I was asked a question yesterday about assumptions, and I was reminded of this story.
Earlier this summer, at a public housing unit in my town, I was rounding up a family of kids to walk them to the summer lunch site that served free meals. These were young, black kids, all siblings. Approximate ages of 8, 6, and 4. Boy, boy, girl. Occasionally they would bring their toddler sister along.
On one of the first days I did this, I knocked and their mom, who clearly had just woken up, opened the door. They were still asleep, but she went back to wake them up. About five minutes later they stumbled out of their apartment, unkempt, exhausted, ready to walk to eat lunch. It was 11:30 a.m.
As we walked, I asked the oldest sibling why they were still in bed by almost noon. He told me it was because they didn’t go to bed until 3:00 in the morning.
Pause the story.
You’ve likely already made assumptions, and they are probably some of the same assumptions I would have made if I was hearing this story rather than telling it.
The setting: Public Housing. So you know there is some level of poverty involved.
The characters: A mom who, at 11:30 a.m., is just waking up. So she isn’t at a job. Young kids who are also just waking up, and being sent with a stranger to get free lunch. Oh, and they are are black. So unless you are black, and maybe even if you are, you’ve assigned some kind of meaning to that fact.
The Plot: Young children awake until three in the morning.
We all have our assumptions.
I asked them why they stayed up so late.
“We were hanging out with our dad,” the oldest boy told me.
Oh, I thought. There are a lot more assumptions that could be made, but I decided not to make them and to dig further. Here is what I found.
The oldest boy, though clearly smart, didn’t always communicate well. However, when I asked about spending time with his dad until 3:00 in the morning, he turned into a TED talker with extensive, clear, and detailed information about his parents’ work schedules. If he had access to the resources and wherewithal, I have no doubt there would have been charts and graphs involved. It was elaborate and included several jobs and responsibilities split up between two parents. The facts– places of work, clock in and clock out times, whether or not the parent enjoyed the job, etc.– came at me so fast that I couldn’t process it all.
But here is the one thing I remembered: There is a window of time between around 11:00pm, when mom gets home from one of her jobs, and 3:00am, when dad leaves for his first job of the day delivering newspapers. This window is the only time during any given 24 hour period when both parents and all the children are home at the same time.
The kids want to make the most of this time, and their parents oblige.
Is this the story for EVERY poor, black family in public housing? Well, no. (Although there are a LOT of them that share many similarities.) But I think we would all be better people, and have better, more civil discourse around poverty and race in America if we assume this is the story.
People who work and live in these communities can tell you story after story after story that looks a lot like this one, but we’ll latch on to the ONE story we heard on television about neglect, drug abuse, and bad parenting, and make this the assumption.
I scan social media and see pictures and posts of moms and dads, friends of mine, making INCREDIBLE sacrifices of time, resources, emotions, and energy for their children. Occasionally they’ll even post a meme or a comment about how they would do anything, even kill for their children. And then, when a story comes on the news about immigrant moms walking through deserts to give their children better lives, stories of poor, black, urban dads keeping their children up until the wee hours of the morning, (probably even now, after school has started,) is told, words and phrases like “bad choices,” and “breaking the rules” starts to get uttered.
The assumption is that “they,” whoever they may be, are not like “us.”
Let’s not do that. I’m going to work harder at assuming that they are like us. And not just the “they” that I tend to side with, but also the “they” that I often spar with.