Race and Isolation in the Time of Corona

Race and Isolation in the Time of Corona
“Although it was my goal to have my daughter interact with children of all backgrounds, it was particularly important to me that she make friends with other black children,” James writes, “to have experiences where she wasn’t always ‘the only one.'” Pictured: A vigil for Brian Quinones, shot and killed by police in Minneapolis on September 7, 2019, a. (Fibonacci Blue)

We call it “Hullabaloo” because when all the families arrive—most with two to three children—it gets pretty loud. 

Our playgroup started eight years ago when I emailed seven friends to suggest a monthly playdate.  We would rotate hosts, and at the meet-ups, each family was to bring one drink and one snack to share. 

Ours would function like any other playgroup, but with a particular defining characteristic: the playgroup is for black children and their families.  

In these strange and stressful times defined by COVID-19, however, social distancing dictates that the joyful chaos of Hullabaloo is on indefinite pause.

Having moved to Miami three years before, my husband and I settled in a white neighborhood near work shortly after my daughter’s birth.  She had entered preschool just the year before, and although we were happy with the environment and curriculum, I was acutely aware each morning during drop-off that she was the only black child in the entire school. 

As I explained to my friends in that email: Although it was my goal to have my daughter interact with children of all backgrounds, it was particularly important to me that she make friends with other black children, to have experiences where she wasn’t always “the only one.” 

The seven friends on that first email were a mash-up of black people we knew from all over the city.  I met one mother in my daughter’s music class, making a bee-line toward her after the instruments were put away to introduce myself.  We laugh now at how intently I focused on her, and how she tried to act cool even though she was also thrilled to make friends with the other black mother in this mostly-white music program.  

My husband spotted one father across a parking lot placing his two black daughters in the car after swim practice.  I sometimes joke that we collect black people, but the truth is that living, working and educating children in the white spaces of a segregated Miami requires an intentional effort to be around black people whenever we can. 

Seven friends turned into 20 families, a loose network of caregivers and professionals who bring our little people together as often as I can lock-in a host.  Even as parents have moved away and new ones have joined, a core set of families anchor the group, our children having known each other before they even knew themselves. 

Like other parents, we laugh about and lament over the challenges of 21st century parenting while our children run around in the yard. 

Our laughter, however, is prompted by discussions of what is good or bad “for the culture.” Our laments are offered in response to shared frustrations regarding whitewashed curricula at school. 

After the shooting of a young black boy, or the violent school “discipline” leveled at a young black girl, we speak candidly and intensely with each other about our fears for these babies we love so much.  

Race and Isolation in the Time of Corona
“I sometimes joke that we collect black people,” James writes,” but the truth is that living, working and educating children in the white spaces of a segregated Miami requires an intentional effort to be around black people whenever we can.” Pictured: After Philando Castile was killed, people gathered outside the Minnesota Governor’s Mansion for a Black Lives Matter rally. (Fibonacci Blue)

Sometimes children will interrupt adult conversations with screaming and tears. Somebody wouldn’t share a toy.  The girls wouldn’t let the boys in the clubhouse. The older kids keep separating themselves from the group. These are not unlike the minor conflicts I’ve sometimes refereed at the public park, or on the school playground before classes start. 

Outside of our playgroup, however, I know that in ways big and small, race infects childhood play, informing power dynamics and patterns of exclusion that white teachers and parents are often unprepared to address

At Hullabaloo, I breathe a sigh of relief, secure in the knowledge that race has not played a role in shaping the little conflicts in our not-so-little group. 

This morning, I had to email group members to tell them that this month’s meet-up was canceled, and that next month is not likely to happen either.  Sending this message reminded me that outside of talking to family on FaceTime, we haven’t seen black people in weeks. 

And I miss it. I miss taking our son to see his black barber, who lines up his fade just right in a space where blackness is normal. I miss nodding at the few black parents at the kids’ school, greeting each one of their children in the mornings with an outsize delight I reserve just for them, to remind them they are seen.  I miss the black loctician who does my daughter’s hair, the black salon-owner who does mine. I miss black people, my fellowship with black friends in the city another casualty of corona.  

The ways that social distancing has disrupted our fellowship with other black people is not my most pressing concern right now.  Rather, a potential collapse of our healthcare and economic systems, and the possibility that we’ll be trapped in the ruins, dominates my most anxious moments. 

Still, as my children binge-watch kids’ TV shows where the main characters are more often than not white, I can’t help but remember a moment from our last meet-up. 

One of our newest members, a young black girl adopted into a white family, approached me, drawn to my hair which looked a lot like hers. 

“Everybody here has brown skin except my mommy, daddy, and brother!” she excitedly declared. 

“That’s true,” I said, and then, “Isn’t it nice to sometimes not be the only one?” 

She flashed me a brilliant smile in response before running off. 


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About

Osamudia James is a Professor of Law & Dean’s Distinguished Scholar at the University of Miami where she teaches, researches and writes about race and the law. She is a 2020 Public Voices Fellow.