Reflections on the 2018 Keynote Panel, “The Implications of Race on Play for Youth of Color”

A year ago, I shared an e-mail to a professional listserv with the subject heading, “The State of Play for Black Youth”. This message was a direct response to a Grand Rapids, Michigan police officer’s body camera footage. As a quick recap, five black boys (ages 12-14) were forced to lie on the ground a gunpoint while returning home from playing basketball at the local Kroc Center. These boys fearful for their lives were loudly sobbing in the video and repeating “I don’t want to die, bro”. These youth had not committed any crimes and when parents arrived the officer stated their sons were “at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

One result of the e-mail was an invitation to provide a keynote presentation at the 2018 Conference on the Value of Play: The Many Faces of Play. On Tuesday, April 10, 2018, I along with three colleagues discussed the impact of Race on the play of black youth. To set the stage, the discussion began by exploring some of the benefits of play such as opportunities to learn about roles, boundaries, and expectations. Contemporary examples were provided including the portrayal of “black”-voiced characters Skids and Mudflap in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and the original lyrics to the popular nursery rhyme Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo,
Catch a n***r by his toe,
If he won’t work then let him go;
Skidum, skidee, skidoo.

Altogether these examples, raised the question what lessons do black youth learn through play? Equally important is, how did we get here? The panel methodically addressed these two questions.

Dr. Rasul Mowatt (Indiana University) began by providing a historical perspective of what play has meant for youth of color in the United States. Among the multiple examples presented was “The Kissing Case” which took place in Monroe, NC in 1958. While playing at the local playground, Sissy Marcus (a white girl) kissed 9-year-old James Thompson and 7-year old David Simpson on their cheeks. Both boys were African American. Sissy’s mom became upset when she heard about the “game” the kids had played. As a result, the two boys were arrested, held for six days without seeing their parents, beaten during the while in police custody, charged with molestation, and sentenced to reform school until they were 21. The governor of North Carolina pardoned the boys after they spent three months in detention. Reflecting on this incident, James’ sister, Brenda Lee Graham said…

“it was like seeing somebody different, that you didn’t even know. He never talked about what he went through there. But ever since then, his mind just hadn’t been the same.”

James also reflecting on the impact this incident had on his childhood said…

“I always sit around and I wonder, if this hadn’t happened to me, you know, what could I have turned out to be? Could I have been a doctor? Could I have went off to some college, or some great school? It just destroyed our life.”

Dr. Myron Floyd (North Carolina State University) shifted the attention towards the racialization of landscapes and outdoor play. Referring to a paper by Inwood & Yarbrough (2010), he began by arguing that racialized landscapes:

  • Define and reinforce racial hierarchies
  • Facilitate domination and exploitation

Examples were presented to show that public spaces such as state and federal parks, transportation, and housing were legally segregated in both the North and South. The segregation of private and commercial spaces such as movie theaters and resorts were also highlighted. A key statistic presented is that in 1921 only 13% of playgrounds in the US were open to Black children (Murphy, 1974). After providing a pre-Civil Rights overview, Dr. Floyd offered the question, “How much progress have we made?” Relying on data from the 2010 US Census and other national surveys, he presented evidence that communities across the US continue to lack racial and ethnic diversity. He also pointed out that black and Latinx families are significantly more likely to have no access to recreation facilities or open space as a result of these segregated communities. Of equal importance is that these families are also less likely to view their neighborhoods as safe. Limited recreation space coupled with perceptions of safety, restricts the play opportunities of black and Latinx youth. In short, little progress has been made.

Dr. Corliss Outley (Texas A&M University) closed the discussion by pointing our attention to the loss of childhood that black youth, in particular, experience as a result of their racial status. After sharing the video of aforementioned Grand Rapids, Michigan incident, Dr. Outley emphasized the importance and benefits of play in childhood including…

  • increase their self-awareness, self-esteem, and self-respect
  • allow them to increase their confidence through developing new skills
  • promote their imagination, independence and creativity
  • provide opportunities to learn about their environment and the wider community.

Attention was then turned to understanding how these and other opportunities are curbed for black youth. The differences in play opportunities was attributed to black youth being stereotyped as more violent, sexually aware, and guilty than white youth. Dr. Outley showed that these perceptions, directly led to negative consequences for black youth in the education, foster care, and juvenile justice systems. In each of these institutions, black youth are more likely to receive the harshest consequences for negative behaviors (education and juvenile justice) and less likely to be adopted by families (foster care). While the initial claim was that there’s a loss of innocence for black youth, examples such as the story of Tamir Rice and Jordan Davis were provided to show that for being black could lead to loss of life for some youth.

For the members of the panel, this was a special time of sharing. First, we appreciated Stephanie Garst and the US Play Coalition providing a space and audience for such an important discussion. The state of play for black youth is often discussed in local community meetings, school board hearings, and church gatherings; but rarely is an opportunity afforded to carry this conversation to individuals and groups outside of the community. Secondly, this panel is the only time that any of the panel members can recall witnessing or serving on a panel of all black faculty in the parks, recreation and tourism discipline. That in itself holds a level of significance for each of us.

This panel never intended to provide solutions about how to address the needs of black youth. Instead it was designed to begin the conversation. Based on the Q&A period that followed along with inquiries and comments received after the session, we believe we were successful in our aims.