Summer Camping While Black

Any parent of a child in New York City knows, all too well, that it is ridiculously expensive to raise a child here. Have more than one child and obviously, it’s double the pain.  So while planning out our son and daughter’s summer camp schedule, my husband and I chose to send our kids to a couple of nicer camps and then to a more budget friendly camp for the balance of the summer.

I was never thrilled with the choice of said budget camp but it was seemingly the best choice at budget level.  After receiving the camp schedule, I was disappointed to see that the curriculum included a “career study” which had policeman, as the first topic of study.  After the week long study of policemen, I was cleaning out my daughter’s backpack and was dismayed to find a colored in picture of handcuffs.  If I was dismayed to find the handcuffs, I was shocked and absolutely furious to find a copy of my daughter’s fingerprints – all ten of her fingers, with her name, written by an adult, clearly across the top of the page.  Cursing mad, my husband and I asked the kids some questions on how and why the fingerprints were taken.  We explained to our son and daughter, that we were mad at the camp and not at them because the camp should not have taken the fingerprints without getting our permission first.

On Monday morning, I wrote an email to the two camp directors stating my concerns and demanding that they return the originals of the fingerprints. Additionally, I demanded that they let all of the parents in the group know that the fingerprints had been taken.

Tuesday morning, I saw one of the camp directors and we spoke. She tried to justify the fingerprints by explaining that there was no bad intent and that the “lesson” was to teach the children about individuality. My husband and I also spoke with the Executive Director of the organization.

The Executive Director is a white man, and I had little hope that he would understand our concerns.  Sadly, I was right in my assumption.  I questioned why the list of careers being studied did not include, scientists, teachers, engineers, doctors, architects, etc.  Why did the list only include careers such as policeman and fireman? I questioned why we couldn’t think and hope in a broader way for our Black and Brown children at the camp, to, perhaps, encourage them to do and be more. He, like many adults, doubted the ability of a six year old to grasp the concept of these professional careers. Such dumbing down of children baffles me.

Moving to the topic of the fingerprints, the Executive Director was stuck on the intent of the lesson, repeating many times that there was no bad intent behind the taking of the fingerprints.  The Executive Director was unable to see that the intent was irrelevant. What he could not grasp, was the huge underlying, yet powerful implications of such a lesson. To quote a co-worker, “Ignore the intent and acknowledge the injury.”  Most of the children in this camp are Black and, traditionally, many come from lower socio-economic families.  Putting aside the enormous issues regarding obtaining biometric data of a child without a parent or guardian’s consent, the deeper, problematic issues here pertain to the fact that it is not ok for my children to think it is normal for his and her fingerprints to be taken – most especially by a policeman!  One cannot divorce the police taking fingerprints and being a (potential) criminal. Cops only take fingerprints when booking someone for a crime.  What are the underlying beliefs that led the curriculum writer (and the person who approved it) to think this curriculum was appropriate? What are the societal constructs that created these beliefs?

The self-fulfilling prophecy I want for my children is one where they dream bigger and expect more of themselves, so that that they can become their best selves.  I don’t need a budget camp to plant any lesser seeds in their very impressionable young psyches.  I have been promised that a memo will go out to all of the parents letting them know about the fingerprints.

The sad thing is that there will be some parents that are too exhausted or stressed to care. And some may subconsciously even believe what society constantly tells us a la the Zimmerman verdict – that Black life is not valuable in our country. So those parents, they won’t ask for the originals of their child’s fingerprints. They won’t question why a copy of the fingerprints was even made in the first place.  They won’t voice any concerns for their child because they won’t think there is cause for concern.

For those parents and their children, I will continue to voice my concerns and to demand changes over the overt and subtle degradation of our beautiful Black children.  Because I know, as a person of color, but most especially as a mother of Black children, that there is no such thing as a color blind society in America.  From a seemingly “harmless” summer camp, to a “not guilty” verdict in the cold-blooded murder of a Black boy, our country has A…Long…Way…To Go…before this oh-so-wrong ship, is set right.

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