U-Turn: Race, Class, and Drivers of Change
By: Mimi Nartey
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A couple months ago in the middle of cold and flu season, I picked up my son from his half-day preschool in Manhattan Beach, California. My plan was to go directly to Pressed Juicery® after grabbing him to get some sort of ginger-y concoction to help fight off the upper respiratory-whatever that was starting to compound my head cold.
Every mom who has ever been sick while dealing with a four-year-old can imagine how the day was going. In the juice shop, I managed to place my order while still being responsive to my son’s verbose story of how the day at school was “a yittle bit yame” (his L’s aren’t in yet) because – God forbid – there had been cantaloupe for snack.
When I got out of the busy juice shop, I spent five more minutes convincing my son that a cantaloupe-snack-day could still be salvaged if he would just get in his car seat and get his seatbelt on. Then, I sat my $50 bag of juice on the seat of my late model Mercedes minivan, took a deep breath, and pulled a U-turn to head for my house.
About a mile down the road, a dinged-up SUV pulled up next to me, and the driver signaled for me to roll my window down. A 50-something-year-old white woman was speaking to me through the glass. Her hair, more grey than black, was pulled into a messy bun, and she wore a nondescript, mauve t-shirt.
I rolled down the window, preparing myself to be as helpful as possible to the woman, who I assumed was in need of directions. I sniffled hard to sound less nasally, pushed up my large frame Balenciaga sunglasses (that are great when I am sick or when I am just pretending to be important around Los Angeles), and forced a smile through my cold. When I actually heard her question, I realized that she wasn’t necessarily lost, but that she was certainly misdirected:
“YA’ THINK BECAUSE YOU’RE RICH, YOU DON’T HAVE TO OBEY THE TRAFFIC LAWS?!” she hollered.
“W-wha? Excuse me?” I stammered. My smile fell.
She repeated herself again, making every syllable staccato: “I-GUESS-YOU-THINK-YOU-CAN-DO-WHAT-EV-ER-YOU-WANT-BE-CAUSE-YOU-ARE-RICH!” She went on to explain in a raised voice that I had made a U-turn over double-yellow lines.
I glanced back over my shoulder at my son who was attentively watching our interaction. I was momentarily paused by the social complexity of the situation: A 50-something white woman followed me for more than a mile in Manhattan Beach to accuse me (a first-generation-American, 35 year old black woman) of being privileged and feeling entitled above the law in front of my black son.
I grew up all over the United States, and I have been on the receiving end of a lot of prejudgments, but never before this moment had the assumption been that I was privileged. As a woman of color, I have faced so much bias and bigotry in my life, and I have worked so hard for everything. For the life of me, I could not understand how this was not apparent to this white woman of a certain age.
She was leaning forward aggressively poised for an argument. Her posture read like she might try to jump out of her car and perform a citizen’s arrest, but when I looked in her eyes, I saw her humanity hiding behind her bravado. Frankly felt her heaviness. It truly was heavier than mine.
I surprised myself by answering patiently and honestly:
“I really don’t know. I don’t think money has anything to do with it, but I don’t know. I have a pretty bad cold, and my head is in a fog. You are right that I need to be a bit more careful. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I definitely think I just need to get to bed.”
“Wow! I guess therapy does work,” I thought to myself.
Now it was her turn to pause and process a bit more deeply. I had given her the one type of response she was never expecting: a compassionate one. Her demeanor changed. She just nodded humbly at me, and my son and I watched her pull off to the east at the intersection.
The enigmatic interaction continues to fascinate the researcher in me. As a college professor, I have an arguably advanced understanding of racial and economic disparities. I know, for example, that across several measures of socio-economic status (i.e. home ownership, household wealth, and median income), major gaps persist between blacks and whites in America, and these wealth gaps hold across education levels. Another way of articulating this is that my Ph. D. does not equate to the same economic privilege as a peer with white skin, and my husband’s MBA is not valued the same as his white counterparts. While that injustice is very real and very problematic, it is also very relative.
The “U-turn” exchange left me thinking about the rapidly changing dynamics in the world we live in, and the unique dynamics of the microcosms that exists in affluent communities like Manhattan Beach, where my children attend preschool; and Playa Vista (or Silicon Beach), where we live; and Beverly Hills, where my husband’s office is located.
In some sense, a U-turn is the perfect metaphor. I would describe my husband and myself as strivers. My father is an African immigrant that came over to the United States during the African “brain drain” of the 1970s and 1980s. My mother is a descendant of Mississippi sharecroppers. We often marvel at what our parents have been able to achieve in the space of one generation, despite modest beginnings. They represent the inflection point in our genealogy, and my husband and I have been very intentional to continue this progress. As a result, for the first time in my family’s history, my black children are poised to experience more privilege than disadvantage in their lives.
But my family narrative is not the only turnaround tale. As Americans, haven’t we been making something of a U Turn away from our history of slavery and injustice, towards civil rights and social acceptance? This transition has been non-linear and disjointed, but efforts have been made through policy and culture to move us towards a more inclusive vision of our nation.
As mothers, it is hard to figure out effective parenting strategies in the midst of this uneven and intermittent progress. For a little over two years, I have been running an organization dedicated to helping mothers “parent to their intentions.” Race, Class, and Parenting (RCAP) is a marketplace of ideas for dynamic women to address the issues facing us as we try to navigate the uncertain terrain of raising privileged children to have a compassionate worldview, a positive self-concept, and a sense of social responsibility.
We have been confronting the paradoxes that characterize the lives of all progressive mothers in affluent communities:
“How do I teach my children to appreciate the differences in others?”
“How can I raise grateful children in privileged circumstances?”
“How do I filter media bias?”
“How can I grapple with beauty standards and body image issues?”
“How can I address religious intolerance?”
Even as we pursue our economic ambitions, we want to contribute to social progress through the political act of parenting; and we need more information, more conversation, and more support to do so. By risking vulnerability with mothers of different races and ethnicities, we are growing in our knowledge of and sensitivity to the experiences of others.
Thinking back to the traffic incident, I realize that there had a couple more U-turns on that particular day: On the one hand, I experienced a new way of being perceived with regard to privilege – an about face from my previous life experiences and a major shift from a dominant social paradigm. On the other hand, compared to an earlier version of myself, I was more present and better equipped because I have been putting in the work. I did not have a knee-jerk reaction based on experiencing the world only through the lens of my own disadvantage. Facing a challenging social situation, I was my best self in the presence of my son, and I am grateful to my mom friends of all backgrounds for helping me get there.