Play Me Please

kidsI was once the grandmother of a girl as black as I am white. She was also quite beautiful – a Serena Williams lookalike and about as tall and curvy.  Wherever we went – to restaurants, to parks, to the mall – we got stares that made her uncomfortable.

“They’re staring because you’re so beautiful,” I tried to assure her but she didn’t believe me.  I didn’t believe me.  It didn’t help that she was accustomed to getting food and clothes from soup kitchens, food banks, and other giveaways and thus had no idea how to act in restaurants or clothing stores.  For example, she wanted to go to a Chinese restaurant and once there she ordered fried chicken.  She’d gotten the idea somewhere that if you went to sit down restaurants you could order whatever you wanted and when she realized that was not the case, her embarrassment turned to shame which turned to agitation. It didn’t help that she was with foster parents who basically ignored the fact that the four teens in their charge were dodging school, smoking pot, staying up all night and quite possibility prostituting themselves.  I tried not to make assumptions as I had no proof and they were not abusing the children. They were getting fed, clothed, etc., which hadn’t been their situation when they entered “the system.”  When dealing with these kids the first thing you’re taught is not to judge the lifestyles of other people by your standards.

At my first meeting with the “social” he warned: “She’ll play you.” To which I wanted to say: I don’t care.  I’d rather be played by a fourteen year old whose father was in jail and whose mother’s whereabouts were unknown than by the traitors in the Congress claiming to be patriots or by the dancing jackals of corporate America cutting their own taxes while freezing out the poor. But instead I kept my mouth shut.  I’d been so excited to meet my first “child” that I’d driven thirty miles sans wallet or cell phone sweaty and flushed after a tennis match.

KittyGirlMy black grandchild answered the door in an oversized sweatshirt with a half dozen kittens up her sleeve and her hair knotted on the top of her head in a scarf. Instead of fourteen, she looked eleven.  I was immediately enchanted. Then we sat at a table in the fosters’ dining room for a half hour as her social lectured her.  After he left I was exhausted.  She said she was too and so we made plans to get to know each other the next week.

A week later, I could have sworn a hooker from downtown Oakland answered the foster’s door.  The darling girl I’d met the week before had on a long curly wig, a low-cut skintight mini-dress, full make-up, and five inch gladiator heels.  HookerHeelsI thought for sure I had the wrong house but before I could beat a hasty retreat, she recognized me and off we went in search of Cheetos. The stares that time were brutal.  We decided if we ran into anyone she knew, she would tell them I was her grandmother.

It takes a long time to get to know a child who’s been in the system for awhile.  To them, you are just another stranger in a long line of strangers who make decisions about their lives which sometime put them in judgetenuous and frightening places, one of them being Dependency Court.  I don’t know many times I explained to her that she was not in trouble and that the judge was on her side, the undeniable fact is, it’s a court with bailiffs and lawyers and tons of paperwork. Despite the smiles and toys, it is intimidating.

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Photographed by Bishop M. Cromartie

Because of confidentially rules I cannot go into the particulars of my black granddaughter’s case but, suffice it to say, I was a failure.  Mine was not the heartwarming, inspirational story told on posters and in the brochures.  I wish I could say I was the only one but sadly there are more failures than successes.  However, regarding all the debate over whether or not racism is still alive and kicking, if you’re white and you want to know what it’s like to be black in America, became the grandparent of a black child.

18 thoughts on “Play Me Please

  1. I’m of lily-white northern European stock, and I’m married to a Costa Rican who is occasionally assumed to be north-African due his dark skin color. My experience being in a “mixed marriage” is nothing compared to what these children go through, but every time I hear some politician say there’s no racial discrimination in this country, it makes me angry. How can they be so blind?

    But there is a silver lining: our three “mixed race” children are more attractive than either of their parents (and intelligent, well-educated, and tolerant). And they are the future.

    • They (the politicians) say those kind of things because it makes life easier on them – one thing less for them to have to do anything about or so they want voters to think. Thanks so much for sharing your story of hope for the future!

    • There are people who’ve had successful stories but it requires a huge commitment and I can’t honestly say that the system is any help.

  2. I am finding it difficult to make a comment that does not appear either patronising, or a cliché, but Bless You.

  3. Jan, I don’t want to patronize you either, but agree wholeheartedly with kritsayvonne about your effort. You tried, which is more than most people ever do. I think if more white people would involve themselves–and I mean really involve themselves, as you did–in the black community, there would be a lot more understanding all around.

    I spent five years teaching in an all-minority school, and learned firsthand that racism certainly still exists in America. It’s terrible and heartbreaking and downright insane, but yes, it still exists.

    • Wow – five years in an all-minority school! You have my deepest respect! I’m in awe. I only lasted three years in Dependency Court. Course I did hold the record for appearances!

  4. Jan, despite your final characterization, you did a beautiful thing, a courageous thing, and something that has likely made an impact. Your words are profound and you continue to inspire others to hear what you have to say and take action.
    That is a hugely successful accomplishment.
    Thank you for these wonderful words, Jan.
    Cheers

  5. What an interesting way to address the issue of racism. I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you and your granddaughter. For all the poster children there are so many that are too stuck in the system. Very sad.

  6. I too found this post to be lovely. The world needs more people like you, then maybe we will begin to see change.

  7. You tried where many others don’t even make the effort. I’ve thought a lot about doing something like this, and as I move into the next phase of my life, it’s time to start making the space to attempt to reach out to others in the way you have. Yes, it won’t always be a “success” but it’s the effort that truly matters most.

  8. Thanks Jeri! There are success stories, I’m happy to say. But the kids have to be willing to accept your help and not all of them can get to that point with so much going against them.

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