Thursday, August 16, 2007

Me vs. "them"

Half a block down and across the street is an elementary school. This is not where Willa will go because, well, it's hardcore Christan, and we are not. Jim and I used to take the dogs there to run in the open field on the hill. Now we take Willa there to run across wood chips to conquer slides of various heights and shapes.

On our walk to the playground last night Willa and I (finally) met the four young girls who moved in across the street from us last year. They range from entering kindergarten to 7th grade; sweet, charming girls with shy smiles and a fun secret language shared between sisters and cousins. As we parted ways they warned us that "the big kids" were at the playground.
Willa played on the smallest play set for a while, and then walked over to the metal slide. A group of five "big kids" were sitting in on the steps of the slide, blocking the way. Willa was ready to part the sea of big kids to get to her favorite slide.

One of them asked if he could hold her. "No," I said, "she's a little shy, and isn't comfortable with strangers."

This apparently insulted divawithsunglasses, who went commented on how her friend wasn't strange, and should she be talking to me, because I was a stranger (and frankly with that attitude, I'd rather she didn't talk to me)? "That's your choice," I said.

Another girl spoke up, "she only means that the baby doesn't know him."

I smiled at her and agreed. We chatted for a minute when I noticed what she was doing.

"Hey, what are you doing there?"
"I'd really appreciate if you stopped burning your name into the playground wood."
"Aw mannn.... why does everyone have to get in my business?"
"Because that's part of our community, and you should respect it."
Divawithsunglasses sucked her teeth, and started talking about how strangers should tell people what to do. She tried to make it about race.
"Look," I said, "you live near here. I live near here. I think we should try to keep this playground nice, so people can enjoy it. I'm just asking you to respect the neighborhood." I scooped up Willa and walked back to the smaller play set.

These "big kids" were probably the same age as the oldest in the group of girls we met on the way to the playground. I'll be damned if I let a group of bored, disrespectful 12 year olds ruin a trip to the playground.

There is an apartment complex at the bottom of our street. It used to be a desirable place to live. Now it's section 8 housing. In the nearly 2 years that I've lived in this neighborhood, I've witnessed tangible tensions. "Some car windows were smashed this month, it was probably people from the apartments." "The school was broken into, I'm sure it was one of them." The socioeconomic reality of our neighborhood is that there are middle class white folks in houses, and poor black folks in apartments. And part of me hungers to see a white kid throw a piece of trash on our lawn so I can say, "see, it's not them!" Even better, an old white woman, so it's not the kids who are "ruining" our neighborhood.

While I was walking with Willa I heard 2 boys playing basketball talking. "I stay in the apartments. Where do you stay?" "I stay in the apartments too."

Stay. Not live. It starts to click for me. Staying somewhere implies a lack of ownership; people stay in hotels on vacation.

I'm writing this to explore and understand. To understand last night's exchange. To understand my own prejudices and social structural norms. To understand those of others.
Those "big kids" probably aren't thinking about me or our experience last night, but it's staying with me. How do I, how does my community, how does America become more inclusive? How do we get a bunch of bored, self-involved, full of attitude "big kids" to care about and respect their community? I thought I would start by asking them to.

Honestly looking for ideas, shared experiences, and feedback.

Postscript: Our neighborhood is safe (no need to worry mom and dad) and almost idyllic, with the exception of this current of tension.


Em said...

Without coming off as a racist, because, I am not, and neither are you....I will start by saying that we had similar experiences in our West side neighborhood. What I don't understand is why it IS always about race?? It's always the white man vs. the black and frankly, if something doesn't change, NOW, then things will only progress into something worse.

And the truth remains...there are children that are not loved, not taught morals and values, and have not been taught respect. Those kids that are "staying" in the apartments?? I want to go give them a big hug and tell them they have opportunities beyond their wildest dreams. That they can be different from the rest of their family, that they can succeed and have things to love and a place to call home. The socioeconomic structure of this country is lacking. What you saw last night was proof of that crack in the system.

And I will quit now, because I could go on and on and on and...

Em said...

You know what we can do to change it?? Volunteer. Show them it doesn't have to be this way for them. Show them that they can have something of their own someday. That is my answer to this problem. Maybe they have to see it with their own eyes to believe it. I don't know.

I hurt for this country's youth. I really, really do. They are faced with more than we were and it will continue on like that.

Christina said...

Wow, that's a lot to think about. But, I think that we also have to remember what age you were dealing with at the park. They're going to be rebellious at full of attitude. While part of that has to do with how the parents have taught them, some if it is just inherent with the age. It will get better and they have to learn for themselves. I think what you said about not destroying the neighborhood was the best way you could handle it. I'm not sure if I would have had enough balls to say anything (yes, I'm a wimp and yes, someone help me-I'm afraid of 12 year olds). But at least you set an example for her to see and maybe she refuses to absorb it right now (due to the 12 year old with attitude syndrome) but it might make a tiny difference later. I'd be curious to see how she acts around you next time you see her. I guess I'm using this situation as an example.

We have a similar situation where (at least this is what I have heard) that there is a street by our house that has a very negative connotation as to the type of people that live there. Pretty much the same as you described with the apartments. I have not seen for myself as we don't have sidewalks and you'd have to walk along a busy street to go over there. Like, there was something stuff stolen and vandalized at our house while it was being built - oh must have been those XXX street kids. I have yet to see anything negative come about from this street (part of it could be due to the "isolation") but if the kids wanted they could come right into our yard (very hard to explain but we live in the middle of woods) yet they haven't. I have yet to prove who the unapproved turkey hunters with guns were and where they came from either so can't blame XXX Street. Anyways, I am thinking this street's negative connotation could be arising from skin color, etc. which unfortunately, is a subject some of my neighbors are always happy to bring up which annoys me to no end.. There's more to that than I want to write here though but the whole principal of that it is OK to judge someone by skincolor is really disgusting to me.

And I am so narrow-minded. I don't know how to fix the white vs. everyone else culture. I still think it starts with parents. You teach your kids and they will teach their kids. And it can go both ways. If you are teaching your kid to hate white people, well the kid is going to hate white people most likely and the problem continues and then they are not open to someone who is reaching out.

I also think that you need to accept others' culture. It may not be exactly how YOU live and you have to try not to look down upon it. I'm assuming none of these things you are looking down upon are hurting society. I have had to open my mind to certain things that a friend of mine does that just don't make any sense to me but I try to understand... she has a kid and I feel sorry for the kid but you know what, I bet that kid is still going to be happy based on the values he/she was taught. But, because the kid doesn't have my ideal life, I assume that he/she will be unhappy..

And geez, let's just smile at each other and say hi. Don't lock your car doors when you see someone different from you walk by. (BTW, I purposely do this when I see white people by my car-how dumb). To be safe, lock your car door as soon as you get in but if you do it when people are around they can hear it. I know because they told me.

My place of work has us all take a class in "healing racism". That is where I learned a lot and really hit some things home for me. I definitely had to fight back a lot of tears during that time but it was a great experience. I'll look and see where that class is offered because it's slipping my mind right now.

OK, that is my incoherent mind-dump. Hopefully it makes some sort of sense and adds a little. Thanks for writing about this and encouraging thought..

Anonymous said...

this really is alot to think about. i appreciate your honesty and willingness to explore what is going on- for each of us and for our communities... thanks for helping me think today. hgh

Christina said...

Here is that link that I talked about. I can't find something specific for the institute that I went to so if you email the contact and ask about this, he/she can probably put you into contact with the right person.

2 Day Institute for Healing Racism

Anonymous said...

Honestly, my first, visceral response to this has nothing to do with the subject at hand, and everything to do with your second sentence.
"This is not where Willa will go because, well, it's hardcore Christian, and we are not."

My question to you is, Why include this? What relevance does this have to the rest of the post? To the subject you're thinking so deeply about? This reminds me of the Nest post earlier this week where someone used "black" to describe a person who had wronged her. You wrote that you always ask your dad, who does the same thing, "Why is that important?" You said he doesn't mean anything negative by it, but that it creates an unnecessary negative slant.

Well, maybe you didn't mean anything by your first sentence, but I think it creates an unnecessary negative slant. So I'll ask you: Why is that important? Why did you need to put in here that the playground you visit is at a "hardcore Christian" school and so you will NOT send your daughter there?

Just something to chew on...

As for the rest of your post, the real meat of it (apologies for using that metaphor)...

We rent, as does probably about 75% of our neighborhood. I've never heard anyone call it "staying" instead of "living" at their residence. So I found that interesting. Perhaps those kids have that mindset because they do not get to choose where their families live or how often they move. Poorer families tend to be more migrant in nature. And, at least here, the poorer families tend to be of a certain minority race.

On the other hand, my husband and I chose to live in this neighborhood, and we have chosen to live here for the past four years. We have chosen to attend neighborhood meetings and we have chosen to support neighborhood businesses. We have chosen to be active in this little community so that it can continue to remain a place where other people like us - of any age or race - can feel comfortable living and investing in. And I see other people along the block doing the same - putting in landscaping, repainting houses - but it's primarily the people that OWN the property that are doing so. And it's primarily the homeowners that attend neighborhood meetings as well.

So does it come down to rent vs. own? I don't think it always has to, but it often does. I also think it's about choices, and those kids in your neighborhood probably don't get the chance to make many choices in life. They don't get to say, "Well, this neighborhood needs a little work, but I can be a part of that," as my husband and I did. Instead, they get plunked down into a temporary living situation and have to make the best of it. To them, it's not a "community," it's simply another stopping point. I see the acts of vandalism you're experiencing as being things they have control over, because so little else in their lives is that way.

And I'm not quite sure how you go about getting that mindset to change, because beyond all the non-choices they get dealt in life, much of this comes down to how they are raised, and that is a vicious cycle in poorer families. It's not like you can sit a parent down and say "Teach your child to have some respect," because it's likely that parent doesn't have much regard for the "community," either.
Wish I had better answers...

JT said...

I think that you did exactly what should be done in any situation where you are dealing with youth. Instead of getting angry and lecturing, you illustrated why no one should condone vandalism, and did it in a pretty non threatening way. I think burning your name into a picnic table is not about being black or white, or any other racial indicator, rather it is about being fourteen and trying to show your peers how cool and worthy of respect you are. Sometimes all a person needs is someone with a little patience to show them another way.
I had a janitor at my elementary school, who put me to work at age 12, pushing a broom and shoveling snow. I learned quickly that my classmates were the biggest thing that could make his days longer or easier. When they missed the trash can it was this older gentleman who picked up their trash. I think this taught me more about respect in a short time, than anything my parents ever said in anger.
Keep showing the way Amy, it is the little things that change the world!