What Happened at the Mall Today with my Black Child – A White Mother’s Fear

What Happened at the Mall Today with my Black Child – A White Mother’s Fear July 1, 2015

At the mall at the Apple store, when Naomi found a "photo booth" function on a new desktop.
At the mall at the Apple store, when Naomi found a “photo booth” function on a new desktop.

Once, we were in the airport in DC, trying desperately to catch a flight for which we were running behind. As we were collecting our belongings from security, we handed Naomi – our daughter from Ethiopia – to Austin and instructed him to hold her off to the side. It took us a matter of minutes to put our shoes, belts, and other metal objects back on, but Naomi (who was a toddler) was giving Austin fits as he struggled to hold her in his arms.

A “good Samaritan” bystander looked over and saw a then 12 year old boy holding a straining, crying black child and immediately thought she was seeing a kidnapping in progress. The adult ran up to Austin and said, “Why are you holding that child!” and asked Naomi, “Is he hurting you?”

Austin was flabbergasted and shocked, as was I when I came upon the scene a few seconds later. Tears were shed, apologies uttered, and we were all left a little shaken. It’s not every day that your son is accused of kidnapping your daughter.

I get it – we don’t look like we “belong” to each other and that’s no one’s fault. Our family looks different and it frequently is confusing.

But I’ve also gotten looks when I reprimand Naomi in public, especially if she gets emotional. I get the sense that I’m under extra scrutiny for the very reason that I’m talking to a small black child instead of a white one.

And so.

I don’t discipline her in public.

Though “corporal punishment has long been an acceptable, common form of discipline among African-Americans,” many liberals believe and teach that this is just a remnant of slavery…  I don’t want to get anywhere near that debate, so – when it’s necessary — I frequently threaten and cajole.  (“Just wait until we get home, young lady.”) Of course, this is not at all the approach I took with Camille and Austin, but these are racially charged times.  (Also, you might remember, we’ve had odd interactions in public with other strangers.)

Tonight at the mall, Naomi did a minor-thing-that-I-thought-was-major at the time. So I got down on my knees, took her hand, and began to give her a-talkin-to. Southern moms know what I mean.

Just as I was getting to the good part of the lecture, I see a black man in the corner of my eye. Was it my imagination, or was watching us? My heart sank. Should I stop lecturing Naomi (who by this time was crying) just because I’m scared of the way others perceive my parenting? I had already decided I should’ve let her infraction go, but she had disobeyed. Do I stop just because I’m intimidated by a possibly imagined critique?

I was in Naomi’s face, explaining to her about how we should and should not act, when I see the man approach me.

Surely I’m imagining this, I thought. Had I finally arrived at that terrible spot where my apprehensions had turned into full fledged paranoia?

“Don’t you ‘okay’ me,” I said to Naomi, with a final flourish. “It’s ‘yes ma’am’ to you.”

“Yes ma’am,” she said, reluctantly.

“Excuse me,” the man finally said, sticking his head right between mine and Naomi’s. “Is that your kid?”

I lost my breath. I knew white parents shouldn’t discipline their black kids in public, but was lecturing off limits too? I’d been told that black adults don’t want to see white mothers being harsh with black children. Had I exuded a harshness toward her that was so out-of-bounds that it merited a response from a stranger? Had I crossed some sort of line? Are black children of white parents simply given a free pass because the parents are afraid of what others will think of them? Isn’t that – itself – disadvantaging the very kid society wants to help?

I could barely talk, as my fears had become realized. I wasn’t paranoid. My fears were accurate. “Yes,” I said, defiantly. “She’s mine.”

I stood to reach my full height.If he was about to dress me down in front of my daughter, I needed to be ready.

“No, not her,” he said, pointing to Naomi. “Her.” I looked in the direction of his finger, to a little black girl about Naomi’s age who was crying in the middle of the food court. “She looks lost.”

I was overcome with relief, which gave way to alarm. There was, after all, a small child crying for her mother.

I ran over to her. There I was – a white mother with one small black child crying because of me, and another crying near me.

“Are you lost, sweetie?” I asked in my don’t-be-afraid-I’m-here-to-help voice. “I’ll help you find your mom.” And so, the three of us walked hand-in-hand around the stores for a few minutes, searching for a worried looking mother. I talked to her in soothing tones, assuring her that everything would be all right.

Finally, we came upon a black woman who obviously recognized the child, and the little girl ran over to her mother. I waved at her, anticipating their warm reunion – possibly a “thanks for helping” weary smile. Instead, when the mom saw her kid, she reached out and smacked her.  “Why’d you run off!?”

I grabbed Naomi’s hand and went to find a table.

As we walked, I tried to remember why I got upset with her in the first place, tried to shake off the feeling of unease, and hoped against hope that one day trans-racial parenting in the modern world would be easier to navigate.

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