A Black woman who goes by Mamasay.Mamasaw on Tiktok posted a video earlier this summer, standing in a playground, reflecting on parenting in a mostly white suburb.
While the academic and extracurricular opportunities abound, being part of a small minority has an insidious impact on children’s social lives.
Her richest insights pertain to the behavior of adults. When white moms and dads socialize easily with each other, but have only superficial or wary relationships with parents of color, Black children miss out on countless chances to build friendships and gain access to social networks and diverse interests.
I watched this with painful recognition. I moved to my Boston suburb 30 years ago with my infant. My family thrived here in many ways, and I have wonderful friends. At the same time, I still think of the moment my son said he wanted his haircut like his blond friend, and the dawning understanding that he was not like everybody else around him.
This next observation really struck me:
When I went back to the hood—and yeah the area looks depressing, the buildings are dilapidated or whatever—but going into the store there is a real sense of community amongst my own that I didn’t notice before.
Like the way that we just organically talk to each other in the aisles, calling each other ‘baby,’ ‘ma’am,’ ‘sir,’ ‘honey.’ Like, if my boys were walking around in the store in the hood, somebody else’s mom is going to call them ‘baby.’ ‘Baby, can you pick that up for me?’ ‘Honey, can you get that over there?’
Ain’t nobody in Wegmans calling my sons ‘baby’ or ‘honey.’
I hadn’t thought about that before. When you are seen as a full member of a culture, interactions are saturated with subtle cues of belonging. Strangers might greet you warmly or strike up small talk. Children are encouraged as though they were part of one big family. Over time, these signals soothe our brains and bodies, allowing us to build a foundation of security and confidence.
When the culture withholds these signals, we might not notice it. But like a plant without sun or water, we aren’t getting everything we need to grow strong. You go about your day treated as a guest, or worse, as an interloper.
We know all too well that a teenage boy who is Black, shopping in a mostly white neighborhood, can’t expect affection from everyone around them. They are more likely to be subtly avoided, or questioned—or all too frequently, followed or accused.
My question to you: is your workplace more like the neighborhood grocery store, or is it more like the Wegmans? Do your employees of color get those nurturing cues from colleagues that mean “This is your neighborhood”?
They’re called microvalidations. No one needs to call them “baby” or “honey,” of course. But everyone needs to know they are trusted and valued. That they belong.
Not just when they excel. Just for being there.