Since we brought Teddy home more than two years ago, we’ve enjoyed a new relationship with the black community. I get smiles and nods and “Isn’t he handsome” from black women and men all the time when I’m out with the little munchkin. With Teddy as an adorable ice breaker, I’ve had wonderful conversations with people I never otherwise would’ve had the opportunity to talk to. And the differentness of our family seems to invite people to share their stories. Teddy and I were waiting for an elevator in a metro station a few days ago, along with a middle-aged black man. Teddy looked him up and down, and the gentleman commented that Teddy was giving him the eyes. As we walked into the elevator, I noted that he must be special, since Teddy doesn’t eye just anyone. He stated that the little man must know he was a 57-year-old single father of a 27-month-old whose mother had just left them both. I tried to pick my jaw up from the floor as quickly as possible and offer my condolences. Seems the mother had suffered post-partum depression and couldn’t handle the child anymore, so handed her off to her father, who was overwhelmed but doing his best. I wished him the best and hoped my little guy’s brief interaction served as some sort of encouragement.
All three of us were in Starbucks last week, one of the few in the city open on New Year’s Day, right before closing. We were enjoying hot chocolate, a skinny mocha, and a creme brulee soy latte, with Teddy alternately drinking his and confirming to whom each belonged (“Teddy’s hot chocolate, Mommy’s coffee, Daddy’s coffee…), when one of the black baristas strode over to our table and deposited three pastry bags—each containing a slice of pumpkin bread—and a box of apple juice. She stood there for a moment as we stared at each other and then at her, and then correctly noted that we were probably wondering where these treats came from. As we nodded in bewilderment, she explained that it was closing and they were clearing out the extra snacks from the display case. To further explain why we were the lucky recipients (we were not the only ones lingering until closing), she shared how she saw that we were an adoptive family and she was a former foster child who was taken in by her aunt before she aged out of the system. She didn’t hang out much longer, and when we sought her out a few minutes later to thank her again, we couldn’t find her.
That’s not the only time we’ve received freebies or discounts for having our little Mr Charming along. At a downtown frozen yogurt place, presumably recognizing us from previous visits, the clerk asked if we were locals and, upon confirmation, gave us the “local discount”—which we didn’t know existed. (Unfortunately, it’s since been phased out in favor of customer loyalty cards.) Another time, during the government shutdown, I was trying on clothes at Ann Taylor Loft while Mike entertained Teddy, who was doing a fine job keeping busy dimpling at the store clerks. While one of them rang me up, she asked if I qualified for a student discount. I shook my head, but jokingly asked if there was a discount for furloughed employees. She said no, then looked at our grinning 2-year-old, and punched in the un-merited student discount.
However, not all interactions have been so welcome. Deserved? Probably. But not welcome. I have learned the hard way, just in the past few weeks, that black people tell you what they think. I imagine white people don’t agree with everything I do concerning Teddy, but they keep it to themselves, so I don’t have to answer for it. But when people make comments to your face, that’s a different story. And if response is a good reflection of character, I still have a lot to work on…
The issue lately has been the weather. DC has had a spate of cold weather and, evidently (I’m learning from my black friends), white parents tend to underdress their kids and black people overdress them. In the last couple months, I’ve been called out by black people (men and women, older and younger) on four separate occasions for not forcing a heavy coat onto my “baby”. Course, they didn’t know dressing Teddy in a winter jacket would require force and that I decided not to fight that battle for the three blocks we’d be outside—and that probably isn’t a great excuse anyway. (Actually, one admonishment came while we were still indoors, preparing to leave the library. I was holding the parka out and asking Teddy, who was running around the lobby, to put it on, repeatedly. An older gentleman expressed concern that my little boy might catch pneumonia. I wanted to hit my head again the nearby brick wall.)
In hindsight, I appreciate that these people are simply looking out for a little boy they likely see as one of their own. (Although, a white friend strollering her white baby girl was also called out by a black woman for taking her child out at all in the cold weather, despite how well layered she was, so maybe black women are just more concerned about children and cold in general.) Since I’m a big believer in the “village” helping me raise my child, the bigger the village, the better. But I’m ashamed to say I did not respond well at the time. Criticism is never received as easily as adulation, after all.
“Community is messy,” as one of my pastors is fond of saying. And as I’m invited into this community, I’ll need to learn to accept the critical interactions—and learn from them—just as I welcome the complimentary ones. I gobble up those proffered pieces of cake without hesitation. So must I learn to graciously swallow unsolicited advice, understanding the intention behind it.