The complexion of the pool

written by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Cloudscome

You’ve probably heard in the news lately about the Valley Swim club outside Philadelphia. They are a private swim club in a mostly white suburban area. The management of the club contracted with a city kid’s day camp to have the campers come and swim in the pool once a week. The mostly black kids camp had paid somewhere around $1900 for the pool time. But the first day they showed up to swim this week the members of the swim club did not welcome them. From reading and listening to the news reports it looks to me like the white members of the club had some vocal negative reaction to a bunch of black kids jumping in the water with them and their kids.

From the NBC report:“I heard this lady, she was like, ‘Uh, what are all these black kids doing here?’ She’s like, ‘I’m scared they might do something to my child,’” said camper Dymire Baylor.

“When the minority children got in the pool all of the Caucasian children immediately exited the pool,” Horace Gibson, parent of a day camp child, wrote in an email. “The pool attendants came and told the black children that they did not allow minorities in the club and needed the children to leave immediately.”

I first heard about this on Thursday afternoon on Twitter. I retweeted the link to a news story by Allison Killkenny at True Slant, which gave out the swim club’s email and phone number. I sent an email to the president of the club which mainly questioned his narrow-minded ignorance. At the time I was under the impression that it was club policy to discriminate. Today I am beginning to understand that it may not have been Mr. Duesler’s leadership that was responsible. It looks to me like it was the cruel and racist reaction of the club members that is the real problem.

The story was on the local news last night and my kids saw it. Buddy, my six year old, who is African American and Hispanic, did not appear to be paying attention to the news while it was on. He was messing around on the piano while I watched. But he clearly took it all in. At dinner he asked me about it. “What was that on the TV about black kids not allowed to swim in that pool?” I told him the story as clearly and simply as I could. I told him straight up it was racism and that stuff like that happens. It’s not right, it’s not fair, and a lot of people are protesting it. I told them I had sent an email to the club to complain and that other people were there at the club protesting because we know it is wrong.

I also told them they will find there is racism in the world. It’s hard to be black and sometimes people don’t treat you right. You have to know who you are and that you are precious and important no matter how anyone treats you. His reaction was to say when he grows up he is going to be a police officer and go put those people in jail. I was heartsick to see once again his innocence and faith in the system. I didn’t address the complexity of police relations at this point, I just reiterated that racism is unfair, unjust, and we can fight it.

My four year old Punkin, who is also African American, spoke up at this point. He looked at me in consternation, his mouth full of raspberry pancakes, and said, “Are we black?” “Yes” I said. He shook his head and screwed up his face in denial, throwing back his head and getting ready to blast me. He is older now than Buddy was when Buddy started to understand his ethnicity and claim it. It seems to me he has a negative understanding of what it means to be black and doesn’t identify. But I am not sure that he understands that being black is being African American. He may be thinking of the color, or some other association for the label, and being very literal about his own brown skin. He has said before “I’m not black, I’m brown. See?”, while holding up his arm and smiling.

At this point, Buddy burst back in with, “Punkin, yes, we are black. We are both black and when we grow up we will be police officers and we will go there and arrest them and take them to the judge and the judge will put them in JAIL! Right? Cause they can’t do that!” Punkin nodded at him and got excited at the idea of all that powerful action. Buddy went on, “And even the President will do it!”

“Yes,” I said.

“And you know the President is black too.”

“No he’s not.” says Punkin. “He is light.”

“Yes he is” says Buddy. “He is my color.” He holds up his arm to the last sunlight coming in the dining room window. “He is black like me. Just like my color, right?”

“Yes”, I say, nodding.

Punkin turns to me and says, “No, he’s not mom. He is light like us.”

“No, Punkin. He is black and you are black. Everyone’s skin is a little different. Lighter or darker, and the sun makes it darker in summer. But when we say black we mean African American. You are African American and so is President Obama.”

I didn’t get to launch into anymore instruction at that point because someone fell of their chair or spilled their drink or did some silly, rude thing to interrupt the conversation. This is typical dinner table behavior for us. We only get about three minutes of actual conversation into any 20 minute period. But still. I have no idea if I handled this in the best way. I don’t know what I should have said to them about racism, about being black, about the complex dynamics played out between black youth and police officers. I just pray our talking about it and reacting to the situation directly will give them an advantage for the next time. The time when they face the racism themselves and need to know who they are and who stands with them. The point is, there was injustice and we participated in speaking out against it. We were shocked, horrified, angered and moved to protest. We bumped up against the ugly in the world and acknowledged it.

How did it go in your house?

Cloudscome is a single mother with three sons. She is a library-media specialist and blogs about books and technology at http://awrungsponge.blogspot.com.

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