It's one of the first warm days of spring. The kids are playing together for once, instead of tormenting each other, and I'm taking full advantage of the moment, turning the soil in garden beds and planting peas and carrots as fast as I can.
Then I hear a horrible screeching from the empty lot next door. There are words in it, though barely.. "Get out... like rats... this is ours."
There's more but that's enough. It's an adult voice yelling but it is followed by the shrieking laughter and pounding feet of children, fleeing from the sounds of it.
I put down the shovel and strip off my work gloves. But I don't have to search far to find the kids. They are breathless and covered with fresh black dirt. I pry the story out of them. The neighbor lady from down the hill, someone who wants nothing to do with us, yelled at them for playing in the empty lot.
"She said it's hers but it's not!" my nine-year-old daughter fumes.
She's right in that the lot belongs to an absentee landlord and local law supports recreational use of unfenced land. I pry further though and learn that the children discovered a nice tall dirt pile in the empty lot and they were "sledding" down it.
Thus the condition of their clothes... and no doubt the reaction of the neighbor.
I explain that the dirt pile probably does belong to the neighbor, even if it's in the empty lot. The kids are unrepentant. They don't understand about the need to keep a load of dirt in it's pile, not spread all around and packed into the sand and weeds. My daughter refers to the neighbor lady in distinctly disrespectful terms. I reprimand her but part of me is also livid inside.
Rats? That's what I heard the lady shriek at them and my stomach is roiling--not with anger so much as with fear.
The kids also don't understand the potential consequences of getting into trouble with the neighbors in this little town, which is already not particularly friendly to children with olive skin and dark-lashed, "striking" eyes. The kids from our street--otherwise all particularly pale white--roam around freely and I've never heard the them scolded by a neighbor,. But my kids seem to run up against hostility on a regular basis. I don't think my kids are exactly angels, but this was the first time I'd heard of them doing something harmful off of our property..
Having a mixed family has enlightened me about many realities I did not used to understand, such as the heightened risk of trouble kids of color run and the fears of their parents.
Most white people don't grok "white privilege" because it is a term that encompasses things that we not only take for granted but feel are merely the way life is. If you go to a coffee shop in clean clothes with money in your pocket and wait for a friend, nothing negative will happen. You go golfing and you just golf. You walk down the street, shop, get in your car and talk to your kid's teacher and it's all placid and uneventful. If you're a kid and you slide down a dirt pile, you might get told off but that will be the end of it.
To white people this seems like life as usual, simply enjoying the experience of a peaceful and prosperous society. The hitch is that this experience of peace should be for everyone.
After nine years, I know that it isn't.
There was the time my son pushed another kid and nearly got expelled from preschool, even though the teachers agreed that sort of thing happens every day among the boys and my son is no worse than any of the others. He did get banned from school once over ant bites on his knee and the resulting concerns over contagion from "dirty people." My daughter came home at four years old crying because people called her "black" and she was terrified that meant she was going to turn the color black. How was she to know that olive-skinned Roma are sometimes called "black" in lily-white Central Europe?
So I give the kids a lecture I never got from my parents, my voice low and deadly serious. "You treat adults with respect! Period! Do you hear me? You listen and speak respectfully to adults. I don't care if you think the lady is wrong. You apologize and walk away. That's it."
I never needed that lecture, even though I was a wild kid who chased the neighbors cows. I was white. Now I feel like I'm channeling the father in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
On the weekend my Nigerian friend from the city comes over and confides in me the struggles of dealing with white teachers in the Czech schools. Her youngest son is under constant attack because a teacher insists he is "dirty" and doesn't have "basic hygiene habits."
She's honestly confused. Sure, he sometimes has to be reminded to wash his hands. He's only five. But he willingly goes to wash if told and he's quiet and respectful to a fault, which I envy.
But I know the Central European short-hand. Whenever they want to question the presence of a child of color in the classroom they default to concerns over "basic hygiene habits." It's like a code phrase.
This year we are more and more aware of the entitlement and privilege that fuels injustice. It is good to see awareness growing. More and more people are seeing privilege and entitlement for what it is--the driving force of deeper injustice.
The weekend is over and the kids are back in school. On Monday afternoon I get on my electric scooter, which helps me get around since I can neither drive nor walk long distances due to disability. This is how I pick up my kids from school and do the shopping The scooter can move at a walking pace and stop instantly. It works well, even on the narrow sidewalks in our small town.
The kids walk downtown next to me, except when we have to go single file in the narrowest spots. My daughter has a dance class on the town square. My son and I go into the delicatessen next door to get him a sandwich. The nice man behind the counter greets us in English. We chat back and forth. His English is really quite good.
Then another man--fifty-ish--walks in and stands at the counter. Before our acquaintance can ask what he wants, the newcomer says loudly to the cashier, "Why don't you tell that lady there to get off the sidewalks?"
My heart starts pounding. Again I am not offended, so much as terrified. This is what I have feared, since a few angry people started yelling at me on the street. I have been so careful, making sure to yield to anyone on foot. The sidewalks are narrow here after all and I'm not certain about the legalities of my situation, since my mobility device isn't actually a wheelchair.
The man behind the counter looks stunned, his eyes wide.
"Please, sir," I say to the belligerent customer in as conciliatory a voice as I can muster. "Please let me explain. I'm legally blind. I can't go in traffic. And I can't drive a car."
The man turns toward me a bit. "I know," he grunts.
"We live on the edge of town. It's two kilometers to get to the pediatrician or the post office," I stammer.
"I know where you live." His voice is gruff and unforgiving.
"I have problems with the bones in my legs and I can't walk all that way. That's why I ride that scooter," I explain.
"I'm very careful. It doesn't hurt anyone."
His tone has become a bit less confrontational at least. "I know all that. I just think you shouldn't take up the sidewalk."
"I'm very careful. I always let other people go first if the sidewalk is narrow."
"Whatever." He has managed to make a purchase during our discussion and he walks out.
But the fear is still there. I know my situation is precarious. The local police could forbid me to use the scooter on the sidewalk, since it isn't officially a wheelchair and I can technically walk. I just can't walk two kilometers without significant pain. If these grouchy people complain to the police or if I make a tiny mistake, the consequences could be severe.
I understand now that it is the same for my kids, even without a disability. Where white kids would get away with a scolding, they could be reported to the police or expelled from school. The stakes are higher and the stress is chronic.