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Playground Mafia

Like, what kid doesn’t dig the park? Mari loved the slide, you know? And the monkey bars. And especially when I pushed her on the swing. Her plea was stickier and sweeter and more delicious than a cherry pop: Higher, mommy! Higher! I want to kiss the sky…

I delighted in watching my baby jump and twirl and fly and pucker up toward the sunshine. Her happiness was infectious. But my hate for the park was equally passionate—searing. Particularly when visits with my then 2-year-old daughter fell outside of official playgroup playdates and it was just me and the kid and my swollen, pregnant belly and my elephant ankles and those eyes—those evil, prying, judgmental, better-than-thou eyes that, in a single glance, would betray the conspiratorial conversations The Playground Mafia dug into when they saw me and my chocolate beauty trotting up the walkway.

It never failed; I always got the distinct impression that neither my baby nor I was welcome there. It was all up in the icy glares. The side-eyes and whispers whenever I smiled in their direction or tried to make small talk. The rolling cloud of sensible shoes and mom jeans and crocheted sweaters that always seemed to stampede toward The Children of The Playground Mafia whenever my baby girl penetrated their invisible barrier bubbles.

Always—always—I’d act like it didn’t matter. For my baby’s sake. But on the walk home, I’d stew and silently wonder what, exactly, ran through their minds—their little, teeny weeny minds—when they saw me. Maybe they thought I was the nanny—untouchable and unworthy of conversation (unless they were looking for a new one, and then I’d get a fresh “family” card pressed into my palm. True story.). Maybe they thought I hitched a ride from nearby Newark, N.J., so that my kid could play in the “good” park. Maybe they thought I was a teenage mom, slumming off the system, popping out babies and intent on scaring all the good, hardworking white people at the park while I waited for their tax dollars to convert into my welfare check.

After a while, I stopped wasting precious brain matter trying to comprehend why The Playground Mafia acted the way they did to my daughter and me. It became painfully clear relatively quickly that it would never occur to them that I was a neighbor, who, while on maternity leave from a high-paying magazine gig, frequented my neighborhood park to escape endless reruns of Teletubbies and The Wiggles back at my more than half-million-dollar home, four blocks away.

It would never occur to them that I always bought my shrimp and Salmon and whiting at the local fish market and the French bread with the wickedly crusty crust from the local bakery and that my neighbors literally held vigil outside my house on block party afternoons, waiting to dig into my huge basket of fried chicken, hot and sweet.

It would never occur to them that I adored George Clooney and collecting art and throwing dinner parties and writing—that I was interesting and funny and smart and madly in love with my husband and growing family.

That I could love.

And was loved.

This, apparently, is not the stuff black folk are made of—at least not in the minds of some suburban white moms. Witness this blog post, written by a mom who got all freaked out when her son struck up an afternoon playground friendship with the son of a man she surmised was a “gang member”:

"How did you KNOW he was a gang member?” I can hear you asking from behind your computer monitor. I'll admit, I'm not exactly up on my "Signs Your Child's Friend's Dad Is A Gang Member" literature. Let's just say it seemed likely. There was the prison number tattooed on his neck, for example. And the cryptic, graffiti-like tattoos all over his arms. And the white tank top. And the baggy jeans. And the bandana. And the unlaced shoes. And the baseball cap worn sideways. If he wasn't a gang member, he definitely wanted people to think he was.

The writer goes on to chronicle how, even though the “gang member” tried to strike up a conversation with her—you know, what normal human beings tend to do when other human beings are around and the kids are playing together—her side of the talking stalled because she wasn’t “well-versed in gang member icebreakers” and she couldn’t think of anything to say to him beyond, “When’s the little guy’s initiation?”

Later, when the two scooped up their sons and tossed each other a “see ya,” the blogger considers telling the “gang member” how much she enjoyed the gang movie Colors, and silently wishes she had a camera to document the occasion so that years later, she could reminisce with her son about “that gang member” who pushed him on the swing. “Such a nice gang member…” she imagined she would say to her son as they flipped through their scrapbook of memories.

She and the posse in her comment section thought the blog post was humorous.

Laughing yet?

I’m not.

That post, penned by a well-respected blogger who just this year was named a runner-up Must-Read Mom by Parenting and BlogHer, hurt me to the core. Because it was offensive. Insulting. Condescending. And stupid. For me and a lot of other moms of color who read it, including my blog friend Elita Kalma of the breastfeeding site Blacktating, who showed me the blog post, it was a painful reminder of the slights and stereotypes we face down every day, all day when we find ourselves amongst The Playground Mafia; it took me right back to that park in New Jersey, where I went looking for friendship and found only impudence—the mental version of white women clutching their purses and locking their car doors when black people come walking by.

Trust me when I tell you, this is no laughing matter to me as a woman, as an African American, or as a mother, particularly when I know stereotypes such as these can make people see what they want to see, rather than who we are. And real talk? It can get black folk killed.

It’s not a game.

It seems, too, that in this age, when white suburban kids are trying to look like Lil’ Wayne and black urban kids are swimming in preppy gear and honor roll students like my 6 ‘ 1”, 270 lb. son might just find himself at the park with his pants sagging and his football player biceps bulging, pushing his little sisters on the swings, it’s kinda foolish to assume anything about anybody based on what they’re wearing on their backs.

But for kicks and giggles, let’s just say that the man she met in the park was a gang member. Does such a distinction preclude him from being interesting? Intelligent? Articulate? Human? Certainly, these characteristics aren’t the exclusive preserve of middle class white moms. And Mr. “Gang Member” tried to hold a conversation with someone who wasn’t big enough, savvy enough, smart enough, loving enough, and open-minded enough to reciprocate, which tells me a lot more about him than his bandana ever would.

For sure, I’d take the “gang member”—tats, bandanas, slouchy pants and all—any day of the damn week before I’d subject myself to the tyranny of assumption advanced by this blogger and The Playground Mafia. And I’ve already conjured up in my mind how many deaths ol’ girl will die the day her son comes home with his “jail number” tattooed on his neck, looking very much like our neighbor’s son, a white 18-year-old who wears bandanas and wife-beaters and sagging pants and tats all over his skin and who makes our block tremble when he drives by in his Mustang with his rap music blasting, headed for class at a local two-year college. He’s a nice boy. You wouldn’t know it by the way he dresses, but you would definitely discover it if you bothered to open your mouth and, like, have a conversation with him.

Here’s the thing: This mother has the right to make all the assumptions she wants, to ignore all the people she wants—to pass judgment and call names and withhold friendship based on superficial gut reactions. People of color have grown quite used to the middle class white moms who sniff at our presence and make clear with their actions that when it comes to forming relationships, people who don’t come from the same place as or who don’t look/speak/act like them need not apply. (Please don’t get your panties in a bunch: I’m not saying ALL white moms are like this. But I’ve run into enough in my day to know plenty exist.)

Do me this solid, though: if that’s the way you feel, keep it to yourself, m’kay? Better you let me think you’re an asshole than to open your mouth (or write a blog) and remove all doubt.