Like many families I know, ours recently committed urban flight. We left the big city for the wide lawns and picket fences of the suburbs. Like many young couples, my wife and I spent most of our adult lives in cities. East Coast, West Coast, Rocky Mountain, and Midwest, we’ve lived all over. With the birth of our son, we initially decided to stick it out in the city where everything was close and convenient. We could walk to the grocery store, meet up with friends, pop by the coffee shop, and stroll to the park. We had the best of both worlds: family life and city living.
Then Kindergarten hit.
Concerned about the reputation of our urban public schools, we put our son’s name in the hat for charter school drawings. We even looked into some private options. But neither the celestial nor financial stars aligned for us, and his Kindergarten year was spent in public school. We were lucky enough to live in the catchment area for one of the “best” urban schools in the district, but it turned out to be a really rough year for our little guy. He would report lots of yelling by teachers, kids getting choked on the playground, and students peeing themselves without the teacher noticing. We tried our best as parents to volunteer and be active, but this was a challenge as well.
After that critical K-year, we were at a crossroads and decided to sell our house in the city and move to a neighboring suburb, renown for its high-performing schools. This community is fairly affluent, but we were lucky enough to find a tiny home right on the edge of a developement of mini-mansions. Our house looks as though one of the garages from the big homes was violently ripped away during a coastal hurricane and blown onto our lot. Let’s just say that the SUVs down the block have more elbow room than we do.
This was a huge decision, not only because we were giving up our urban identity, but because we are a bi-racial family. For us, leaving the city not only meant leaving its conveniences but also its color. Ours wasn’t the most diverse or integrated of the East Coast cities, but at least there was a language of diversity. There were enough people of color, international college kids, and diversity of sexual orientation and SES (among other diversities) that put us a bit more at ease.
Our suburb is 96.4% White. So much so, that at nearly every community function or family outing , my wife and I play the tragic game of “The Only One,” in which we scan the crowd to see if she’s the only person of color in the crowd. The vast majority of the time she is. Now in our 8th month at the new house, the realization of aloneness is really sinking in for my wife. So is the fear of constructing a life of racial isolation for our son. This is the struggle we’re dealing with now.
I am White. If I had married another White person, I likely would not see the world in the same way I do now. I probably would have taken a lot more for granted. My wife often laments that “White people can live anywhere.” By this she means that a White person or a White family can move to just about any city or town in the US and find an area of safe harbor; an area where the majority of people look like them. Therefore, race is hardly ever a deciding factor when a White person wrestles with the limitations of where they can comfortably live. This isn’t the same for people/families of color.
If I hadn’t married into the family I did, I wouldn’t realize this struggle. I’d likely regard it from an intellectual level: I’d know that it’s probably hard for a non-White person to live in mostly-White suburbs. But it wouldn’t necessarily affect me and where I can live. This struggle has now become my struggle. I’m not saying that I feel the differences as viscerally as my wife or son. I’m not saying that I can’t hide behind my White face. I can still sit in a coffee shop by myself, and my Whiteness dissolves into the sea of other faces. What I’m saying is that the concern and vigilance about the type of world I’m presenting to my child becomes more prominent in my mind. I have become more mindful about the real limitations of his community and the trade-offs that families often make to preserve their children’s educations.
It’s a constant struggle to understand our place in this community, and it’s that struggle that keeps me mindful of my family, our surroundings, and my son’s perception of himself in the world.