They'll Let Anybody in Here
Yesterday was the last day of my family vacation. All in all, it was a really wonderful time. For all the problematic issues I could critique Disney for, this week was a magical experience for me with my parents, husband, and children.
We stayed at an AirBnB with a fantastic swimming pool, lazy river, and water slide that my almost four year old probably rode over 100 times. It was here that we spent the last hours of our vacation basking in the beautiful Florida sun under palm trees, drinking yummy frozen drinks. And it was here that reality came slamming back into my blissful, magical vacation.
We had just packed up our things and were heading back to our condo to get ready to go to the airport. I heard a woman yelling loudly and turned around to see an African American woman shouting over to a white family that appeared to also be leaving the pool area. I’d seen both families at the pool all week long and all our kids had played together and around each other in the pool, on the water slide, and in the volleyball sand pit.
“Excuse me! Did you say something smart to my son?” the African American mom yelled. The white women, I believe two were sisters and one was their mom, along with their kids, turned around, looked at the woman, said nothing and turned back around to continue walking.
“Hey! I’m talking to you! Did you say something smart to my son?” the woman continued as she walked over to where the other women were pushing their cart of pool toys towards the exit. At that point, the older of the white women, who I assumed was the mother of the two other adult women stopped, turned around, and started somewhat aggressively responding to the African American mom’s shouts.
Her daughter stepped in and explained to the African American mom that apparently her son, who was a bit older than this woman’s children, had said something to them along the lines of accusing them of peeing in the jacuzzi. They in turn had told their mom who had said something to the boy about not teasing her kids.
The African American mom almost immediately changed her demeanor and said “I didn’t hear that part of the story.” At this point, I kind of thought the interaction was over and that it had been a misunderstanding because both sets of kids had told their parents only part of the story. But something else must have happened or been said because the yelling got louder again. I’m not sure because I was out of earshot at this point.
We were just exiting the pool gate when one of the two sisters was walking quickly towards the exit. As she approached me she turned to her daughters, the oldest of whom couldn’t have been more than ten and the youngest maybe five, and said “Let’s go girls. They’ll let anybody in here.”
I was stunned and enraged. Without a second thought, in front of my parents and my kids, I said “That’s unbelievable.” She looked at me with a sense of camaraderie and said, “Oh, I know. Can you believe that woman?” To which I said, “Oh, I’m not talking about her. I’m talking about you. ‘They’ll let anybody in here?’ What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
The look on her face changed from camaraderie to sheer disgust as she tried to convince me that I had no idea what had taken place even though I’d seen almost the entire exchange. At that point, my husband had seen my face and heard my loud voice and asked what happened. I told him what she said loud enough that I know she could hear me recounting our exchange. She was still just steps away from us trying to rush her daughters out of the gate. His response to hearing her comment of “they’ll let anybody in here” was “Wow, really?? Well, we know exactly what that means, don’t we?”
And we do know. We know exactly what that means. And I’m certain that woman would deny to her death that she meant anything racist with her comment. And she would be wrong. Because saying to your young children “Let’s go, they’ll let anybody in here” implies that the African American woman and her son don’t belong in the same way that woman believes she and her children do. And saying that to her children teaches them that they belong more than other people who don’t act or think or look the same as they do.
Do I think the African American mom should have shouted her way across the pool deck? Maybe, maybe not. I have no idea what interactions, if any, she had with the white women prior to this encounter that may have resulted in her feeling defensive before her son told her that a grown woman had said something to him that didn’t feel right to him.
Honestly, based on the many conversations I’ve had with black and brown people in this country, she didn’t need to have any interaction with them directly to feel some type of way about them speaking to her son instead of her. As parents, we are all fiercely protective of our children. But, and I speak from personal perspective on this, when you have a son who is black or brown in this country, your level of fear, protection, and defense is extraordinarily heightened. And I say this from my own place of privilege as a white woman. I have no idea what it’s like to compound that heightened response with one’s own long history of experiencing racism first hand.
What’s worse is that it will be so easy for many white people to read this story and see nothing racist in it at all. That the comment about letting anyone in wasn’t about that woman’s race, but instead about her behavior or her response. And that is what racism has become in this country. Dog whistle comments like “they’ll let anyone in here” that never explicitly say anything about race but are recognized as just that for anyone who’s experienced racism first hand or has known it through people they love or who is just willing to acknowledge it’s deep and painful roots in this country that continue to proliferate.
There are many points in this exchange where something could have been said or done differently on both sides, but absolutely none of it makes my blood boil the way it did and is right now just recounting how that woman so callously showed her children how to devalue a person’s worth without a second thought. It also made me realize that I’ve never been so bold to say something immediately to someone’s face like I did and I need to start being more bold on a regular basis. Because while I’ll never be in the shoes of that African American mom, my son could easily be in her son’s shoes one day, and I’ll never rest in a world that makes him feel like he doesn’t belong.