Dear Parents of My Kids’ White Friends: Here’s Why They Can’t Always Hang Out

My black kids were invited to a pool party last summer. It was at a pool in a housing complex and I did not know the home owners (who were different from the host). Neither my husband nor I were going to be able to attend either so we would be dropping off our kids. As the day approached, the pit in my stomach that always emerges when having to make parenting decisions grew larger and harder. Though I did not grow up having to worry about my attendance at housing complex and public pools (because—white privilege), I knew the history my two black children were up against. I had never sent them to a housing complex public pool without one of us supervising. They are teenagers. They swim quite well. I should be able to send them. I battled with myself pretty much right up to the morning of the party. But the pit won and I told my kids they would have to sit this one out. “I’m just not sure the party host would know what to do should a situation arise,” I told them.

A few hours later, while the pool party was going on without my kids, the news of the pool party in McKinney, Texas broke. On the same day and at the same time as the pool party I wouldn’t allow my kids to attend for fear of a racially motivated incident, a white woman was berating a group of black teens at another complex pool—leading to the body slam of a teenaged girl shielded by nothing but a bikini.

Sadly, this sort of thing has been happening a lot lately: I will feel the pit when making a decision about the activities my kids can and can’t do, I’ll listen to the pit, and then the news will hit that an incident similar to the one I was fearing for my own kids had occurred somewhere else.

I hate the pit for the fear it induces in me. And I am grateful to the pit for the way it is teaching me where potential dangers lie.

I am pretty sure, though, that the parents of my kids’ white friends hate my pit. They are likely sick of hearing me respond to their requests straight from it:

“I’m sorry, no. I wish she could accompany you to the pool, but she can’t.”
“I’m sorry, no. He cannot play with BB guns at the park, even with supervision.”
“I’m sorry, no. My kids can’t hang out in that neighborhood. It’s not a safe place for black children.”

I know there are many of us white parents who are parenting children of a race that is not our own. We are probably all facing the pit (or beginning to face the pit). This is for the parents of some of our white friends, an answer to the question, “Why can’t your child do this activity with my child?”

1. Why do you always have to think about it before allowing your child to do something with us?

You are a delightful friend. We often have spirited conversations. We laugh a lot together. I enjoy sitting with you on the sidelines, watching our kids together. But you are also the friend who has told me more than once that you will not watch the news because it is simply too upsetting. You have made it clear that you do not want to think about the painful events the news has to offer, especially those surrounding race. You absolutely do not see race, you have said. Period.

I need you to know that I don’t want to watch the news now either. It is alarming to scroll through my feed desperate for pictures of cute babies and videos of funny puppies, only to find post after post about another black teenager shot down by the police; an international adoptee sent back to her birth country because of an antiquated immigration law; nine people who look like my children killed at church by a man-boy who confessed that it was a racist hate crime, followed by memes about the media and a presidential candidate asking us to suspend our judgement because maybe, just maybe, despite the killer’s own words, it wasn’t all that racially motivated.

You see, you can go ahead and choose to ignore what is happening in the country; you can choose to ignore race because none of this is happening to you or your family. In fact, it is entirely possible that the only people you know personally to whom it might happen are my kids.

But I can’t ignore the news because so much of what is in the news directly affects my family and the people my family loves and will love.

And I can’t ignore race. I have to keep my eyes wide open and my ears on alert to make sure my kids are safe.  Did you know that black teens are 21 times more likely to be killed by police than white teens — regardless of the activities in which the teens are involved? Did you also know that every single time we walk into a store, white people give my son the side eye? They are watching him. Waiting for him to meet their racist expectations. Believing that he is a danger to them. Recently, at Costco, a white man was super kind to my son. He struck up a conversation with him about something in the auto aisle. I felt myself breathe out. We don’t usually get to relax completely while out shopping.

This is important information. It is information you have told me time and again that you do not care to hear. It hurts your heart, you say.

When my kids are hanging out with their white friends and families, I need to know that the hurting hearts of the adults in charge are moving them to watch out for signs of danger, not to hide their heads in the sand.

Those are the thoughts going through my head when I take a while respond to your invitation.

2. Why can’t your child go to the pool with my child?

You know the stereotype that black people cannot swim? Well, it’s not that black people cannot physically swim. It is that black people have been excluded from swimming for generations. Pools were segregated, either by locating the swimmable pools in largely white communities or by contracting their management out to private companies, who, unlike local jurisdictions, were allowed to discriminate. According to Jeff Wiltse, the author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America,

“Swimming in the United States is a cultural phenomenon. Cultures operate by being passed down from generation to generation. White Americans learned to swim and enjoy the water during the ‘20s and ‘30s. They then passed that down through family and friends. That just didn’t happen to Black Americans…swimming never became part of their recreational culture as it did with whites.”*

This explains why there might not be a hugely diverse population of children at the pools where you swim.

The fact is, though, that my kids can swim. Not having grown up being excluded from swimming, I learned to swim and I passed that down to my kids. It was a piece of white privilege I could use to shelter and protect them. However, I cannot shelter them from the perceptions people have about a black teen’s right to be at a public pool. See, that too has been passed down through the generations. As McKinney reminded us, many white people have in their own history a desire to enjoy their day at the pool segregated from other races. It might be a subconscious desire, manifested by keeping a keen eye on all the children of color at the pool and scrutinizing how well their parents are supervising them. Or it might be as surface as the white banker at McKinney telling the black teens to return to their section 8 housing.

So, even the white person who would go to their grave claiming they are not racist, might become a bit prickly, agitated, and possibly scared when they see something new at their pool: black people. Then, if those black teens are doing what all teens are doing and screaming and jumping and maybe even running, white people who are not used to such frivolity from black people could easily over-react.

And, white friend, it’s not that I don’t trust you to watch out for my kids. It’s not that I don’t think you’re a great parent. It’s not that I think you’re racist. But, if I am just figuring out all this stuff, just developing the pit after raising black children for 12 years, I can’t expect you to have any modicum of understanding as to what to look for and how to keep my kids safe at a pool.

As it turned out, there was indeed a scuffle at the pool party my kids did not attend that same weekend McKinney happened. I was glad they were not there.

3. Why can’t your kids go to certain neighborhoods with us?

Now, let me ask you. Are there neighborhoods or parts of town you avoid? I am guessing there are. I am guessing your choices have to do with poverty levels and crime rates. I’m also guessing there’s a strong intersection between those issues and race when you make your choices.

We avoid certain parts of town as well, typically those inhabited by large populations of openly white supremacists. Sadly, people don’t usually post “I’m a white supremacist” or “I hate black people” signs in their yards. So we have to make assumptions based upon what we do know. If we know that a neighborhood has a history of excluding people, calling the police on innocent non-white people, or hosting exclusionary events, we would want to be present to have our kids’ backs. Furthermore, if there is a headquarters for any hate organization, you can bet we avoid that part of town as a general rule.

I know. I know. You would make sure to have our kids’ backs. But, as I wrote above, how would you know what to look for?  Goodness! I am still learning the signs.

4. Why can’t your child play war games with my kids?

See, now, I need you to watch more news. If a group of kids were playing with neon colored water toys that in no way resembled guns and were using vocabulary that in no way intimated violence, that would be fine. However, the last thing a parent of black children wants is for her children to be running like crazy around a park, holding guns that could possibly be mistaken for a real gun (Here’s the story of Tamir Rice; you might not have seen this), while their white friends are yelling, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” Can you see how that scenario might go in a very dangerous direction for my kids?

And let’s face it, if, heaven forbid, there were an accident with a BB gun and someone was accidentally shot, take a guess as to who the authorities are going to blame first.

5. Why did you ask if we have a gun before allowing your kids to come over?

This scenario is more complicated than just the encompassing race factors (which you can apply here from number 4). Let me introduce you to the teenage brain: it’s not fully formed, prone to letting curiosity beat out safety, shuts down completely around shiny objects, often forgetting how to tell right from wrong, and is bursting at the seams with hormones that can tell it to do any number of things we adults simply cannot understand (because we had different rules to break and things to try when we were teens). America’s Funniest Videos has made a good chunk of its fortune off of the teenage brain. Adding a gun into the mix can only make things worse.

But we keep our guns locked up in a special gun safe?

One thing the teenage brain excels out is cracking any code that leads it to shiny objects. They should all be spies, as long as their boss tells them there is a shiny prize (or naked people) once they solve the crime. Here is what a 3 year old did to some gun safes. Here’s a report on what happens when cameras follow kids who have been trained in gun safety (and these are kids without large batches of hormones coursing through their veins).

When you add these components of teen development to the race issue (that a black person in the mix is likely to be the one blamed for and paying for any mishaps), it’s just too complicated a situation for me to trust you to handle. I don’t even know that I could handle it myself.

6. Why don’t you trust me with your kids?

Here’s the thing: you have repeatedly told me that you do not believe racism really exists, that you don’t see color, and that you worry that even talking about it will scare my kids. What I hear is that you would not be able to recognize racism were my children faced with it while in your care, you don’t recognize my children as individuals with unique needs, and you’re not willing to put thought into what it means to care for black kids.

Would you send your toddler over to my house if I told you that I think children should learn exclusively through natural consequences so I keep loaded guns at easy access, used to let my toddlers play in and cross the street on their own, and won’t watch the toddlers in the pool? I hope you wouldn’t. I hope you would tell me it sounds like I am not up for watching toddlers anymore.

Well, when you say you neither see color nor wish to understand what teens of color experience, I have to consider whether you are up for keeping my teens of color safe. You are not.

7. Shouldn’t you let your children learn these lessons on their own?

Would you be okay if I handed your 14 year old a set of car keys and said, “Go ahead and drive. You need to learn someday?”

It is very important that kids make their own mistakes and learn from them. I am sure they are learning all sorts of things about how to communicate with a crush and what to do when presented with ethical dilemmas. I know for sure they have already suffered some natural consequences in those arenas that have forced some growth. But they are not ready to venture out on their own when it comes to racial profiling or potentially violent segregation (see McKinney or Tamir Rice above) and the like. And, for what it’s worth, I talk with my children constantly and we discuss when they feel ready for certain things. Then we make sure they are adequately equipped for that activity and let them go.

But the stakes are too high for me to feel comfortable with just anyone being in charge of them. Like the parent of a toddler, I need to know that I can trust the people caring for my teens of color to truly understand what that means.

Please understand that none of this means that I like or respect you or your kids less. I think you’re swell. It just means that we have to find ways for our teens to hang out that feel safe for everyone, where everyone involved is well-versed in any issues that might arise. And when you are ready to start watching more news or answering some of the questions your kids might have for you (like why my son was a mess in class the day after the police who shot Tamir Rice were exonerated), I would be happy to chat.

*Click here for a fairly thorough summary of Witse’s book on the subject from a surfing blog.

This post was originally published February 2016.