On Friday, I got home from work to discover my oldest was next door. There was a birthday party, and a bounce house, and we were invited. Juliet was already there, shoes off, red hair flying. “Hey MOM! Look! We get to go to the party!” Priscilla had her shoes off before I could get into their backyard. I mean, a bounce house, for free, in the neighbor’s backyard! It was pretty much the best day of their entire lives.
We had hot dogs, and I chatted with the family. The other kids came up to me because Priscilla’s balance is not the greatest and she kept getting knocked over in the bounce house with the big kids. (We solved that problem by having her enjoy the house firmly on her heiny.) I wondered if the kids knew immediately that I was the right mom because we were the only white family there, or if it was because we were the only family that was not part of the larger family. I shrugged. Our neighbors have been exceedingly warm, welcoming and helpful in the years we have lived in our house. So the cousins know the white kids go with the white mom. Duh.
In fact, I was at ease, eating ribs and chit-chatting until the cake. It wasn’t the cake itself. All of a sudden I was in a place where my children have been known to not be so well-behaved. They get their sweet tooth from me, and I spent more than one wedding this summer reminding my girls not to stick their fingers in the icing. Suddenly, in the small room where the two candles are being lit I was reminded of the things my students used to ask me about white parents. Why are we so lenient? Why do we let our kids behave so badly?
I know my neighbors well enough to know that they just see us as neighbors, not as white neighbors, but I don’t know their relatives and I don’t know what my kids are going to do, and I don’t know if whatever happens will be told somewhere later, when people are talking about how poorly behaved white kids can be, how lenient their parents are.
In fact, I was so paranoid about whether or not my kids were going to shove their grubby fingers in the cake that I didn’t even think about the singing. The SINGING! If you don’t know, now you know, there is a version of happy birthday I have only ever heard black people sing. And my girls only know the white version, and y’all they LOVE to sing the birthday song. They LOVE to call ALL of our relatives on their birthday and sing to them. They are all UP in the birthday song. Luckily, this particular family sang the version we were familiar with. And I was very, very relieved. I just didn’t want another reminder that we were different.
Can I tell you that it is hard to feel awkward sometimes at a neighbors birthday party? Can I tell you that sometimes, in a store where I am the only white lady, I am extra embarrassed when my children throw a fit? Not just because my children are throwing a fit, but because I hear the things that people used to tell me, about white parent and fit throwing children. Can I tell you that my black friends deal with this every single day, but it isn’t just a matter of feeling awkward? It is a matter of making sure their kids stay alive.
As conversations about race have been thrust to the forefront, so has the realization that we don’t talk about race enough, that we aren’t engaging our neighbors. But why not?
Because it is hard, because it is awkward, because it is easier to be at a birthday party where you are not representing an entire race, where your kids know which birthday song to sing, where you are at ease. I get it, I do. I understand that at the end of a long week all you want is to go to a place where you are comfortable, where you can let your hair down, where you can be totally relaxed and everyone understands you.
But it is time. It is time for us to go to places we are uncomfortable. It is time for us to learn the songs and stories of people who are not like us. If Ferguson has taught us anything, it has taught us to go, to listen, to understand. I know it is uncomfortable. Believe me I know. But it is necessary, and it is worth it.
Because my kids, they know when they don’t know the birthday song, they know that they are the lightest kids bouncing in the house, but it doesn’t make them uncomfortable. They hear and see and learn far faster than their mother. They lead me into places where I would only go reluctantly, because the celebration is worth it. The understanding is worth it. Who doesn’t want to learn a bonus birthday song? I am learning, from my girls, as we navigate these new spaces, that going and staying are worth the awkward feelings. I am learning we can do better. I am learning that starts with me. When all else fails, I let my children lead.