We frequent a playground that’s walking distance from our house. I never really thought about it prior to the timing of this incident, but few black children play there. It’s a parks and rec playground adjacent to and used by a fairly diverse school, in a fairly diverse neighborhood, so I’m not sure why there’s not much diversity at the playground. All the same, we can play in relative obscurity. No one really pays undue attention to my kids, aside from commenting on how adorable they are, although other children do occasionally ask about our different skin color. But my kids can usually play uninterrupted.
One day, I decided to take the kids to the fenced in playground at Teddy’s school. (I hadn’t previously because after school it’s used by aftercare kids and locked to the public; this day, I “snuck” the kids in after pickup and no one sent us away.) Teddy’s school has a predominantly Black population. That afternoon, I was the only white person there.
Teddy found friends to play with, so I could focus on Lydia.
Lydia was soon swarmed. Girls of all ages surrounded her, squealing over her, touching her hair, “helping” her walk, asking how old she was, comparing her to their niece, sister, god-sister, cousin. It was sweet…until it wasn’t. This was not a situation I was used to…or comfortable with. I get on Teddy’s case all the time for touching his sister too much. And now these girls couldn’t keep their hands off her. At one point, one girl picked her up to keep her from getting kicked by a kid obliviously playing above her, and my annoyance at the girl holding my baby without asking left no room for gratitude at her quick thinking. I did not handle it well. Maybe in part because I should’ve been paying better attention.
Our whole time at the playground was much more stressful for me than usual.
Later, I was texting a Black friend about the experience, highlighting how the girls talked about having god-sisters, something else which isn’t terribly common in my circle (I know plenty of people with god-children, but I’ve never heard anyone refer to anyone else as their god-sibling), and my friend noted how common that was in her community and how, in fact, her daughter just recently had referred to my friend’s best friend as her god-aunt, when she isn’t really.
And that’s when it struck me: with the black community, in my experience, everyone is family. So when my kids are around, they become part of that extended family. And via that bridge, I do, too. Which is awesome. I mean, who doesn’t want to be part of an extended family? Even when your “aunts” and “uncles” offer unsolicited advice…
I suppose I knew this before. I hear black people call each other brother and sister all the time. And I realize the black community isn’t entirely unique in this. I have a friend who is half Japanese/half Chinese, and another who is Puerto Rican, and both refer to friends and relatives alike as aunties and uncles with their kids. For that matter, I have a caucasian friend who makes a practice of that, too. I am such an honorary auntie for all of these friends’ kids. But the difference is, I’ve only experienced this in the context of friendship. I wasn’t prepared for my kids to be treated as family…by strangers.
Now I just need to figure out when to step back and let Lydia be loved and adored by kids (and adults!) I don’t know, and when I should intervene and accommodate my own feelings of discomfort. Or maybe this is just another of those cultural norms I’m going to have to get used to. Because, thanks to our kids, we’re all family now.