Friday, March 13, 2015

Bias in the 'Burbs

Yesterday, I took Ava and Bridget to the library for their toddler storytime. And because these storytimes get as packed as Kiss concerts for the three-and-under set, I showed up a little early with the girls in tow, ready and waiting in the eaves for the entertainment to begin. As Ava spastically ran circles around a terrified little boy who eyed her like she was the second-coming of Satan, I gazed around the mostly empty room at the other moms, bouncing children on knees and/or yelling at little Liam to stop trying to use the children's books as a potty.

And that's when I overhead a conversation between two moms near me, comparing storytimes.

". . . So that's why I like this storytime SO much better than the other one. Plus, we only live a half-mile away from this one," said Mom #1, playing with a cherubic bald baby girl wearing a hot pink hairbow the size of a basketball. 

"Oh, that's great," said Mom #2, cradling her (also) bald baby boy, this one wearing a blue t-shirt with some clever daddy's-favorite sports-related saying. "Where do you live?"

Mom #1 had clearly been waiting for this moment, probably ever since she finished unpacking her last box after her move into said house. "We live in Chappaqua Canyon*, but we're right on the border of Chappaqua Canyon and San Anselmo." She punctuated this last bit of importance with a quick flip of her perky ponytail and an air of rectitude, like she'd just won a Pulitzer. 

(* - All names of locations have been fictionalized to protect the innocent.)

Mom #2 smiled bleakly and nodded, because she (as I and every other mom in that library) knew that being a resident of San Anselmo means something. Living there means that you've made it. Though Chappaqua Canyon is a perfectly safe, tight-knit community of mostly suburban families where one or both parents works in San Francisco, house prices are much higher in San Anselmo, which is literally butted up against Chappaqua Canyon and is one train train stop closer to the city. J and I often can't even understand why they are two-separate towns since they are both so tiny and practically combine to make one. 

But none of that mattered yesterday. Sitting there in that library, waiting for the goddamn librarian to just start singing to these two-year-olds already, Mom #2 tried in vain to change the subject. But to no avail. The follow-up question was already coming, and there was nothing anyone -- including her -- could do to stop it. 

"Where do you live?" Mom #1 asked innocently. The tension was suddenly palpable, and the words resonated in slow-motion.

Mom #2 averted her gaze from her friend to the puddle of spit-up that had just landed on her leg thanks to her daddy's-favorite-rookie-of-the-year son.

"Oh we live on Oak Boulevard . . ." Mom #2 said quietly, hoping there was no followup. But of course there would be. Oak Boulevard is a pretty long thoroughfare, spanning three different cities. Saying you live on Oak Boulevard is like saying you live on Route 66. 

"Ok, then you're closer to the San Anselmo library than we are!" Mom #1 said eagerly. "You must be right on the border too."

"No, not really," Mom #2 said vacantly. 

"What do you live near then?" Mom #1 asked.

"We're near Eastwood High School," Mom #2 replied, knowing perfectly well what this meant. But Mom #1 had to just come out and say it for her. 

"Ohhh. You're on the border of Chappaqua Canyon and Jepson . . ." Mom #1 tried to say something nice, something uplifting, but nothing could be said after she threw around that border-of-San-Anselmo bit earlier, since border proximity mattered to her. Jepson is a high-crime, poverty stricken side of town where you lock your doors at night and avoid sending your kids to school, if you can help it. Which you can if you're Mom #2, since living on the border of Jepson doesn't really mean anything . . . you are only a mile or two away from the San freaking Anselmo border and you still technically live in Chappaqua Canyon, so who cares? 

Apparently, everyone cares.

The longer I'm living in this bizarre trifecta of neighboring towns, the more I'm learning about "what it means" to live closer to this border or that border. What it means to use this library over that library. What type of moms you meet in these kind of places, and what type of kids they raise. 

I know that very few would openly admit it, but I've run into more than my fair share of parents who avoid Jepson and its public facilities (like the library storytimes) because of the predominant hispanic population that reside there and frequent those venues, as if "those people" are going to somehow rub off on their children and destroy their futures as doctors and politicians. It's a bigoted, sad fact that racism still exists in this country, much less California, where everyone prides themselves on being hippy-dippy and accepting. But even in the 'burbs of what I'd consider a pretty progressive area, it's still there. Lingering within the confines of spring fling picnics and hushed mom-to-mom conversations over coffee and storytimes.

What blows my mind is that being affiliated with Jepson, even just living a stone's throw away from the "border" if you can even call it that since on any given day your normal errands take you across both communities, tags you as somehow lesser. (And let's be honest, the reasoning behind that is because Jepson's people are seen as lesser, mostly due to their ethnic and financial status.) Yet when hispanic nannies from Jepson show up at San Anselmo storytimes, toting blond-haired, blue-eyed tots, local moms don't seem to mind, since they're there in an official working capacity. Sometimes, this can even be overhead as a joke: "I was the only mom there that day, surrounded by a bunch of nannies." (Nannies sometimes perjoratively referenced as the Mexican variety.) These nannies clearly aren't good enough to mingle with in Jepson, but are good enough to raise your children. Yeah. That makes sense.

But this grossness extends past just the parents in this area. In the strip mall of a nearby affluent town, city leaders recently wanted to stop a Dollar Tree store from taking up residence in what had long been a vacant spot in the mall. Why? It was only said by a few brave commenters, but it was obvious: Allowing Dollar Tree to set up shop would bring Mexicans into the area, which is like 98% white, the remaining 2% being Asian. (One year later, the only customers that seem to frequent that Dollar Tree, which got the greenlight after a long dispute, are prehistorically old, retired white men looking for a cheap deal on shaving cream.)

But I digress. 

Going back to those two moms in the Chappaqua Canyon library yesterday, I had to just roll my eyes. If you live in Chappaqua Canyon, you live in Chappaqua Canyon. It doesn't matter how close you live to Beverly Hills . . .

I'm sorry Mom #1, but living near the San Anselmo border means NOTHING. It does not make you "one of those them" (them being those affluent housewives in Escalades and pearls) no matter how many times you repeat you live on the border. If you really need that kind of reassurance, then move to San Anselmo. (Oh wait, you can't afford it.) And can you and every other person who references Jepson as though it's the plague just stop already? It's embarrassing and offensive, and all you're doing is perpetuating this superiority complex in your poor basketball-sized-hairbow-wearing baby girl that's probably heard you say far worse with a smirk to your husband after your friends part ways for naptime.

What is this, a sequel to "The Help"? Well guess what: 1963 just called. They want their Hilly Holbrook back.


Revanche said...

Ugh. I get that same feeling when we go to some of the more affluent wee cities down in the South Bay. I know we "pass" because we're Asians, we're the "safe" minority amid the sea of white and it's such a gross feeling. Other minorities are fine if they're working for you and therefore obviously inferior but heaven forbid you treat them like they're actual humans with the same rights! Quite honestly, if and when we're at the point where we could afford the San Anselmo of wherever? Forget it. I don't need my kid picking up those disgusting racist notions and thinking they're ok.

Crystal said...

@Revanche: I completely agree. The more I live in these Bay Area suburbs, the more grossed out I am. I thought we'd be free of all that thinking here, but I guess we aren't. Sigh.

J. said...

I agree with you, there shouldn't be a division and it's sad that some feel we have to create a social hierarchy based on location and demographics. Everyone seems to believe that meritocracy is the ideal but it just doesn't pan out in real life. Having moved from what my husband refers to as the "elitist" Peninsula to the East Bay, I see this all the time. Even some friends try to make us feel better about our move by claiming we are on the border of the South Bay, as if that's a better association. Who really cares?

Revanche said...

We ought to band together in a Diversity is Great community.

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