We are family

There are 20 minutes in each week I dread. From precisely 7:15pm to 7:25pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It’s the 10 minute walk my 13 year old son takes from basketball practice back to the Tube stop, far from home and in the dark.

Just now I pulled up the thesaurus and replaced “fear” with “dread” as if shedding fear, an emotion experienced whether a threat is real or imagined, is as simple as a search and replace. It takes more than that – often a communal effort – which, in this story, actually happened.

Now I came to these 20 minutes of weekly dread by choice. We want to honor our son’s desire to play competitive basketball which for him, in London, means a long transit. But we don’t have a car and it is not practical for my younger son and me to spend every Tuesday and Thursday from 4-8pm accompanying him to and from practice with a stop for falafel or fried chicken in between. I made the commute with my son until he felt comfortable doing it on his own. It didn’t take long for that to happen.

His basketball club is far outside the buzz of central London. It is not a destination stop. There are no tourist attractions. There aren’t even many street lights. If I’m being honest, the source of my fear wasn’t only because of my son’s age, the distance from home, the change of Tube lines, the dark and a general feeling that the area isn’t the safest. At a deeper level, I was scared because my child is white in a neighborhood that isn’t.

Did I just say that? I have no evidence, no experiences, and no hard data that should make me fearful. And it should be noted, my son is not afraid. And though it would be convenient, I can’t chalk it up to maternal instinct or unease because this is not my home country. No, that confession comes with a heavy dose of guilt. I know there is racism and stereotyping in my heart to even feel that way. I am ashamed to think that my 20 minutes of neatly scheduled discomfort is what a mother of color would feel EVERY time her child walked out the door, except hers would be grounded in a blanket of real – not imagined - experiences he and I will never have.

I would prefer to bury this confession except something happened to mitigate, though not completely erase, that dread. I didn’t “solve” the problem by hiring an Uber to take my son to and from practice which I could have done practically speaking but not without a cost to my son’s developing independence and him appearing even more entitled to his teammates than his latest Nike shoes already do. Something much more beautiful happened.

After the first practice where coach recognized I wasn’t there, he gathered the team around and told them to walk my son the 10 minutes back to the Tube stop. The entire team did it without question or complaint. (All of them except for my son live in the neighborhood.) I considered it a nice gesture of welcome to the team except that he’s asked a group of boys to do the same thing after every practice. When my son told his teammates recently it was ok he knew how to get to the Tube stop, they said: “No, we have to walk you. And if Coach finds out we didn’t, we’ll be running all practice.” Last practice Coach drove by to check on them, where every guy he asked to escort my son was there. Coach got out of the car to make sure my son understood: “Since you aren’t from around here, it’s better for your teammates to walk you. We are not just a team. We are a family.”

When I emailed Coach this weekend to thank him, he said it again, “You’re welcome. We are not just a team. We are family.”

You see I was kicking myself for seeing color but they saw it too. But where my instinct was to push down the reality of the color differences, their instinct was to face my son’s vulnerability as “other” and encircle him as you would any family member. I am humbled by how this team has embraced our son both on and off the court. It was so immediate and not because he is a star player. He is among talented players, many already towering over 6’3” at 13 years old. I know their model of familial love has instructional value beyond what I can grasp just yet.

It reminds me too what while I will never know when it means to move in the world where we are judged by our skin color, those brief flashes of discomfort we all experience from time to time – even the “managed” kind like my 20 minutes – can be openings for us to enter into a conversation we actively try to avoid. I found it interesting when I turned on my favorite podcast yesterday, “On Being” and the latest episode happened to be “Let’s Talk About Whiteness” by Eula Biss. I guess it was something I needed to hear. Maybe you, my white friend, do too.