By Kimya Barden
Introduction (The names of places and people in this article have been changed to obscure the identity of the subjects included here)
Playtime Fun: A Site of Segregation and Contradictions
Every day, small groups of mothers and caregivers gather with their children and descend onto innumerable child-centered spaces in both structured and unstructured play. This type of arrangement is affectionately known as a playdate (Frankel & Mintz, 2011). Playdates can support the socialization of young children and expose them to enriching programming and venues supportive of healthy child development. They also provide mothers and caregivers with adult conversation and expression, an outlet sorely needed as they navigate through the throes of caregiving (Harris, 2015).
My friends and I often held our playdates at Playtime Fun. Located in a gentrifying, predominantly African American neighborhood in the greater Chicagoland area, Playtime Fun, is a “baby-centric” drop-in play space specially conceived for infants and toddlers; and the mothers, grandparents, nannies, and others who nurture and care for them. For a little over a year, two to three times a week, my youngest children ages 4, 3, and 13 months immersed their little beings into all things Playtime Fun.
The size of a small storefront (about 1000 square feet), Playtime Fun is a plush carpeted and fresh smelling space which includes a vast collection of cardboard picture books that stimulate my children’s curiosity and intelligence, a toddler-sized slide to encourage gross motor development, and art supplies galore to spark creativity. In addition, Playtime Fun offers daily enriching programming for caregivers and children including yoga, music, and literacy. Still, Playtime Fun also functions as a quasi-convenient store and provides mothers access to free diapers, wipes, sanitary napkins, and donated clothes and toys. There is only one major rule for mothers and children at Playtime Fun: No eating food of any kind on the PF premises (more on this later).
Located in a greater Chicago play desert, void of accessible and affordable indoor spaces for young children, Playtime Fun attempts to redress the recreational inequity created by decades of institutional racism specific to the housing industry in the form of redlining, restrictive covenants, and blockbusting (Spear, 1967). These practices, dating as early as 1930, upheld discrimination in mortgage lending and shaped contemporary race-based economic inequality and segregation (NCRS, 2018; Spear, 1967). A recent study by Duke University (2019) reports that Chicago Black families lost 3.2 billion dollars due to contract buying characterized by white sellers (instead of banks) fraudulently financing the homes of Black families. In contract buying, the Black family makes monthly installments (including taxes) and accrues no equity; while the white sellers retain the title until the final payment is made. Because the contract buying was enacted in an unregulated market, Black ownership was often compromised, mainly due to missed payments. Black families rarely obtained a housing deed and many lost homes they financed for years. The legacy of housing segregation and contract buying continues to exist as contemporary African Americans face barriers to both mortgage loans for commercial space ownership and small business loans for owners void of the capital essential to invest in their business.
Accordingly, Playtime Fun is owned by Lynn, a white woman, who like me noticed the dearth of boutique play spaces in the greater metropolitan area of Chicago; but unlike me had access to capital to fill the void. This void is not just for Chicago area residents broadly, but mothers marginalized from accessing wealth and jobs which would afford them the disposable income needed to frequent a baby play space, in particular. Simply put, Playtime Fun was established to provide a play space for “poor Black mamas” for free.
Unlike other drop-in spaces in the Chicagoland area which costs between $5.00 and $15.00 per child per visit, there was no daily admittance fee, no bundled pass fee, nor a monthly or yearly membership fee which can be as expensive as $300.00. Playtime Fun is free for all guests, despite income and socioeconomic status. This gesture was seemingly a marker for inclusion, to encourage Black mothers, particularly young and single mothers, who may have never experienced a drop-in play space to indulge. However, weeks and months following the grand opening, it was clear that the very demographic that Playtime Fun was intended for opted to either not visit or visit primarily to obtain the free diapers, wipes, and clothing.
Why the demographic disconnect? Culturally relevant outreach targeted to young, Black mothers never occurred. I am a social worker familiar with culturally responsive community outreach and needs assessment that centers on the values, traditions, and culture of marginalized groups. Thus, one day Lynn lamented about the challenges recruiting mothers “from the neighborhood.” I suggested that she consider outreach efforts that include advertising in local spaces that young Black mothers and children frequent such as: beauty salons, storefront eateries, grocery stores, currency exchanges, schools, and churches. I suggested that she host a series of block club events replete with music, school supply raffles, and games. My suggestions (many resembling those of her staff) fell on deaf ears. Over time, Playtime Fun became a hub for mostly middle income mothers and caregivers regardless of race. However, Black mothers predominated the space. Such conditions were ripe for a culture clash characterized by subtle racist acts referred to in this paper as the white gaze.
The White (Female/Mother) Gaze
In Black Skin, White Masks, Franz Fanaon (1952) begins his discussion of the white gaze with the quote, “Look, a Negro.” This phrase, used by a young white child gaping at Fanon is deployed throughout the chapter to characterize the white gaze as the ubiquitous objectification of Black people as seen through the perspective of white people. Though Fanon published this text nearly 70 years ago, during the African diasporic post-colonization era, the sentiment rings true today as I experienced my own version of a white gaze in a Chicago area drop-in play space.
Lynn, the proprietor and manager of Baby Playtime, appears to have a dubious relationship with Black mothers. Based on my interactions with Lynn, it appears as though much of her intimacy with African American women and mothers is through child protective services supporting the well-being of mothers and children in crisis. Lynn’s interactions with Black mothers is at best one of a caring surrogate; and at worst the proverbial self-serving “savior.” Moreover, I believe these interactions inform how Lynn views Black women and mothers broadly, regardless of their economic status and relationship with child protective services.
Lynn enlisted mostly white women to support Playtime Fun’s enrichment programming. Approximately 75% of the class leaders were white women, many mothers. There was Marsha, the self-professed expert on child literacy who awkwardly fumbled with Black mothers, many of whom had advanced degrees in education, law, and social work, in an effort to convey the obvious – reading is fundamental and should be done with children daily. Her inability to connect with Black mothers and children due to her fixation on the outcome of the activity instead of building a relationship through empathy and active listening was quite painful. Marsha’s gaze was felt in her assumption that Black mothers were ignorant of both the fundamentals and benefits of literacy.
There was Tina, who sought to spark creativity and artistic-flair among Black children and mothers. Her distinctly nasal sing-song voice and physicality of standing over cross-legged sitting mothers felt patronizing. Tina’s gaze lied in the physical reenactment that Black mothers and babies should be hovered over and addressed instead of sitting alongside them as they created paper insects, glitter greeting cards, and clay-inspired flowers.
There was Jamie, a talented millennial, who adorned with an acoustic guitar and wide smile, belted out kid favorites like Baby Shark, Itsy Bitsy Spider, and the ABC song. Jamie’s half-hour music classes were pretty popular. However, Jamie’s music class was often susceptible to Lynn’s fixation on documenting the mostly Black children and mothers using “professional” photographers and videographers often. The white gaze rendered Black mothers and children as a mere spectacle to be gaped at with awe.
Finally, there was Barb, the photographer. During particularly marketable holidays like Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Christmas, Barb arrived at Playtime Fun adorned with cameras and equipment. Christmas was particularly irksome to many Black mothers because Lynne opted to use a white Santa Claus. In the current climate of social media, I understand that documentation is critical to a business’s success. However, Barb would snap and shoot without asking the mother’s permission or offering a warm greeting. Barb’s gaze rendered Black mothers and caregivers as mere commodities essential to Baby Playtime’s public vitality and image.
The incessant white presence and gaze of white women (mothers) as presumed experts in the lives of Black mothers and children is an outdated and dangerous trope. It is particularly troublesome in Chicago, where nearly ⅓ of its residents are African American, many of whom are educated, Black women and mothers. For example, at the time of this article, the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, arguably the largest site in the city charged with supporting the academic, social, and emotional well-being of Black children, is an African American woman born and raised in Chicago. Nonetheless, the limited visibility of Black women as class leaders at Playtime Fun suggests that Black mothers and Black women should rarely be consulted, or considered as experts on their lived experiences, even when they are the predominant attendees. It also reinforces to Black children of all racial backgrounds that in spaces geared for early child development, “white is right.”
Motherwork and Fruit Snacks
At this point in the essay you may be wondering: “Kimya, with all this white gaze, why did you continue to visit?” Well, to be frank, it was because of the intimate and much-needed fellowship with the other mothers. Playtime Fun became part of my village of support. I connected with the women who frequented Playtime Fun including the staff (two Black women), mothers, grandmothers, service providers, and nannies. My younger sister and good sistah-friends often invited me to Playtime Fun so that we could reconnect with each other and our children could bond. I often ran into “mother acquaintances”- mothers of children I had met through a mutual friend or colleague.
Because I was a Playtime Fun regular, I knew the class schedule and could circumvent certain class leaders. Accordingly, I adjusted my visits to attend free play instead of structured classes. During free play, Playtime Fun was a space where I basked in the glory of Black motherhood. Specifically, it was a safe space where I could express my embodiment of motherwork. In conceptualizing a term given to mothers of color who often mother for both biological children and other children, Collins’ (1994) states:
I use the term motherwork to soften the dichotomies in feminist theorizing about motherhood that posit rigid distinctions between private and public, family and work, the individual and the collective, identity as individual autonomy, and identity growing from the collective self-determination of one’s group.
Collins (1994) argues, for mothers for color, motherwork is shaped by the trifecta of “survival, power, and identity.” Accordingly, as Baby Playtime is located in the heart of a Black community, the space became almost sacred in the facilitation of discussions about our babies’ thriving in the midst of state-sanctioned violence. The current climate of political activism in support of Black children both nationally through the Black Lives Matter movement, and locally through activist campaigns memorializing young Black Chicagoans like Laquan McDonald, Rekiya Boyd, and Hadiya Pendleton provides the context for Black mothers to collectively discuss strategies to preserve and pray over innocent Black life.
Playtime Fun also became a site of empowerment for Black mothers, to strategize how to both navigate the labor market and relationships with extended family. For the latter, discussions around date nights (for single and married moms), ways to manage in-laws, and boundary setting for irksome family members were popular topics of discussion. More importantly, as most of us were deemed “professional” with the advanced degrees and hefty college debt to match, conversations were devoted to exploring how to maintain work/life balance, inquiring of potential job opportunities for advancement, and brainstorming recommendations to local universities supportive of both the financial needs and career advancement of Black women. The latter happened frequently as it became known among the mothers that I teach and advise students at a local university.
Black women and mothers convened on Playtime Fun to also informally strategize about how to promote positive racial identity development in Black children. These women acknowledged the strength, fortitude, and unceasing love that comes with parenting Black children who are often prey to sinister “zero tolerance” predatorial policies perpetuated by both schools and police. Thus, Black motherwork at Playtime Fun armed mothers with resources and tips on how to access the latest programs, books, and Black-mom centered playdate experiences bent on the intentional upliftment of Black children.
The staff, Ms. Tee and Ms. Jamilla, Caribbean-born biological cousins, participated in motherwork and were like my extended family. My children and I saw these women two to three times a week. Thus, we broke the proverbial rule and mixed business with pleasure as we discussed the challenges of dating/marriage, debated the latest ways to lose weight, and lamented the incessant displeasures of Chicago politics which often lead to increased community violence in each of our respective neighborhoods. In addition, Ms. Tee and Ms. Jamilla often looked out for my children and me by walking us to our car, saving special books or toys they knew piqued my curiosity, inviting me to share in their homemade lunches, and allowing my children to break the no eating rule at Playtime Fun.
I have visited about a dozen or so child-centered drop-in spaces in the Chicagoland area. Though each may differ in location/class offering, they all welcome and encourage children eating. It was hard to comply with Playtime Fun’s “no eating on-site” rule as my three year old insists upon eating a snack every half-hour or so. Playtime Fun makes an argument that food consumption among children breeds vermin and other unwanted pests. While that may be true, most young children are happy to eat snacks like fruit snacks, crackers, and fruit – items that are non-aromatic and can be cleaned up rather easily. Ms. Tee and Ms. Jamilla observed that the rule compromised our time (my daughter would begin crying for a snack, sometimes 15 minutes into our visit) and began allowing us (and a few other early morning regulars) to eat snacks on site.
For nearly a year, this stealthy “arrangement” worked. I often arrived at Playtime Fun as soon as it opened, 9:00 a.m. There I was greeted by Ms. Tee and then Ms. Jamila. Because Lynn typically arrived at Baby Playtime at 10:15 a.m., the early mornings were used as a space to connect with my children without being subjected to the aforementioned white gaze. Moreover, Ms. Tee and Ms. Jamilah used this time to bond with my children and other early patrons by playing kid-friendly songs, providing words of comfort when children were upset, and providing snacks to cranky kids like my daughter in need of a nutritional boost. The arrangement was an act of resistance. It was reminiscent of other arrangements Black women make with each other, whether it’s during the era of enslavement characterized by Black women and others singing hymns of resistance with the lyrical meanings only known to each other; or during an after-hours event where corporate Black women get together after work to gripe about racial microaggressions delivered by their well-meaning white colleagues and supervisors; or Black girls who feel mistreated by white teachers and decide to collectively speak out in class (Moore, 2015).
Then one day, it stopped. My daughter cried for a fruit snack and Ms. Jamilla abruptly said, “I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be mean, but I can’t allow snacks to be eaten here anymore.” Though initially livid, I soon recognized that Ms. Jamilla was apologetically fulfilling her job responsibilities under the white gaze of Lynn’s authority as the Playtime Fun owner. Like most Black women who act as laborers and have a supervisor to report to, she had to be the bearer of bad news to keep her “good job” replete with competitive pay, health insurance and vacation days. Perhaps she did see a pest. Perhaps Lynn caught onto our clandestine ways and chastised her. I don’t know the reason. I do know that I visited Playtime Fun only once since that exchange occurred.
Aftermath and Ownership
When I explain to my husband, family, and friends that I no longer visit Playtime Fun, they usually say one of two statements: “Kimya, the energy was patronizing…you should have left that spot a long time ago,” or “Kimya, you should open your own play space.” While the first statement offers validation and affirmation from other Playtime Fun patrons that the space can be racially hostile, the latter statement oftentimes leaves me exasperated.
I find that for Black people broadly, and Black women, in particular, resistance often comes in the form of compulsory entrepreneurship and innovation: create the space you want to see. This is a lofty ideal, not for the faint at heart. However, I don’t have a degree in business. I have never owned a business (i.e styling hair, selling art, or selling homes in the real estate market) like many of my sistah-friends. I currently have full-time employment at a job I adore. More importantly, in a few years, my children will have aged-out of early childhood programming and my interest in Baby Shark, fat crayons, blocks, and picture books will cease.
Yet, I know that behind the suggestion to establish a new Chicago-based baby-centric space is the acknowledgment of a dim reality that Black entrepreneurship in the early childhood industry is sorely needed. Black mothers and children are part of a multi-million dollar industry that boasts of profits through in-door play. Though African American women-owned businesses grew 164% in the last ten years, accounting for 20% of all women-owned businesses (American Express, 2018), we are still too often play consumers, supporting the economic interests of owners who create lackluster programming that rarely addresses our children’s needs. Perhaps “motherworkers” engaging in conversation will discuss how their immense talents and resources can lead to proprietorship in play spaces that center the caregiving experiences of Black mothers and children; employs class leaders reflective of a diverse community; and is committed to using play to support the unique experiences Black children will have as they interface in a culture that often devalues or ignores their worth. Until then, I will continue to “work for the day to come” (Collins, 1994) and pursue playdates in play centers that engage my children with other children and mothers dedicated to positively supporting the needs of Black children.
American Express (2018). The 2018 state of women-owned business report. Retrieved from: https://about.americanexpress.com/files/doc_library/file/2018-state-of-women-owned-business-report.pdf
Collins, P.H. (1994). Shifting the center: race, class, and theorizing about motherhood. In D. Bassin (Ed.). Representations of Motherhood (pp. 371-389). University Press: New Haven.
Fanon, F. (1967). Black skin, white masks. Grove Press: New York.
Frankel, F., & Mintz, J. (2011). Maternal reports of play dates of clinic referred and community children. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 20(5), 623-630.
Harris, K. (2015). Peer play dates: making friends and facilitating prosocial skills. Childhood Education, 91(3), 223-226.
Moore, M. (2016). Pushout: the criminalization of Black girls in school. New York: New York Press.
Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. (2019). The plunder of Black wealth in Chicago: new findings on the lasting toll of predatory contracts. Retrieved from https: socialequity.duke.edu/sites/socialequity.duke.edu
Spears, A. (1967). Black Chicago: The making of a Negro ghetto, 1890-1920. Chicago: Chicago Press.