Question for the Room.


Over at the the  City Room blog, a social worker muses about race and class after an incident on the train. A young woman, about 18 or so,  is hitting her 4-year-old repeatedly. Before long, her friend joins in. The writer stepped in and yelled at her to stop. As you might imagine, things  devolved pretty quickly from there.

“Stop hitting that child!”

Who said that? Stepping toward her, I took a dive off a sky-high cliff — and there was no way back.

“Who are you to tell me not to hit my kid? She’s my kid!”

“Don’t hit that child again or I will call the police!”

“I will hit my child if I want. I know how to hit my child. Go ahead and call the police!”

She stopped hitting the child because she was now directing her anger at me. The girl stopped crying. She watched and listened. I moved back to my side of the subway car.

A woman sitting nearest to the young mother started a quieter conversation with her. I could not hear the entire thing, but it was clear that this woman, in her 50s, was counseling her on how to handle an unruly child without hitting.

“You don’t know me,” the younger woman said to the older one. “You don’t know my child.”

The car doors opened at the next stop. The entire car seemed to be watching the young mother, the older woman and me. Two young guys patted me on the back as they exited and said, “Good work, man.”

I exited the car. The mother maintained eye contact with me as the doors closed — with fury and threat in her gaze.

I had publicly shamed her and that was the point. Would she think twice before striking the child again? Or would she be even angrier?

Got that? Okay, here’s where the touchy situation gets touchier.

Here I was, a 54-year-old white Jewish guy — and a social worker no less — confronting a young African-American kid with a kid, someone who was in way over her head. Was there some kind of cultural misunderstanding on my part?

He laments that he wished he’d received more support from of the other black passengers, for reasons that he doesn’t explain but I’ll assume have something to do with the appearance of paternalism. His friend, who he describes as Arab-Canadian, asks:

“Why would you want the black people to jump in and give you support?” he asked. “Are the black people her people and the white people yours? Did her people have to show their support as a form of saying she is our people but we don’t agree with what she did?”

What say you?

[h/t Betta]



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • I’ve seen a few young black mothers with small children in similar situations; either physically chastising their children or being verbally abusive. I’ve never said or done anything, and the one thing I’ve seen that these young women have in common is anger and frustration that has little to do with their child. It’s a really hard thing to watch, but actually stepping in and interrupting a woman with whom I share little else besides skin color and empathy has never occurred to me.

  • The question the guy’s friend asked is a good one.

    That said, the older woman chose the better approach–and the one that might have had some effect, if he hadn’t already gotten the young woman’s back up. The *only* way to “correct” a parent in public is to (1) empathize with how difficult/frustrating/misbehaved children can be; (2) talk about how you handle it–not in a “you should do it this way” tone but in a “i find myself just ignoring them!” tone or whatever.

    *That* said, I can’t blame the guy for expostulating, especially when the young woman’s friend started hitting the kid, too. Presumably he was sort of overcome. It’s very sad.

  • LaJane Galt

    I agree with the above. The older woman has probably been there. But at the same time, the old man was right to call out the other person’s abuse.

    I’ve seen kids verbally abused (STFU followed by a near miss) or yanked around by mothers (only) who are out of their depth. You don’t want to piss them off any further, but you want them to know that they are going too far.

    I think a large subset of “us” is too physically and verbally rough on kids. All it does is inure them to cruelty and make it easier to dish out.

  • Story is nice, but his lament at the lack of support is stupid as hell. You stand up for what you believe is right and if you need other people to back you up (and use their identity as a commodity), then your stuff is not all that hot. I know we lived in a useless world where what you say is not quite as important as what you look like when you say it, but eff if I am going to be complicit in that bullcrap.

    Here is my own personal story about a (sorta) similar situation: Three years ago in Mianyang, China, having dinner with my now wife, then girlfriend, near my apartment, when a dude and two chicks walk in. They sit down, order something, and then they start arguing. Eventually I figure out the dude is a pimp and the chicks are… his employees, and the argument gets really heated. Eventually one chick walks out, and the argument is still going on, and the remaining chick throws her tea cup at the guy, after which he gets up and slams her on the ground and starts beating her. Never seen anything like this before in my life (thankfully), so this is not something having to do with the way ‘Orientals treat their women’ or some such nonsense, but after the dude starts hitting her I get up and I rush to the dude to push him off… when my wife/girlfriend holds my arm and tells me NOT to do ANYTHING. I felt totally dead inside. But considering that nobody else intervened (such as the cook, owner, or waitress of the restaurant), the dude probably had connections to the police (crime in China is an interesting subject in its own right), that even if I had intervened they both probably would have ganged up on me, and the fact that I was a foreigner (an illegal immigrant to be exact, a whole other story right there), she completely acted in the right. Still, I let somebody get physically abused RIGHT in front of me for practical convenience, and if I was a better person I woulda just said ‘eff it’ and pushed the dude out of the way. It was my fault, not because a Chinese person did not give me support.

  • Typically the abuse is a physical manifestation of the resentment they harbor for the absentee father. These are frustrated young women who envy their childless peers. This envy coupled with the lack of education and support from the child’s father is too much for such a naïve mind to handle, hence these outbursts. I once heard a frustrated young mother tell a friend in reference to her child who was present, “I can’t stand this little nigga!” I was floored. Then she calls the father and talks to him in the same manner she relates to the child. And we wonder why these kids end up the way they do.

    In my neighborhood I often hear ten and eleven year old boys refer to their female peers the same way grown men do. Just the other day I noticed a kid who looked no older than ten say to a girl around the same age who was proactively dressed, “Hey baby, why don’t you come over here so I can feel on that fat ass!” Folks, I am not exaggerating. I wish I was.

    And you can’t blame the media. It’s the parents. They behave the same way the kids do. I really appreciate the points being made here. It’s kind of like therapy for me. I’m lost here. I sometimes feel compelled to say or do something, but I am dumbfounded because it’s not the kid I need to reach, it’s their ignorant parents. The real culprit is a lack of education all around.