Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Don’t feed the children

Color My World, an autobiography by Donald Vaughn, documents the life’s journey of an African-American from Detroit to Frankfurt am Main and covers a span of more than half a century across two continents. It is an open window into a piece of history and definitely, for a relatively new Frankfurt dweller like me, a valuable reading to get a sense of how much has changed and how much has stayed the same in this city of many nations.
A scene from the book, in particular, strikes for ringing bitterly familiar. Here, Mr Vaughn describes his children playing in the front garden:
Sitting in their sandbox, the children were also an attraction for passersby. People would stop and observe them like something exotic in a zoo. The children were certainly not undernourished but people would give them ice cream or candy from the kiosk across the street, and I wanted to put a sign on the fence: “Please do not feed the children.”
Referring back to several decades ago, this episode is not especially surprising as much as it is, obviously, disturbing. Curiosity and intrusiveness often go together, but if black children in such an international city as Frankfurt are not any longer regarded as ‘exotic’, they are often still object of unwanted attention from impertinent strangers. In my personal statistics (informal data collection based on various testimonials) of intrusive behaviours towards black children from offenders who pretend to be well intentioned, ‘being fed’ comes second only to ‘hair touching’ (the latter, however, involves even adults). “A white lady was eating an apple and, on seeing my child, gave her the bitten apple, without even acknowledging my presence.” The mother who reported this episode added that, when she protested, the woman had the nerve of showing outrage at such a reaction to her generosity!
As someone who grew up being obsessively told by all family members to never accept any food from strangers, I cannot disentangle the offering of food from the purpose of deceit and I therefore tend to become over alarmed when witnessing unrequested food offerings to minors. Here, however, there is something more at stake and this something has all to do with the racial imaginary assimilated by white people, which makes them associate black children with need and hunger. This kind of imaginary is so deeply rooted that it seems to come into play regardless of the context and regardless of the situation of the particular child, so deeply rooted that even in such an international city as Frankfurt episodes of the kind described by Mr Vaughn are still common occurrences. I witnessed one personally not so long ago in a clothes shop downtown. A mother was looking at clothes, her child in the buggy behind her. A white woman approached, eating a sandwich, and gave a piece to the child. I must have opened my mouth and eyes so wide in disbelief that the mother immediately turned back and realised what was going on, grabbed the piece of sandwich from the child’s mouth and walked away.
One might wonder whether in such cases one should say something to the offender, but in general I believe that walking away is the most appropriate response. Why would you want to lecture strangers in the street? Anyone with a little common sense would understand that offering food to children without asking parents or caretakers is not appropriate, and if it’s chewed food they are offering, they must be nuts!

More info on Donald Vaughn's book at: www.colormyworld.de

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