Princess Neck Snap
I hear a lot of talk from prospective urban parents about the internal struggle that they go through when deciding to have kids. Usually, this gets framed as either "we're moving to the suburbs and we're afraid it will be boring and white bread, but we can't stay here, because the schools are so bad" versus "there's no way we'll move out of the city -- we'll have our kids go to bad schools before we move to a place that's totally white." I wrote this post to put forth another argument -- an argument that wherever you live, you can find diversity or homogeneity -- and you have to actively seek out the opposite.
About seven years ago, when landisdad and I began to contemplate starting a family, we knew we would move out of the Bay Area and to the East Coast. The housing prices in SF and Oakland were already so out of control that we knew that we would never be able to afford a house, and we didn't want to try to raise a family in the two-bedroom that was stretching our finances as a childless couple, much less having to add the cost of daycare, baby supplies, etc. In addition to that, both of landisdad's parents were in the process of moving East, and we were faced with the prospect of entering parenthood with no nearby family support. Six years ago last spring, we moved to the suburbs. The suburbs that were 3,000 miles away from the city landisdad grew up, and where we had lived together for four years.
One of the things that we took into account when we started looking for a place to live was the diversity of the area. While our town is relatively diverse, we live two towns away from a place that is 95% white. Neither of us wanted our children to grow up in that environment, which would never challenge the extraordinary privilege that they were born into. So we stayed in place, in a town that is majority white, but has a growing black and Latino population. A town that has a growing gay and lesbian population. And a town that has a lot of tension over how it is changing, with much of the power (if you can call it that) still in the hands of whitefolks, who constantly express the fear that we are turning into the kind of place they (or their parents) fled 20 or 30 years ago.
But even living in this diverse little town, we have to constantly challenge our own privilege in order to expose our kids to diversity. It's still extremely easy for us as white people to stay in a "safe" zone, where we don't associate with those who are darker, or poorer, or different from us in significant ways.
One example of this is in the available daycare in the area. We went through a variety of in-home daycare providers when the Bee was a wee tot -- a struggle I'll have to write about some other time. When she was about two, we decided that we couldn't deal with the drama anymore, and that she was ready to go into a daycare center. We looked at a few different centers (only those that were NAEYC-accredited). And we narrowed it down to two centers. Both were about equidistant to where we live. Both had low staff turnover and paid a living wage. But one of them was in a predominantly white community, and one was in a suburb that was largely minority. In the center that was in the white community, the Bee would be in a class that was entirely white -- I think we only saw one child of color the whole time we were there. In the other center, she would be the only white child, with classmates who were biracial, black and Latino. Not the only white kid in her class, the only white kid in the entire center.
In the end, we decided to put her in the center where she was the only white kid. She thrived there, and we've never looked back. When the Sweet Potato was born, there was no question in my mind but that he would go there too. We didn't experiment with in-home babysitting, we just sent him into the infant room, and he's never gone anywhere else.
There's been some resistance to this plan from our families, particularly mine. My mom has told me that she thinks the Bee has learned aggressive behaviors there, because "those kids learn that at home." It makes me sad that my mom would say something so racist, though at the time I just pointed out that the Bee was in trouble for fighting when she went to a totally white, middle-class babysitter -- she came out of the womb fighting. But it reinforced my decision to keep sending my kids there, because I think it's only through deep experience with people of other races and backgrounds that we can overcome this kind of prejudice.
My kids have learned some interesting things that I never would have taught them as a result of this experience. At one point about a year and a half ago, I took the Bee to work with me, at a place where all of my co-workers were black or Latino. After witnessing her talent for the neck snap, one of my coworkers asked me, "Where does that girl go to daycare, 'cause I know she didn't learn that at home." Another of my (now former) coworkers still laughs about the fact that my daughter, in pretending to do hairdressing, will talk about the need for hair grease. My son's first word was in Spanish (although, unfortunately, since neither dh or I speak it, it took us a few weeks to figure that out).
I'm not trying to convince anyone to move out of the city (whatever city it is) or to jump into suburban life. It's not easy to make that decision, and it deserves your full attention. I do want to debunk the idea, though, that city life is always more diverse than suburban life. We still live in a country where it's very easy for whites who have a lot of privilege have the ability to avoid mixing with people who are different from them -- regardless of what form that difference takes. It's our responsibility to work to overcome that privilege, for our children's sake, and the sake of our country's future, no matter where we live, or why we've chosen to live there.