One thing I love about suburban living is the amazing assortment of nearby public parks. I count at least seven parks with solid playgrounds within a five minute drive plus an awesome, huge one that’s maybe ten minutes away. Why spend $1000 or more, not to mention a weekend full of cussing and imposing on friends and family for assembly, to put a smaller playset in our backyard? We can visit a different park every day of the week virtually for free.
Another advantage of playing in all these public parks is the boys’ opportunity to play with other kids. My sons aren’t exactly shy. When we show up at a park where other kids are playing, they happily jump right in and assume they are now part of the group rather than awkwardly lingering on the fringe hoping to get an invitation. For this shy dad, it’s a joy and a relief to see how comfortable they are with complete strangers.
Last week we went to the “Blue Park” – we’ve given each park a name that’s easy for them to remember – that sits near the apartments where Jenny and I lived when we first got married. Lots of kids were playing at the playground that day, many of them connected to a large family gathering that was grilling at a nearby picnic area. As usual, Brenden and Jonathan jumped right in. As I watched them play, I noticed that they were the racial minority at the playground. Most of the kids were black, the ones from the family gathering, and a few might have been Latino or white. I was struck by how, for my boys and seemingly for the other kids as well, race was an absolute non-issue.
They didn’t care whether the other kids were white, black, brown, or any other color. They were just happy to have someone with whom to play superheroes and pile up on the slide and giggle and run around and swing. One of the black boys was older, apparently the leader of the group. He was very patient and helpful with the younger kids of all races. At one point he even pushed Brenden on the swing for a bit, and Brenden loved getting attention from a big kid.
This little experience reminded me of a truth I’ve known for years but sometimes forget: racism is learned, not natural.
Let me be clear and honest here. I’m not perfect in the prejudice department. I’m not completely colorblind, nor am I sure that’s even a good goal given that race is part of one’s identity and is often tied into one’s culture, values, and much more in ways that are difficult for an American white male to understand. I still jump to inappropriate conclusions sometimes based on someone’s race. I still laugh at some racial humor that I probably shouldn’t condone. I choose to live in a suburb with a good school district, and that district does happen to contain mostly white kids. But Jenny and I are trying not to taint our sons’ worldview with any inappropriate prejudices, generalizations, or stereotypes based on a person’s race. I think that’s the main reason why being around kids of other races isn’t a big deal to them. Since we don’t make race an issue, they haven’t gotten any notion that race is worth considering. I like that.
I also want to preserve that perspective in them for as long as I can. I don’t try to persuade them to go to the parks where mostly white kids hang out. (I do try to steer them toward parks that have actual bathrooms rather than Portapotties or secluded trees, but that’s another post) I try to keep them away from racist people so those people’s hatred and ignorance don’t taint my sons’ young minds. I try hard to avoid the subtle Texas racism of describing a white man simply as a guy but a black man as a black guy, even though the man’s race is completely irrelevant to the story. Using language that way reinforces the idea that race is a thing when most of the time, it isn’t.
I also don’t plan to hide my children from “the minorities” by enrolling them in a private school or homeschool them for their entire school careers to keep them away from kids who are different. Brenden starts public kindergarten this fall, and we plan to keep both of them in public school through their senior years, just like we were. I want them to be around different types of people – different races, languages, religions, genders, socioeconomic classes, cultures, and sexual orientations – so they will have a better understanding of how people really are.
I am convinced their lives will be richer as a result, and so will ours.