This is what it looks like on an Oak Park playground when Black and Brown lives don’t matter:
The weekend after the first wave of mass protests in response to the videotaped murder of George Floyd, and one of the first weekends after the Oak Park public tennis courts reopened, my 10-year-old son (medium brown) and I (dark brown), met up with his friend and my friend (both light brown) to enjoy the amazingly beautiful and sunny day. Our boys were looking forward, not only to their first time getting together in person since the March COVID-19 lockdown, but also to playing tennis again — their favorite sport.
Not surprisingly, they were not the only ones in Oak Park excited to get back on the courts, so after more than an hour of patiently waiting, they finally got their turn.
Meanwhile, my friend and I, set off for a walk around the park and nearly simultaneously gave ourselves the mom pat-on-the-back and mom guilt. First, we marveled at how lucky we felt to live in this vibrant and diverse Oak Park community. On the three tennis courts were our boys, a group of four Black and Brown boys playing doubles, and a pair of white boys. Around them were (physically-distanced) pairs and small inter-racial groups of kids and teens all enjoying their newly restored freedom. It was the picture perfect Oak Park diversity dream.
But we also marveled at how we, as Black and Brown moms, were still afraid to leave our 10-year-old Black and Brown sons unattended at the park, and felt mutual relief when we confessed to each other how often we interrupted our conversation to take quick looks back at the tennis courts to make sure our sons were OK while we walked around the park.
As we rounded the last corner to make our way back to the tennis courts, we both looked up at the same time and saw our fears realized: The six Brown and Black kids on the court were no longer playing tennis. Rather, their eyes were all fixed on a white man talking at them and waving his arms around quite animatedly. We both wanted to run in and rescue our boys, but instead we measured our pace and watched … closely. We tried to reassure each other that we had given our boys the tools to handle what we presumed was some sort of racially-motivated incident and to calm ourselves with the conviction that it was best to stand back and let them practice handling it on their own. By the time we arrived courtside, the white man was gone, all the kids were playing tennis again, and we tried to nonchalantly find out what had happened.
This is what our boys told us: The man at first seemed perfectly fine and asked them how much longer they planned to play. They told him they had not even been playing 15 minutes yet, but that the (white) boys at the far end had been playing for almost an hour so he should check with them first. The (white) boys told the man they’d be done in 15 minutes. Rather than patiently waiting, the white man came back to our boys and offered them $20 to get off the court so he could play. After getting over their initial bewilderment at such an offer, they firmly told him no. So he moved over to the four Black and Brown boys in the middle court and made them the same $20 offer. They also emphatically told him no. After some more talking at the Black and Brown kids and waving his arms around, the man then left the court.
Now, why did this man denigrate our sons this way? Why didn’t this man make the same $20 offer to the white boys? (And what grown man thinks it is OK to offer $20 to any kid at the park. Ever!) Of course it is clear: He could probably see himself or his own sons in the white boys’ faces — people who deserve and have a right to be there — unlike his apparent de-valuing of our Black and Brown children as impediments to whatever he feels he is entitled to.
I wish the story ended there, but instead I had to witness what I know comes next. After a racist incident, the racism is often internalized in one form or another, and it creates other fissures. When we got home, my son flung open the door and immediately ran to his (light brown) sister to tell her about the painful incident. He then ran past his (white) dad and ignored the pleas of his (white) grandmother who happened to be on a Skype call with our family at the time and was asking why he was so upset. He shot me a pleading glance and begged, “Please don’t tell them, Mommy. This is just between you and me!” He ran to his room, called his (Black) grandmother, and even through the slammed shut door I could hear: “Grandma, a terrible thing happened at the park today …”
Muriel Jean-Jacques is an Oak Park resident.