What keeps us from entering a neighborhood that appears to be different than ours? Or what is that feeling that keeps us in our cars or causes us to speed up a bit when passing through? Much of what Americans think about certain cultures (or the culture of a place), can be dictated by what we see in the media and is perpetuated through the images and messages that we have received throughout generations about different types of people and places. Persuasion is everywhere. From the news, magazines, shows, songs, and even advertisements about basic niceties and necessities of modern living- there is always a target audience and what the writers think about a particular culture (or its own) comes through.
It’s no wonder, then, that I found myself as a new parent, un-“consciously” making decisions about where my small children would and would not play outdoors.
We moved from NW DC, where we lived in a well-to-do area that has transformed into a more transient neighborhood, and moved to a quieter, residential area that is slowly becoming commercialized and attracting a lot of DC families with small children. I loved that there were several playgrounds, a neighborhood playgroup, and weekly neighborhood play dates. When I was a full-time stay-at-home mom, we spent much of our time hanging out in our area.
One particularly warm winter morning, however, I wanted to try something different and Googled “the best playgrounds in DC”. At the top of the list, was the name of a playground that was unfamiliar to me. I read the one paragraph included about the space and was immediately excited to take my kids. Not sure where it was, I assumed that it was in a fairly well-to-do DC neighborhood- it had to be, in order to be one of “the best”. Right?
When my GPS took me across the highway, about 20 minutes from home, I noticed a change in the houses. They weren’t the big four squares, or Victorians that I was familiar with. They were small working class homes-the type of homes that you probably wouldn’t see on media sites that boast of the finest classical and modern architectural styles. There weren’t many restaurants either, save for Chinese take-outs. There was trash along the side of the streets and graffiti on a couple of abandoned buildings.
It took an effort for me to come to grips with my own stereotypes and media-fueled ideas about what “type” of neighborhood this was and the people who lived there. So much so, that when I arrived at the playground, I sat in my car looking at the play space and my mind went back to the article: “The best playground in DC?”.
Admittedly, I almost didn’t take my kids out of the car, until I heard my 16 month old daughter.
She’d spotted the swing, and that jubilant sound was her way of saying, let’s get out and play!
With that, I got my kids out of the car, and on to one of their happiest afternoons that winter. My son made a friend, and they ran and climbed together for well over an hour. My daughter was so comfortable on the swings that she fell into a deep sleep. And I met a parent, who invited me to participate in a forum on a topic that has been very important to me. It was a great day for me and my children and I understood why that article-which was actually written with the input of children-called it the best.
What makes us feel reluctant to spark up a conversation with someone who seems to be different from us? What keeps us from walking through unfamiliar territory? Perhaps it’s fear? Unchallenged stereotypes? Unquestioned images and ideas?
My daughter, who is 1 year old, challenged my preconceptions and taught me an important lesson one morning during a simple trip to a playground. She didn’t have a filter that was created over years. Her heart and way of seeing the world was still pure. She reminded me that you really cannot judge by appearance. You just have to get out of your car and experience it for yourself, like we did at this playground.
And I can’t wait to go again.
Yolanda Johnson is a public school teacher, and is very active in her local community and church. She lives in the DC area with her husband and their two fun-loving toddlers.