Saturday, July 30, 2011

At the playground the other day I was reminded of an incident that actually happened maybe a year ago.

I'm white. My son is black. Sometimes on the playground we fit between races, as I can talk to people of either race, and frankly, I know many of the internationals, so I can talk to them also. And for the most part they are willing to talk to me. I can sense when white folks are uncomfortable with what I'm doing, but that's rare in this college town, though as you get further away, like in the town of M. where racism is more common, I feel it a little more often. Black folks are almost universally nice to me, regardless of how they may feel.

The rule of the playground is, you have to respect the other kids. You can occupy the bottom of the slide, but if you see a kid trying to come down the slide, you should let him or her get through. Similarly you can go halfway down the covered slide, but it's not really polite to just sit there and block it and not let any other kid come down the slide. It doesn't matter about color. You should respect any kid, any color.

Older kids tend to use the playground in unorthodox ways. They might shinny up the the pole that holds the swing, or climb around on the outside of the covered swing, or go up the slide backwards and then jump off from a point about halfway up. My older kids did this too. They have an innate sense of what kind of nerve development they need and they go after it instinctively without regard for conventions like, "this equipment was not meant to be used backwards." They tend not to worry about the rules to much unless we parents interject them. Similarly they have a pattern regarding learning their new skills, where they tend to do things over and over once they've mastered them. These are universal to kids.

My son found another friend (both black) and they were hanging around the bottom of the slide. I was watching them but was unaware of a couple of white kids at the top of the slide. The white kids were hiding behind a wall up there and we couldn't see them wanting to come down the slide. Or at least I couldn't see them; I may have been distracted. In any case the two little kids at the bottom didn't move for them because it wasn't apparent they were coming down. Or if it was, somehow we'd missed the signal.

Their mother was furious though. She said that in her town, M., if kids were playing at the bottom of the slide they'd just call the park police and get them off of there. I should have shooed them off of there myself. It's against the rules to go up backward, or to hang around at the bottom so other kids can't come down, she said. Just then I noticed the white kids cowering. Had they signaled her? Had she intervened on her own? Was I complicit in their breaking the rules?

I still don't know. The thing is, one of kids' rules is, if your dad is standing right over you, and he doesn't care what you're doing, then it must be ok. So maybe they had some sense that they were keeping those kids from coming down, and didn't care.

The woman was kind of in an Appalachian rage. She had a small town local accent. I felt like saying, my older sons have been going up this slide for twenty years. I got the sense racism was an issue. That's why I felt like saying, my older sons have been doing that for twenty years, and they're white. But I didn't. I shooed the little kids off of the slide, and they ran off to play somewhere else.

Nothing like this incident has happened recently, which is good, because I'm low on patience. I was reminded of it mostly because it was kind of a moral dilemma where I was accused of doing something wrong, and wasn't entirely convinced of my own rightness. How does one know? To whom does one turn?

On the lake in Minnesota the boys and I would walk along the shore, on the rocks, as far as we felt like. The problem was, it was private property, and for the most part wasn't clearly marked. I was vaguely aware that we were off the beach of our own resort, where of course we could explore, but as long as nobody bothered us, I didn't worry too much.

But one day we walked really far and some guy came out and asked us to leave. There is public beach up there in town that anyone can use, he said, but this is private property. He was nice enough, and so were we; we turned around and left. One son was stung by the rebuke, though. He didn't want his dad to admit guilt, I guess. I also felt bad, guilty, like I'd put them in a position of being trespassers. It seemed ok to me at the time, that's all I could say.

Another visitor confirmed my feeling later, though. It should be accessible. It's a huge, beautiful lake, you ought to be able to walk on it.

I don't know the answer to life's questions. A friend, however, said that humility is the key. You admit that you might not be right, then, if you're wrong, sorry about that, didn't mean to hurt you, or cause you trouble. Later on, we were walking along that same shore, further toward our own place, but still on private beach, I'm sure, and there was a whole party of people out on the lawn enjoying the sunset on the rocky beach. Along comes me and my two sons, one very black, both wearing no shirt or shoes, hopping from rock to rock. They didn't say a word. It seemed like the most natural thing. You got boys, you got rocks, you have a big lake, that's how it's supposed to be. Oh how I miss it.


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