My husband and I fell in love with our neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia because it’s the most walkable part of the city, with parks, restaurants and top attractions just steps away from our house. Being able to leave our car parked over the weekend helped our transition from the bustling San Francisco, to the more suburban feeling Atlanta. There is obvious privilege in having the financial means to choose where we live, and while we love so many aspects of our neighborhood, diversity is lacking. We are a predominately white and predominately affluent community.
We are surrounded by neighbors with children of various ages, from infant to adolescent. Every day after school, a group of white, 8 – 10 year olds gather and scooter up and down the street, play basketball or start a game of capture the flag. I love seeing these young kids being kids, off of technology and enjoying the outdoors with relative independence.
Recently, I was getting my kids a snack and my heart stopped as I noticed a figure scale the fence in my backyard, race across the lawn and around the side of my house. “Holy shit!” I thought, and I ran to get the phone and call my husband or the police, I’m not sure which. In quick succession, I saw two other people scale my fence and immediately recognized one of them as my neighbor’s son, a white ten-year-old, who is part of the scooter crew. These were kids playing a game that had spilled over onto my property. I exhaled a sigh of relief and went about my business.
That night, I recounted the story to my husband and repeated what I originally thought that afternoon: “they are kids just being kids.” But I had to admit that I was scared when I first saw someone I didn’t recognize on our property. Then, I found myself questioning aloud to my husband, “what if the children I didn’t know were black?”
I questioned myself because a few weeks ago, I read a moving, open letter written by a white mother entitled, “To the White Parents of my Black son’s friends”. One of the many lessons around personal safety this mother is forced to teach her black son is to never sneak through a neighbor’s yard.
I questioned myself because I know racial profiling is a real problem in my neighborhood. A man posted on NextDoor, a private social media service for neighbors, that he called the police after he witnessed a “young black male, probably 20, wearing a backpack” knock on a neighbors back door at 8 o’clock in the morning. When no one came to the door, the young black male hopped the fence and got into a waiting car. Turns out, this was a student coming to pick up his friend for school.
Another person notified neighbors via NextDoor that he called the police about an idle car with four black male passengers who were smoking cigarettes. A neighbor responded that one of the males rang his doorbell and asked to speak to his daughter. Turns out, these boys were classmates of his white daughter.
The white neighborhood kids scaling my fence are still young, so I could try to make the argument that if a black child of similar age trespassed in a similar way there would be no difference in reaction amongst me or my neighbors. But studies show that people overestimate black children’s ages and “…African-American boys as young as 10 years old [are] significantly less likely to be viewed as children than their white peers.” Racial profiling black children and teenagers is not a problem reserved to my neighborhood. Tamir Rice was only 12 when he was shot by police while playing with a toy gun in a neighborhood park.
In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, “Between the World and Me“, he shares the following observation about white parents raising white children:
I saw white parents pushing double-wide strollers down gentrifying Harlem boulevards in T-shirts and jogging shorts. Or I saw them lost in conversation with each other, mother and father, while their sons commanded entire sidewalks with their tricycles. The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs.
Coates’ observation about white parents and white children rings painfully true. My neighborhood is a product of gentrification. I have been lost in conversation with a friend at a museum and to my horror, looked up to see my son on top of a display. The white kids in my neighborhood feel unencumbered to run through a stranger’s yard while at play.
As a parent, I of course want to preserve my children’s innocence. I want them to feel safe. As a parent, I want my children to have the opportunity to make mistakes and grow from them. As a white parent raising white children, however, I must recognize that these desires are more likely to be fulfilled because of our race. I must recognize that the lessons I choose to teach my children, which might include “don’t run through a neighbor’s backyard”, will be based on manners, not on personal safety.
So what can I do? I can admit that my family and I are privileged due to our skin color. I can learn and practice strategies to ensure my children are race conscious instead of colorblind. I can challenge the racial profiling on my neighborhood list serves. I can and I must take these actions and more because mastery, independence and pushing boundaries are qualities and experiences that should be a right of passage for all children, not just those who are white.