By Dr. Stacey Patton
Creator of Spare The Kids
Unfortunately, the following scenario is an all-too familiar scene that gets played out daily in public spaces.
A good friend of mine was walking along a subway platform the other day when she saw a young black woman dragging her child by one arm. The child, who had to take three or four steps in proportion to one of his mother’s, had his head turned in the opposite direction. Not paying attention, he nearly bumped into my friend who had flattened herself against the wall to avoid a crash.
Seeing the near miss, the mother yanked the child toward her and yelled, “Watch where you are going! What’s wrong with you? Get out of the lady’s way!”
As I listened to my friend recount the incident and express her dismay at the mother’s behavior toward the child, it reminded me of many moments in my own childhood when I was yanked, shoved, popped or yelled at for not watching where I was going, for not walking fast enough, for accidently bumping into a stranger, or for not moving out of the way of some adult who wasn’t paying attention to my presence.
My friend’s story also reminded me of the Jim Crow era when unwritten racial mores and codes of behavior were enforced against blacks with deadly seriousness. In that nightmare era of U.S. history black people were expected to “give the wall” to whites, meaning they were required to step off the sidewalk to allow whites to pass unimpeded. Some communities even required blacks to keep off the sidewalk altogether when any white children were occupying any part of them. Failure to do so could result in being beaten, arrested or murdered.
The enforcement of these de facto laws and etiquette required constant vigilance and solidified fears that insubordinate blacks would some day challenge and even overthrow segregation. What the racial codes of behavior also meant to emphasize was that the simple rule that all black people were and must behave as if they were inferior to whites or invisible.
Here we are in a new century with a black man as President of the United States and yet far too many black folks have not shaken off the vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow because the social framework of race continues to shape every aspect of our lives. One of the ways this can be seen is in some of their physical and verbal child rearing practices. Unconsciously, we sometimes transmit old lessons and demeaning behaviors onto our children that were meant to keep us from stepping out of line.
When we tell young black children to get out of the way, what we are saying to them early on is that “There is no space for you.” “You don’t matter.” “You are less important than everybody else.” “Make yourself invisible.”
And we wonder why far too many young blacks grow up with attitudes and anger. We ask why some are so aggressive and disrespectful. We are befuddled when they join gangs and are territorial over “spaces” and talk in coded languages designed to keep others mystified by their lexicon. Should it be surprising that they are quick and ready to fight?
Too many young blacks endure a childhood where they are constantly dissed by the larger society and by black adults, sometimes their own family. Black children are expected to act like adults when they’re not physically and cognitively ready, when others don’t make space for them and when they keep being told to get out of the way.