Yesterday & Today: Just Some Monday Afternoon Thoughts on the Myriad Complications of Michelle-ing
I am participating in an interactive art installation titled “Fallout” at a museum in my home city.*
The installation is an interrogation of the concept of protection as it relates to public life in America.
The creators of the installation are posing these questions with the work: In this country, who’s protected and who isn’t? How are decisions about how lives are and aren’t valued made, every day, by both policy-makers and everyday Americans? What’s the difference between false protections and real ones?
These women – that happen to be white – are building a fallout shelter like those utilized during the Cold War inside of a local museum and staging therein conversations between diverse artists, activists, and others about “systemic violence, the manufacturing and manipulation of fear for political gain, and what real protection could actually mean” in this age of hacked elections and hack politicians.
At the same time that I’m preparing for my part in this installation, I am also readying a syllabus for my Upward Bound Summer Academy classes. The director has asked me to teach the YA novel, The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas – a story of a 16-year-old black girl named Starr whose best friend, Khalil, is killed by a white police officer right in front of her one tragic night after they leave a house party together.
This is my life. I have a day job and what I consider a calling, and, often, they intersect. And then my “real” life – of adulting and mothering – forms a third junction – and I am traveling down three different paths to the answer to whatever “big” question is looming in my mind, or pressing on my chest, at the moment.
And I always have these “big” questions because I am a teacher and writer and mother and woman and black person and American, so the world is nothing for me except unending flux.
Yesterday, my little girl had a soccer game, but she didn’t want to go. She didn’t want to go to practice on Friday, either. She says the girls on the team are “mean” to her. They don’t hit her or call her names, but they don’t seek to partner with her during drills. Only a couple of them will even chat with her between drills or on the sidelines of games, and there are a couple others that regularly point out to her how they can execute certain foot skills better than she can.
She is the only black girl on the team. She plays soccer because her father played soccer as a kid. He coaches soccer. He loves soccer. He passed that love onto her. She’s been playing since she was four. She’s nine now. She’s made the jump from recreational to the all-city team, and it’s been hard for her.
The girls on her half of the all-city team are in the third grade together; they see each other during the day in school and on the playground at recess. They have connections outside of soccer. Some even live in the same cul-de-sac.
But my baby entered kindergarten early. She’s a year ahead of them at school, so she’s in a different building. We don’t carpool with them. She’s not in any of their Girl Scout troops. She doesn’t play softball or any other sport with any of them. Her only “in” with them is soccer, but they have their cliques, and she’s not in any of them.
Then, there are the mitigating factors outside of the logistics.
My girl is gifted and precocious. She doesn’t like to do things that don’t come easily to her. She gets easily distracted when she’s not doing something all-consuming like playing video games or reading, and she gets easily discouraged when she makes mistakes. She’s extremely hard on herself. She is guarded with people that don’t seem open to her. She cannot take criticism very well, and she only wants to talk about the topics that interest her – and soccer isn’t actually one of them.
Still, when she’s “on,” she exhibits a real talent for the sport, and she takes immense pride when she is able to do something “good” or “right” on the soccer field. She just isn’t a total “soccer girl,” which many of the girls on her team are. She’s a video gamer.
I honestly think only half of her incentive to play soccer is her love of the sport; the other half is her desire to please her father and me. We think soccer is a good idea because we want her to learn to be a productive part of a team, get some regular exercise, and develop the will and ability to push herself when she feels challenged.
Yet, yesterday, when she said she didn’t want to play in her game because the girls on the team are “mean,” I felt this undeniable urge to tell her that she didn’t have to play. Ever again. I wanted to protect her from the complications of her situation. I wanted to make it easy for her.
It’s difficult, when you’re the parent of a black child in a predominantly white environment, to navigate the microsociology. You have to think really hard to determine if and when your child is being treated a certain way because of her race. You cannot help but question whether race is a factor in any social problem your child experiences.
There is a part of me that thinks my daughter is having a hard time fitting into her soccer team because she is the only black girl, and she’s not being wholly welcomed. Yes, there are Chinese girls on the team, but they are the adopted children of white parents. It’s easy to think of them as white because they are white identified. There is an Indian girl on the team, but Indians are “model minorities” in a sense (as are Chinese people); they’re not stigmatized in the way that black people are. There is another girl on the team whose ethnicity is either Hispanic or Latina – I’m not sure – but she doesn’t fare much better socially than my daughter.
And, no, my baby isn’t being bullied. I would never allow that. She is just being . . . overlooked? Yes, that is probably the best word. A few girls that were on her old recreational teams talk to her. The Indian girl talks to her. One of the Asian girls talks to her. The coaches give her individual attention and the same number of turns as all of the other girls to play offense, defense, and goalie. She plays in every quarter of every game. The parents cheer for her when she does well, and the coaches congratulate her for having “good” games. Yet, the majority of the girls on her team treat her like she’s invisible. They’re not “mean,” but they hurt her nonetheless.
And I hate it. I hate it because it plants the seed in her mind that there may be something wrong with her. They talk so freely and incessantly with each other, albeit in two or three separate “pockets,” it’s hard to make the argument that she is not being ostracized in some sense.
So there I was yesterday. Stuck. Trying to think of the right thing to say to my daughter. Trying to push back the thought of pulling her from the team. Telling myself it was silly because she’s also the only black girl in her gifted class at school, and she might be the only black girl in her major in college – like I was – and what am I going to do? Pull her out of her very well-funded, excellently rated public school? Force her to go to an HBCU if she doesn’t want to or choose a major that is more, well, “black” than computer science (what she insists she wants to study)?
Am I going to send her the message that the only thing she can do when being black gets hard for her is to cut herself off? Sequester herself? Or stick to segregated social situations that may not allow her to explore her true interests or follow her true aspirations?
This is what it’s like for black parents, on a micro scale. You don’t know whether protecting your child means pushing them to deal in a world that is often hostile toward their blackness or shielding them from that world.
This is what the parents in the novel, The Hate U Give, agonize over in their quest to successfully raise their children.
They – the fictional Lisa and Maverick – are products of a poor black neighborhood that want to give their children the experience of growing up in their “own” world, but also provide them the privileges of being educated in the “white” one.
They make their children go to an all-white prep school, where the protagonist, Starr, struggles with the ethics of code-switching and interracial dating and the constant fear of being stigmatized as “ghetto” or stereotyped as the “angry black girl.”
The gap between the two worlds makes her feel almost entirely liminal – like she belongs nowhere and no one can understand her.
My husband and I live in an outer ring suburb of one of the most segregated cities in the US. The suburb itself is racially diverse, but the culture of the suburb is segregated.
The children go to school together. They play sports and they are scouts together. They take swim lessons and go to summer camps together. They make friends across racial lines when they are younger, but it appears to me — as I watch the high school kids walk to and from the bus stops and congregate in the local fast food spots — that they start “grouping off” by color as they get older.
Even though I’m relatively sure my daughter will end up in a social group of black kids that will like and appreciate her — and not stuck in an isolated margin like Starr — I also know that this “grouping off” — when it happens to her class — is going to hurt her deeply.
Right now, her closest friends are a white girl and boy that adore Pokémon and book series about anthropomorphic cats and owls just as much as she does. She has really good black girls friends, but they’re not in her class, so she doesn’t see them everyday. She sees this girl in class, and this boy on the bus after school, and being able to talk to them about the things she loves — with unadulterated enthusiasm and complete understanding — makes her really happy. I hate the thought that she might lose that.
And I can’t protect her from it.
I can’t make these kids stay friends with her if they don’t want to. Just like I can’t make the girls on the soccer team befriend her if they don’t want to. Just like I can’t make it so that predominantly black schools in our city provide the same level of education as her suburban school so I could send her to one. Just like I can’t guarantee that going to a predominantly black school — after five years of attending her “multicultural” suburban school — would guarantee her a bunch of social acceptance and friends.
The creators of the installation I wrote about in the opening paragraphs of this post are posing the question: What can real protection mean? This is a question that I know every parent actively involved in raising his or her child asks himself or herself every day, but it is a particularly thorny one for black parents.
Because this soccer “thing” is just the tip of the iceberg for my girl and me.
She is only nine, but I’ve already been compelled to discuss with her how to act if she’s approached by the cops.
I’ve had to tell her that the typical teenage “hijinks” that her white friends and classmates may get up to when they are older — pranking each other or arguing with teachers or getting into it with each other — are not acceptable for her because police and school administrators tend to come down harder on black kids. The discipline gap is real. She can’t ruin her permanent school record or gain an arrest record and expect to get into a “good” college.
Not to mention, she might get shot and killed by a cop — if the cops are called — over what will surely be termed a “misunderstanding” or “unfortunate incident.” Just like poor, sweet, but misguided Khalil in The Hate U Give.
The only real protection I can give her — as I see it — is the truth. Things like playing soccer on an interracial team are always going to be harder for you because you’re black. You can tough it out – I will be there to support and love you when your teammates won’t. Or you can quit and possibly miss out on a valuable growth opportunity.
I asked my girl, yesterday, to try my approach to situations like hers. When I am the only black person in a space, I block out my insecurities and any unwelcome vibes or feelings I get from anyone else, and I make up my mind to kill whatever I am in the space to do. To prove to myself that I have just as much right to be there as anyone else. To make myself proud.
I told her that love comes from home.
The most she can expect from her teammates or classmates or colleagues – when she’s older and working – is respect.
Earn it, I told her. By being the best you can be.
Or better yet. Just play the game. Love it like you do. Focus on the joy of being out there and getting to run and kick, breathe the fresh air and feel your self be vital and mobile.
Do what our ancestors have always done. Make a shelter for yourself in personal greatness, self-love, and self-acceptance.
We’ll see what the fallout of all my “motivation” is in Little One’s life.
We’ll see how all of this influences the art I make as part of the installation and on my own.
We’ll see whether my students, when we discuss their reading, will accept my concept of protecting oneself as a black person as readily as my baby did.
- For personal reasons, I’ve decided not to participate in the workshops centered around “Fallout,” although I encourage anyone that can attend to attend. I know and trust the facilitators, and I believe in their values and wisdom. As far as I can tell, the workshops should be amazing.