and my elephant ankles and those eyes—those evil, prying, judgmental, better-than-thou eyes that, in a single glance, would betray the conspiratorial conversations The Playground Mafia dug into when they saw me and my chocolate beauty trotting up the walkway.

It never failed; I always got the distinct impression that neither my baby nor I was welcome there. It was all up in the icy glares. The side-eyes and whispers whenever I smiled in their direction or tried to make small talk. The rolling cloud of sensible shoes and mom jeans and crocheted sweaters that always seemed to stampede toward The Children of The Playground Mafia whenever my baby girl penetrated their invisible barrier bubbles.

Always—always—I’d act like it didn’t matter. For my baby’s sake. But on the walk home, I’d stew and silently wonder what, exactly, ran through their minds—their little, teeny weeny minds—when they saw me. Maybe they thought I was the nanny—untouchable and unworthy of conversation (unless they were looking for a new one, and then I’d get a fresh “family” card pressed into my palm. True story.). Maybe they thought I hitched a ride from nearby Newark, N.J., so that my kid could play in the “good” park. Maybe they thought I was a teenage mom, slumming off the system, popping out babies and intent on scaring all the good, hardworking white people at the park while I waited for their tax dollars to convert into my welfare check.

After a while, I stopped wasting precious brain matter trying to comprehend why The Playground Mafia acted the way they did to my daughter and me. It became painfully clear relatively quickly that it would never occur to them that I was a neighbor, who, while on maternity leave from a high-paying magazine gig, frequented my neighborhood park to escape endless reruns of Teletubbies and The Wiggles back at my more than half-million-dollar home, four blocks away.

It would never occur to them that I always bought my shrimp and Salmon and whiting at the local fish market and the French bread with the wickedly crusty crust from the local bakery and that my neighbors literally held vigil outside my house on block party afternoons, waiting to dig into my huge basket of fried chicken, hot and sweet.

It would never occur to them that I adored George Clooney and collecting art and throwing dinner parties and writing—that I was interesting and funny and smart and madly in love with my husband and growing family.

That I could love.

And was loved.

This, apparently, is not the stuff black folk are made of—at least not in the minds of some suburban white moms. Witness this blog post, written by a mom who got all freaked out when her son struck up an afternoon playground friendship with the son of a man she surmised was a “gang member”:

“How did you KNOW he was a gang member?” I can hear you asking from behind your computer monitor. I’ll admit, I’m not exactly up on my “Signs Your Child’s Friend’s Dad Is A Gang Member” literature. Let’s just say it seemed likely. There was the prison number tattooed on his neck, for example. And the cryptic, graffiti-like tattoos all over his arms. And the white tank top. And the baggy jeans. And the bandana. And the unlaced shoes. And the baseball cap worn sideways. If he wasn’t a gang member, he definitely wanted people to think he was.

The writer goes on to chronicle how, even though the “gang member” tried to strike up a conversation with her—you know, what normal human beings tend to do when other human beings are around and the kids are playing together—her side of the talking stalled because she wasn’t “well-versed in gang member icebreakers” and she couldn’t think of anything to say to him beyond, “When’s the little guy’s initiation?”

Later, when the two scooped up their sons and tossed each other a “see ya,” the blogger considers telling the “gang member” how much she enjoyed the gang movie Colors, and silently wishes she had a camera to document the occasion so that years later, she could reminisce with her son about “that gang member” who pushed him on the swing. “Such a nice gang member…” she imagined she would say to her son as they flipped through their scrapbook of memories.

She and the posse in her comment section thought the blog post was humorous.

Laughing yet?

I’m not.

That post, penned by a well-respected blogger who just this year was named a runner-up Must-Read Mom by Parenting and BlogHer, hurt me to the core. Because it was offensive. Insulting. Condescending. And stupid. For me and a lot of other moms of color who read it, including my blog friend Elita Kalma of the breastfeeding site Blacktating, who showed me the blog post, it was a painful reminder of the slights and stereotypes we face down every day, all day when we find ourselves amongst The Playground Mafia; it took me right back to that park in New Jersey, where I went looking for friendship and found only impudence—the mental version of white women clutching their purses and locking their car doors when black people come walking by.

Trust me when I tell you, this is no laughing matter to me as a woman, as an African American, or as a mother, particularly when I know stereotypes such as these can make people see what they want to see, rather than who we are. And real talk? It can get black folk killed.

It’s not a game.

It seems, too, that in this age, when white suburban kids are trying to look like Lil’ Wayne and black urban kids are swimming in preppy gear and honor roll students like my 6 ‘ 1”, 270 lb. son might just find himself at the park with his pants sagging and his football player biceps bulging, pushing his little sisters on the swings, it’s kinda foolish to assume anything about anybody based on what they’re wearing on their backs.

But for kicks and giggles, let’s just say that the man she met in the park was a gang member. Does such a distinction preclude him from being interesting? Intelligent? Articulate? Human? Certainly, these characteristics aren’t the exclusive preserve of middle class white moms. And Mr. “Gang Member” tried to hold a conversation with someone who wasn’t big enough, savvy enough, smart enough, loving enough, and open-minded enough to reciprocate, which tells me a lot more about him than his bandana ever would.

For sure, I’d take the “gang member”—tats, bandanas, slouchy pants and all—any day of the damn week before I’d subject myself to the tyranny of assumption advanced by this blogger and The Playground Mafia. And I’ve already conjured up in my mind how many deaths ol’ girl will die the day her son comes home with his “jail number” tattooed on his neck, looking very much like our neighbor’s son, a white 18-year-old who wears bandanas and wife-beaters and sagging pants and tats all over his skin and who makes our block tremble when he drives by in his Mustang with his rap music blasting, headed for class at a local two-year college. He’s a nice boy. You wouldn’t know it by the way he dresses, but you would definitely discover it if you bothered to open your mouth and, like, have a conversation with him.

Here’s the thing: This mother has the right to make all the assumptions she wants, to ignore all the people she wants—to pass judgment and call names and withhold friendship based on superficial gut reactions. People of color have grown quite used to the middle class white moms who sniff at our presence and make clear with their actions that when it comes to forming relationships, people who don’t come from the same place as or who don’t look/speak/act like them need not apply. (Please don’t get your panties in a bunch: I’m not saying ALL white moms are like this. But I’ve run into enough in my day to know plenty exist.)

Do me this solid, though: if that’s the way you feel, keep it to yourself, m’kay? Better you let me thinkyou’re an asshole than to open your mouth (or write a blog) and remove all doubt.

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11 Comments

  1. I am always amazed by the judgment of others and the "lightness" in which they do it. It happens every day, especially in New York, especially in the area of Brooklyn I live in. And I am always taken aback despite seeing having it done to me and those I love almost on a daily basis
    (Last Saturday- shop owner telling me "you know all about them" as I curiously rooted through a bowl of Mexian Milagros (religious charms) and her face when I ask her "why would you assume that? I was impressed by those I saw and learned their historical/religous significance while touring Sicily, Having a white woman ask my sister if she was a Nanny to her red haired, green eyed daughter and her creamy cocoa skinned son, Having a shop owner follow my clarinet, writer's camp attendee 11 yo chatterbox niece around a store no bigger than my kitchen because she was wearing a down jacket and picking up and examining everything she might spend her $5 allowance on)

    So do we swallow our anger and begin to stay away from places we want to explore and or love and experience to avoid being judged? Or do we open ourselves up and expose that we are "just like you" in our desire for good things and our ability to have and maintain a full creative existence? Or do we ignore those who peer and whisper and assume who we are and pray that our armour is strong enough to protect not only our own dreams and lives but the dreams and lives of our children? sigh..I'm still trying to figure that one out..

  2. Thank you MBB for posting the info about the family on you site! They have been truly blessed and they now have the beautiful family that they both, so lovingly, desired. I've read many of the comments posted and while we live in American and all have freedom of speech– opinions are like a**&%$#@– everyone got one!! Now, if only folks would lend a hand as ly and liberally as they feel inclined to give their opinion. I bank w/Chase and I'm making a donation to this family PRONTO!! AND, I would like to encourage all of you other "good hearted" folks out there to do the same. Love and peace– pax vobiscum

  3. Baby Making Mama

    Great post as usual mama!! Love it! Off to read the rest on Parenting. And whenever I'm in a writing slump I'm coming here from now on. You ROCK!

  4. It is said that the first impression of most families of color by other races not just whites is disfunction, uneducated, and fear. I understand and sympathize with the anger and disdain that you have when visiting your local park with your daughter.

    When my daughter was younger I use to visit the park the same way, however I abruptly discontinued those visits when I started feeling like the parents where advising the kids to treat my daughter unkindly. Her feelings would be very hurt and she would cry that they are not being nice to her (by their actions and words), while the other parent would sit there as if nothing was going on (several occassions). Or I would have my weekend read (my book of choice for the weekend) and I woudl get the looks and whispers. To continue the teachings that tried to instill in my daughter, I stopped going to that park.

    Now because she is older, my teachings are the same, but different. I tell her that she has to overlook ignorance, not all people will think that they should treat you with the respect that you desire. Not all people will see you as a person instead of a color. This is a learning experience for them as children, but for us as parents it is a hostile situation which we have to place ourselves in timeout to calm down and assess for what it is. Ridiculous!

    But as always, I pray for them to be able to lift the veil from their eyes to see people for who they are and for us to be able to overlook and forgive pass their faults! Have a blessed weekend!

  5. Lauren @ Hobo Mama

    Here today from Navelgazing and really liked your post and response to the other post. It appears she's taken it down now, but I'm not satisfied with her apology, either. She says her article was intended to be a satire (maybe, maybe not), but then she also says it was supposed to be "race-free," which I'm having trouble understanding how she thought so. Anyway, glad to have found you.

  6. Hey I hearya. And I'm not brown. Just a medium olive. I've got my stereo types to deal with – that I'm quiet, that I'm smart, I should have an accent – whatever prejudgments people make.

    So I've been thinking about these issues A LOT. For like, 40 years.

    I recognize that people are more comfortable with their own. Animals have an instinct to detect danger. But as human animals, we are capable to getting past our instincts. Most people just. don't. think. So white women with frosted hair and lace collared dresses scare me. Heh.

    And. I grew up in rural PA where it is 99.7% white, mostly of German and British descent. You will not believe how many out-of-wedlock, welfared, baby-popping, hollering white girls there are buying cheetos and soda at the grocery line. So where did the stereotype come from??

  7. Oh and that blogger says she was being satirical and apologizes. We can't be cynical and not believe her because she's a southern, suburban, white mom.

    I know someone who knows her so I just want to tell her the satire misses because there are so many people who actually think that way.

    I can give her so many examples of what people have said to my face, like:
    "Do they have bathrooms in your country?"

    "Are you a war bride?" (Umm, you mean the war that ended in 1955?)

    "You speak English so well!" (Yeah, I had to, to get into the Ivy League university I attended.)

    and
    "Are you built sideways?"

  8. I know that the shoes I walk in are not the same shoes you walk in. Let me say however, I’m thankful to have a new term to use ‘playground mafia’.

    When my brown boy and my pink self go the park – we encounter exactly what you described.

    I try to make small talk, I try to smile in their direction – I’m met with nothing most of the time. Their kids clearly are rarely exposed to any other skin colors – they are stand-offish with my son, or they stare at him, stare at me. I’m paranoid when he, being 2 years old, grabs onto another child (in a non-aggressive manner) that the parent will come over and flip out that my brown baby is ‘handling’ their child. My heart stops beating when my boy goes in to hug a little white blonde girl (because he is in the hugging stage and loves to hug people his own size).

    When I’m with my boy on my own I know that the stereotypes are running through these people’s little teeny weeny brains. I’m a single mom knocked up by a black man out of wedlock. I’m at home during the middle of the day because I’m on welfare. Or maybe all the worse, that I’m a white woman married to a black man.

    I hadn’t verbalized what I ‘thought’ I was sensing and feeling at the park because until reading your post – I wasn’t sure if what I thought was happening was really happening. Every day I encounter and learn about how “white privilege’ shaped my life growing up – things that I and my mom didn’t have to deal with at the park (of all places), or in restaurants, or grocery stores, or the pediatricians office, or at kindermusik class, etc.

    I just wanted to thank you for your article. And to share, sadly the playground mafia conspires against more than black mamas.

  9. I am glad I missed that blog. I am reminded of seeing a little girl about five on the first day of school many years ago. Her excitement was visible and she was chatting with her care taking who was waiting with her. The caretaker was as animated and totally into her. That caretaker was a very large white guy wearing biker gear. I chuckled because the outer image and that level of devotion was so inconsistent with the hogwash we are fed by the media daily. We get too caught up in our stereotypes that we forget we all want the same thing for our kids.

    I did Scouting, PTA, martial arts, sports, etc. with my brown baby boy. I told everyone that he was my only child and I wanted the world for him. I invited people to my home so they could see a working mom with a working dad who were trying to live the same suburban life and were not a threat to them. We had ups and downs but the kid survived. Like the white mom of the brown kid stated white privilege allowed her NOT to deal with at the park. She does not mention the economic factors her mom might have encountered that were over her head. Some folks are just clueless. (btw, when I think of gangs I think of the ones of my youth, the Hell’s Angels, Outlaws and Pagans. I might not have thought black gang banger.)

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