What This White Mother Saw Happen to Her Black Child at the Pool

Naomi was swimming happily under the watchful gaze of a lifeguard, her mother, and another adult when a woman approached her and demanded she justify her presence in the neighborhood pool.

It was Saturday night and summer had finally arrived back in middle Tennessee.  My family was enjoying night swimming with out-of-town friends before the oh-so-dreaded bedtime.

Naomi was happily splashing around in our neighbor pool in Franklin, and my friend and I watched from the side and chatted about old times.  Suddenly, I noticed a woman talking to Naomi.  This happens sometimes.  She’s cute, she has yellow beads in her hair, and she smiles a great deal.  People say hello.

But this conversation went on for too long.   I could overhear part of the dialogue, and the adult’s tone was adamant.

“I know your mother’s right there,” the lady said to Naomi’s pal Emma Jane.  “But where is her mother?”

“She’s right there,” Emma Jane said, pointing to me.

“No, who does she belong to,” she stressed.

I walked over to Naomi and her inquisitor, worried that Naomi had done something wrong I’d somehow missed while I was chatting with my dear friend.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“I just care about safety,” she said.  “Is she with you?”

“I’m her mother.”

“Well, I just wanted to make sure she was supervised.  I couldn’t tell who was watching her, or who she was with,” she said.

After the lady walked away, I was infuriated.  There were probably thirty kids in the pool – all of them white except Naomi.  My child had a fluorescent green band on her arm, indicating we’d come in the front entrance like everyone else.  We live a couple streets away from our community’s pools.

We belong.

If the woman were truly concerned about “safety,” she would’ve asked the white kids about the whereabouts of their parents.  Plus, as you can see from the photo I snapped right after she left, a lifeguard kept watch within just a few feet of her.  (You can also tell from the photo how close I was to the kids.)

It’s clear to me that the woman wasn’t concerned about “safety,” but rather she was concerned that there was a little black girl swimming in her neighborhood pool.  Though she didn’t say anything that was ostensibly rude, her urgent questioning demanded  my five year old justify her presence.  Her words were more than a simple request for information; they were camouflage for her deeper suspicions.

You are different, she implies.

You are a potential problem, she believes.

You are not safe, she assumes.

You don’t belong here, she insinuates, before walking off and leaving me standing there angrily fighting back tears.

This is not the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last.  But it hurts every time someone assumes my child is an issue merely because of her skin color.

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About Nancy French

Nancy French is a three time New York Times Best Selling Author.

  • Tera Gram

    Maybe she was concerned because she naturally thought the child was there with no parents because there were no black adults? It may have been none of her business, but that didn’t make it racial. Sometimes when we look for things about which to be offended, we find them quite easily.

    • http://www.NancyFrench.com/ Nancy French

      A child can be at the pool without parents. She could’ve been visiting the neighborhood, for example. Plus, parents don’t have to hover next to their children when there’s a lifeguard two feet from them, no?

      • LaShella

        I totally agree with you Nancy.

    • 2happy2hate

      I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that someone’s feelings, opinions, or
      experiences are invalid when you’re not on the receiving end of another
      person’s actions or words. Nancy did state that her family and friends received a wrist band upon their entrance to the pool. I highly doubt that the pool staff would’ve allowed a five year old to be at the pool by herself.

      I am currently studying, “Subconscious racism” and your comments, maybe
      not intentionally, but prove to be an example of this theory.

  • Brandon

    A tad sensitive are we, why is this a story?

    • http://www.NancyFrench.com/ Nancy French

      Probably.

    • 2happy2hate

      Being a parent, I would hope so. I take it you have no children.

  • Holly

    I’m sorry, Nancy, that seems so rude. :(

    Please accept my kindness with this comment…but…maybe it wasn’t that she didn’t think that a little black girl didn’t belong, but more that she didn’t seem to have an obvious *matching* parent with her. Maybe it just didn’t occur to her that she could possibly have a white mama, and was thinking that no one was watching her.

    Now, I’m white with all white children. But a couple of years ago, a black woman came to my house. She had seen a little boy walking on the sidewalk in front of our house, and he was barefoot. She was horrified, that a child would be walking around without any shoes! She felt so badly for him, and she wanted to make sure he got home and had someone who could take care of him. She followed him to my door….

    I was so mystified. On the one hand, I thought it was so sweet that she cared so much about a little white child. On the other hand, my kids are always barefooted in the summer. I thought that was normal! :) I was a little bit freaked that she would report me for child negligence, she was SO UPSET about this poor child and his lack of shoes!!!

    In the long run, though, I think I’ve chalked it up under the heading of “people are weird. I’m grateful for their concern, I don’t understand them, and now I’m going to officially not think about them…very often anyway.” :)

    Maybe I’m wrong about your situation, too…I’m sure you’ve seen much that I have not! I’m not trying to downplay what happened or how awful it felt…just offering perhaps another thought.
    Holly J.

    • http://www.NancyFrench.com/ Nancy French

      Holly, no you offer sound perspective. You are right that I don’t necessarily care if people can’t immediately tell that I am Naomi’s mom. However, why would she CARE if this little girl had a mom watching her, when the lifeguard was right there? Parents at this pool don’t usually hover — it is not deep — so whether or not she was being watched over by an adult seemed irrelevant.

      • Holly

        You’re right. It’s weird and strange. People are weird and strange, and I’m really sorry that it stung. :( I am sure that if I were in your shoes I would be pretty upset and feel quite protective of my child and what she has to face in this world.

        Here’s what I can tell about your child, though – even though I only *know* you online: You are strong, your family is strong, she will grow up strong as well. You’ve been given the privilege and responsibility and gift (!) of helping to instill so many good qualities into her, so while this hurts now she will grow up gracious and courageous.

        Keep standing up for your girl! :)

    • Adam Gruber

      i agree, this sounds much more logical. also, the picture shows the lifeguard watching the only visible children in that long stretch of pool. maybe he was just keeping close proximity to keep them safe?

  • Racy

    Keep that nigger close. We’re watching her.

    • hillplus

      Would someone get rid of this vileness!! We all know it exists, do NOT need to see it here!!

      • http://www.NancyFrench.com/ Nancy French

        Deleted. Thanks!

  • mc

    Good for you lass.

  • Beth

    I think YOU assumed it was an issue. She didn’t say anything that would suggest otherwise. The pool looked pretty empty to me. Not like there were hundreds of kids splashing around.

    • PhilK2

      If she wasn’t asking every kid in the pool the same question, yes it is a major issue. She singled out a little girl because she didn’t look like the rest. That’s prejudice. She assumed all the little white kids had someone there and the little black girl didn’t and she CHOSE to confront the little black girl. That’s prejudice.

    • http://www.NancyFrench.com/ Nancy French

      Yes, I assumed it was an issue, because she wasn’t concerned with the other children’s lack of parents… The pool is large — there are four pools in one area, for various swimming levels. The other kids were spread out amongst all of the pools, most of whom didn’t have parents standing by.

  • Jeff

    Gotta love how White privilege shows itself so readily in these comments. Us White folks have the luxury of assuming this woman had only the best of intentions or that perhaps Nancy was just too sensitive.

    Why is that? IMO, we hold the same implicit biases as this woman at the pool and may have asked the same questions, (if not aloud, then at least in our heads). If her actions could be considered discriminatory or *gulp* racist, then that would mean I might have some level of discrimination/prejudice in me!

    No, no, no, that cannot be right. This woman was just being helpful and Nancy misconstrued her behavior. Yeah, that’s what happened…

  • JNouvel

    You aren’t sensitive at all! She was making assumptions!
    She asked who your daughter belonged to (not who she was with)! That doesn’t sound like concern. And as you pointed out, she wasn’t going around asking all the children who they belong to! She clearly singled out your daughter.

    You should have asked her where her manners were!

  • RhondaMc

    I recently posted a similar story about my daughter on a recent trip to Jamaica. It was the black lifeguard who spoke to her though. I was with her and she had been playing in the pool with her older white cousins for several hours but he still didn’t recognize that she was there with us. She hates that she looks different from our family and this just posted it out. It made me sad that it made her sad.

    http://parenting.adoption.com/parents/who-are-you-here-with.html

  • http://PrimordialSlack.com/ Joan Of Argghh!

    Perhaps next time this happens, and it will, you can use it as an opportunity to lead someone into the joys of all your children. Perhaps, you could smile and understand that people are fearful, territorial, and not often lovely… and perhaps die a little to your hurts so that your adversary might learn to live a little less selfishly. Or you can beat the same drum as the rest of the world and parade your outrage and victimhood. I guess it’s a choice.

    Change your world, don’t submit to it.

    • 2happy2hate

      As an adult, overtime, you learn to choose your battles and ignore bigot remarks made by people such as, yourself. You learn to accept that there will always be people like you that believe that one group of people are superior to another group and that one group of people’s words and actions are valid, while the other group of people “choose to be victims” because they may find such words and/or actions offensive, thus, they are to just, “smile and understand that people are fearful, territorial, and not often lovely… and perhaps die a little to your hurts so that your adversary might learn to live a little less selfishly.” How do you explain this to a 5 year old who doesn’t yet have any perception of color or hatred?

      • http://PrimordialSlack.com/ Joan Of Argghh!

        Bigot remarks? Are you offended because I suggested a different response to silly bigotry? Thinking differently about the mindless hatred that any of us can be subjected to gives us the upper hand in teaching our children how they should respond. Victimhood happens, sooner or later. It hurts every time, and unless we seek a higher way, a different response, we are reinforcing the hurt, deepening the cut, prolonging the offense.

        I thought Patheos was a place to reflect on faith and what it speaks to us, requires of us, and where it leads us. It’s small potatoes when we are rejected and despised merely for being different. At least, that’s what I had to teach my son when he was being bullied and beat up on because he was different. But then, he was a minority child for the first eleven years of his life, by dint of where we chose to live and work.

        Your mileage, obviously, varies.

  • Azaria

    So sad how in this day and age racism still exists. The days of slavery and civil rights are behind us yet blacks are still discriminated against in so many ways. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Pat68

    I’m not glad for this experience, Nancy, but as an African-American, when something like this happens to a white person, I feel somewhat validated. Like not everything that we have experienced is a result of over-sensitivity. But of course, the fact that I even feel that is sad. I shouldn’t have to rely on a non-minority to validate that these things actually do happen.

  • Momtobe

    As a black that was the only black child in my neighborhoods, it happens way more than you think. You may want to reconsider how you integrate her. Prepare her mentally for these things. Everyone is not like you and color blind. I have had to learn this the hard way.

  • nyctreeman

    Good morning children, today’s lesson is “How to read racism into everyday normal experiences”

    Jeepers! I can’t figure out what’s worse, blacks who think every little quirk of the day is racism or pandering white liberals who aid and abet this crippling mindset.

  • Peter

    My wife and I are Caucasian and we adopted our daughter from China when she was 11 months old. Because my hair is grey, I am often told “your granddaughter is sweet” “isn’t great you can share some time with your granddaughter!”. Or, she is told “where is grandpa taking you today!” Obviously, my age has a lot to do with it, as well as her being Asian. My reply to the “granddaughter” comments is usually: “Oh no, I am her father, I am much too old to be her grandfather!” While they are scratching their heads I smile and chuckle a bit.

  • CSmith

    No, you are not being too sensitive. Yes, this incident was racially motivated. Trust your instinct. I seriously doubt you are looking for racial overtones in your interactions with others, so the fact that this incident set off your alarm is telling.

  • Leila

    Im sorry that happened. Luckily (depending on how you see it) Naomi’s a little girl and not an older boy. That exchange might have been different, and much more unpleasant.

  • sbpdenver

    I am a white mom with a bi racial daughter. Perhaps that woman was trying to be helpful? We can read racism into everything, if we want. But you have to ask, how does that impact our children? Would it not be better for her if you assume good motives?

  • http://www.blackmothering.com/ yardyspice @blackmothering.com

    As a black woman, I can’t tell you how many times I have had this conversation with the subtext being that I don’t belong. It’s NOT about being helpful and I wish people would stop making the victims of racism feel as if they are crazy.


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