a different kind of mom

Am I a different kind of black folk? Am I a different kind of mom?

Every day I go to pick up Ahmir at preschool, I ask him what he did and who he did it with. I’m interested in building his group of friends beyond those he sees every day to especially those he sees at preschool only twice a week. For several weeks now he has spoken about a little boy named Peter, so on Thursday as we were leaving, I asked Ahmir to point Peter out to me.

“Mommy, there he his!”

I spotted Peter, and fortunately, he was there with a woman, someone I presumed to be Peter’s mother. I encouraged Ahmir to say goodbye to Peter, thinking it was a good opportunity for me to introduce myself to Peter’s mother and set the stage for sometime after the winter break to possibly have Peter over for a playdate.

Some background before I continue – a few months back I wrote this note about the racial self-segregation at this preschool and my concerns about it. Since then I’ve learned, from both parents and teachers and also some great books, that this is entirely normal behavior. What parents can and should do, however, is have explicit conversations, starting at 3 or 4, about race and difference and equality or else children will come to their own conclusions, including inferences about in-group superiority or inferiority.

So, as I am walking up to this woman, who is dressed very nicely with a fancy silk scarf around her neck, black boots, pretty jewelry and makeup, I become aware of what I must look like. I’m actually aware of this each time I walk into the school because I know I look very much unlike most of the middle-class white women who come to pick their children up in the middle of the afternoon. First, which I actually think might be more indicative of my difference than my race, is the fact that I look so young. Most people, be they black, white, or whatever, cannot believe that I have two children. I am often mistaken for an undergrad that is volunteering at the school, or possibly a grad student, but never as a parent. Not only do I have a young face, but I’m sure I dress the part as well. I’m usually on my bike, in yoga pants or jeans and sneakers. In the winter I have on a winter hat, and maybe a bookbag. So I’m sure that as I approached this woman yesterday, my sneakers, jeans, and leather jacket indicated to her a difference in age of at least 10 years.

But the next part is about race, and then class. There are two things about the school worth mentioning here. First, the school, which is affiliated with the university and is on campus, offers a scholarship for families who can’t pay full tuition. We are one of those families. However, if you are a family that lives in Palo Alto (the neighboring city), where the median family income is $117,000, you probably don’t need the scholarship. On the contrary, if you live in East Palo Alto, where the majority of the brown people in the area live, and the median family income is $44,300, you might need the scholarship. Anecdotally, there is a perception in the area that if you are black, you live in EPA. I believe the same applies at the school.

So while I cannot say for sure, of course, as I approach this woman, not only do I think she is ascertaining my age, she is also taking account of my race and my class. And it shows. She has absolutely no interest in making conversation, talking about our children’s friendship, or anything. She wants to get away from me and Ahmir as fast as she can. She is polite, not rude, but any fantasy that I had establishing a relationship is gone before I had any chance to dream one up. And for a brief second I wanted to shout out – but I’m different, don’t you see! Can’t you tell by the way I talk that I’m just like you! Actually I’m probably smarter than you – I have a BS from Wharton, and an MA from Penn, and I’m working on a JD and a PhD from Stanford, and everyone thinks I’m, brilliant – hey wait!

But I didn’t. She walked away, and I’m glad she did. ‘Cause I don’t want to play that game. I hate the “I’m different” game that so many of us play in order to gain favor in white folks eyes. I shouldn’t have to prove that I’m somehow “worthy” of your attention by distancing myself from people who look like me to show that there’s another “kind” of black folk out there that white people can feel comfortable around. By trying to solidify our class differences, they are playing a very simple conquer and divide tactic. Of this, I want no part. If you think I’m from EPA, whatever, so be it. Where one lives is nothing to be ashamed of. How much money one makes it nothing to be ashamed of. Besides, on the real – I make LESS than the median EPA income. How dare I be ashamed of being associated with hard working people who go to work every day?

But back to the story – I can’t deny that her snub doesn’t hurt. And Peter’s mother was not the first and she won’t be the last. While this is the first parent I’ve had the nerve to approach, I’ve watched other pairs of parents strike up conversations, swap numbers, and arrange playdates this quarter. But it’s never happened with us, at least not yet, I guess I should say. Even when you are used to it, something in you hopes for the best, hopes that it will be different this time. And for me, each time it’s not, instead of the hurt becoming less painful, it is like the knife just becomes sharper. But I thank God that my son is too young (I hope) to understand the snub that woman dealt us, even though I am sure that the loss is hers and not ours.

Do we need to prove our difference to make white people feel more comfortable? I remember once Will and I were having a conversation at a bar on Germantown Avenue with this white guy, and at the end of it he said, “Now if more black people were like you guys…” and my response was, “Then what?” I can’t even remember what we were “like” that night, but I remember thinking to myself, “Something just went terribly wrong…”

I have a habit of making white people uncomfortable. How, I’m not quite sure – I look them in the eyes when I speak, I dunno. But I have to admit, I like it. Discomfort is important. Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up middle class and now I’m chasing this high prestige occupation so I have perspective on both and find that I have a foot in both worlds and that makes them uncomfortable. I talk a lot of shit, even in class I challenge professors and I use slang and references to pop culture. I avoid academic language and legalese and try to talk so that my mommy and daddy could understand (who are both smart people, just not academics.)

Maybe it’s because I defy stereotypes of what a black female young-looking, dreadloc-wearing, yoga-doing, joint-degree pursuing, fibromyalgia and bipolar-having mothering academic is supposed to look like, which is weird because I don’t know nobody besides myself doing it so I don’t know what the stereotype would be.

10 thoughts on “a different kind of mom

  1. My heart aches when I read this, partly for your pain and partly because I can’t be sure I wouldn’t be like the woman who dodged you, although I’d sure hope I’ve learned better. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve avoided speaking to Black people I was actually interested in getting to know better because I was afraid I’d seem to be coming on too strong, trying to be over-friendly. I’ve learned from talking to people that being ignored is more likely to be the problem. But I know that some people avoid others not because of hostility, but fear of being uncomfortable. Which is not to say there are no snobs out there. (Nor to say that I’m entirely free of my own snobbishness.)

    I was wondering whether we can’t think of it as another version of the same problem as the children have: a natural tendency to segregate that has to be countered on purpose by intentional action. Maybe the school could organize a parents’ meet each other night with structured activities designed to get people who don’t know each other to cross those boundaries and talk a bit?

    To be honest, I was often out of the parents’ loop (except for a few close friends) but I suspect for different reasons, because I’m a pretty odd duck and didn’t have much in common with most of the other “moms,” even though we were of similar class and complexion.


  2. Whatever you “look like”, reading your sensitive and self-aware (not to mention enlightening) posts… you’re quite a beautiful person.

    Thanks for articulating the issues so well. You’re right, you shouldn’t have to prove your worthiness. And it is “their” loss not yours.


  3. Thank you both for your comments. OW, I think your hesitation due to not wanting to be too eager is right on as well. I need to be more aware of the “vibe” that I put off, because I know that I hate those people too – the ones that seem like they just want to be my friend, or connected to my family, because we are black or different. That’s why I thought that with this woman I actually had a reason to speak to her because our sons were friends, or at least my son spoke about her son a lot.

    The idea of having something just for the parents is a great idea! The school does do a back to school potluck, but it includes children and we were so preoccupied with the kids that talking to other parents was really hard. And it was very free-form; a more structured “get-to-know-you” would help to get people out of their comfort zones and talk to people that they probably wouldn’t do otherwise.

    AD: thanks for the compliment, esp. coming from you. You’re one of my blogging inspirations b/c you write so beautifully. I appreciate that you appreciate what I’m doing. This conversation mostly takes place on facebook now, and there are so many other young parents facing these issues, so it’s important for me to try and get them out there so we can support each other.


  4. I’m week late commenting here, but better late than never, right?

    First, I’m glad to hear your voice again after the lenghty absence and I second AD’s comment (and your opinion of him as well, he’s also one of my blogging inspirations and has become more than that, a good friend. If you’ve been reading my blog you might know that I had the privilege of meeting him and his family the day before Thanksgiving).

    In any case, this is a great post and I can tell you that I understand you, albeit from a different perpective, that of a foreigner in America. I haven’t yet found the time and the right words to blog about the sensitive topic of race (I do have a post mostly written in my journal, though), but one thing that I’ve learned in my years in the U.S. is that the fact that I’m a foreigner, an outsider, even being (motsly) white, brings me closer to black folks. I was really glad when this very outspoken black friend of mine in Massachusetts told me that I could understand her better and that her other (white) American friends tried, but couldn’t.

    Anyway… I’m rambling. It’s past midnight here in Brazil and I need to go to bed. I’m glad you posted again and I hope you can post again soon!


  5. P.S. I want to be facebook friends! (although I must warn you that I share way more in my blog than in fb, I don’t feel safe there, maybe the new privacy settings will help). Anyway, you can email me your name if you don’t mind being friend with me there (or I could email you mine).


  6. I just happened onto your site quite randomly through a google search on toy trains–don’t know how that happened but am happy to have found you.

    I’m really sorry to hear about peter’s mother’s behavior. it must have felt awful, and then you have to worry about when peter’s going to start acting the same darn way and, well, ugh.

    As a white mom to a black son, I do a lot of thinking about parenting and race, and it’s always good to find others doing the same.

    As an aside, we’re also in a daycare situation where most of the families are way up the income scale from us. Most work at banks etc and dress to the nines, and I have the same sort of feeling you described when entering the building. I mean, sometimes I can’t find the time to shower, let alone dress up. The truth is I’d rather sleep for an extra 20 minutes; so sue me…

    Anyway, sorry to go on and on. Nice to have found you.


  7. Lillian – I emailed you, so friend me whenever you get a chance!

    Julia – however you got here, welcome! I haven’t been posting much lately, but I do think it will be picking up if I do a link between this and facebook. You say you are a white mom to a black son – is your son’s father black, or is your son adopted?


  8. Well-said post. Seems to me like you had quite an internal conversation about Peter’s mom and how she turned you away. Though you didn’t share the actual dialogue, the convo with Peter’s mom looked to have lasted about 30 seconds or less. But your thoughts an analysis took at least 30 minutes! Why not just unleash the boldness of your writing — verbally — to Peter’s mom and see what happens?! She already wants nothing to do with you — what’s the worst that could happen? At the very least you’ll have a helluva story to tell.
    I agree that there is an unspoken judgement process that goes on with Black folks living and working in predominantly White communities, but why only blog about it when the opportunity to change something you see as an issue is right there in front of you?


  9. Sorry…I only just saw your response! My son is adopted from Ethiopia. My husband is white. I blog (less and less frequently, I’m sorry to say) about parenting and race etc at nobody-asked-you.blogspot.com.


  10. Hi,
    I loved your post and I feel the same way…Currently, I am completing an Master’s of Urban Planning and, as one of the few Black women in the department, often feel excluded. However, I’ve rationalized that some (white) people tend to react this way when they feel threatened (or inadequate). Frankly, I suspect “Peter’s Mom”, however “nicely dressed,” was jealous and insecure.


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