"Me and Cheryl have a little process, a little system, called Beat A@#! Early. It wouldn't ever really evolve into hitting. It's more of a pinching thing, like, if you do get fed up to the point where you feel like you want to hit your child, instead of hitting him you can pinch him."
"Ah, come on with that time-out. Time-out's for white people. Get out of here with that."
-Excerpts from the book Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and Americaby Paul Tough
A couple of years ago I almost got into a fight with a homeless man in Washington, DC and ever since my husband has tried (and failed) to keep me from inserting myself into other people's business. I was in DC for work and on my way to the training location, I walked by a homeless man who asked me for change. I denied his request and he responded: "Fine, you black b$%@*&!"
Now most days I would just shrug it off, charging his belligerence to the influence of drugs, alcohol, or a mental disorder, but this was not one of those days. I turned around, proceeded to curse him out, and made it known: "I'm from P.G. County!" The only problem is that my cursing began to agitate him and he proceeded to chase after me. Thankfully all of this occurred in close proximity to my destination so I just ran inside of the building. But it does make me wonder why people reference their hometowns during altercations. I remember hearing Taylor from Real Housewives of Beverly Hills saying: "I'm about to take you out back and get all Oklahoma on your a#*%&#!" Wow. Oklahoma? Really?
Last year a friend gave me the book Stickin' To, Watchin' Over, and Gettin' With: An African American Parent's Guide to Discipline after a heated debate I had with my husband about my habit of inserting myself into other people's business. I do blame my mother. To this day she carries out impeccable, covert operations on all of her children and anyone who steps within ten feet of her home. We can't get anything past her. Although some might balk at the idea of a book focused on discipline within the context of a specific race and culture, just over the last week there have been three very high profile models of discipline that were all different and arguably tied to culture. First there was the "Uncle Beating His Wanna Be Thug Nephew Over Facebook" (complete with about five lashes from a belt that would have been better suited for holding up the uncle's pants; interesting to note that Youtube recently removed the video for "shocking and disgusting content"). Then you have Joe Biden, Vice President of the United States of America, "Negotiating Release of Speech Script From Three-Year-Old Thief " (my favorite part if when the Vice President snatches the speech back, ha!). And then the highly controversial and contested Wall Street Journal article by Amy Chua called "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior."
So, my latest run-in occurred one sunny, Boston afternoon as we walked home from an ice cream run at J.P. Licks. Our apartment building at the time had a number of shops and restaurants on the ground floor and on this particular day, the florist held a sidewalk sale to make room for new inventory. While passing by the wares lined up outside of the flower shop and along the sidewalk, I noticed some young boys running in and out of the stores, yelling, and causing a ruckus. I pretended to ignore them, but behind my sunglasses I was pulling a "Focker." I kept my eye on the boys, two black males who looked like they somewhere between the ages of eleven and thirteen.
Then my jaw dropped as I watched one of the boys steal an item from the florist and start walking away--he didn't pay and he had no intention to pay (it wasn't one of those "let me run around the corner to the ATM real quick" type of situations, it was more like one of those "petty larceny" type of situations). I pulled down my shades, gave him the side-eye/now-you-know-you-wrong look and stated loud enough for everyone on the sidewalk, across the street, and in the neighborhood to hear: "UM, YOU MIGHT WANT TO PUT THAT BACK." The young man froze like a deer in headlights, turned around, put the item back, gave me the evil eye and murmured something under his breath about "playing around." I didn't catch his response because my husband grabbed my arm and dragged me into our apartment building, scolding me for sticking my nose where it didn't belong.
My Husband: "What were you thinking?! Now he know where you lives! (and I thought to myself "well, he wouldn't know where I lived if you hadn't dragged me in here!") That kid could have a gun! He might come back looking for you! You shouldn't get involved in other people's business!"
Me: "Shoot! I ain't scared of no little kid! I'm from P.G. County! (see, there it goes again; and how announcing that fact would stop a weapon, object, or person from hitting me, I do not know) I wish he would try something!
Now, rest assured, my husband's reaction wasn't motivated by a domineering sense of paternalism or some deep-seated fear of black men as perpetual perpetrators of violence. He just wanted to make sure I didn't have a repeat of the scene in DC. Understanding something like how a person's culture informs their approach to disciplining children can be hard to understand and accept as an outsider looking in. So in trying to explain my rationale for the florist incident to my husband, initially I struggled for words. I knew I couldn't give trite and shallow defenses like: "Well, you don't understand because white people don't know how to discipline their kids, they just run around all crazy and wild," or "The only children Americans think about are their own, they'd probably prefer just throwing those two black boys in jail," because I knew neither of those statements to be completely true based on my own experiences.
But what I could explain to my husband was that as a black woman raised in a hybrid culture of middle-class Black America and upwardly-mobile Nigerian immigrant, I am acutely aware that my success as an adult is because of "the village" that raised me: their Stickin' To-- unconditional love and support (affection); Watchin' Over -- loving supervision (protection); and Gettin' With -- loving confrontation and accountability (correction). And as an adult, I think it is important for me to show that same care and concern for youngsters whose lives I have the opportunity to influence.