Katrina highlighted what many pundits called a racial divide in this city (though some residents bristled at that suggestion). Well, this past weekend, my daughters and I got our first lesson in the racial politics of New Orleans' playgrounds. Now, I don't claim to be an expert on my newly adopted hometown. I've lived here only a few weeks. Nor do I claim to be a student of the city's complex racial history. But I can write from a unique position, having been a keen observer of race and class all my life.
You see, I'm biracial. My mom was black, but people tell me I look "completely white," whatever that's supposed to mean. My daughters are both adopted. The oldest is African-American. Her half-sister is half-black, though her skin and hair make her look Latina. You would think we'd fit in perfectly with the exotic racial gumbo of this city. And we do, for the most part.
But on the playground, we're still trying to belong. This weekend, I watched my chocolate brown daughter stand at the edge of a circle of white toddlers at a playground, trying to join in. On another day, I watched her run over to two kids in another neighborhood who looked more like she did. Again, there wasn't room for her.
And so I have to agree with some long-term New Orleans' residents. Race doesn't divide this city. Come to New Orleans and you'll see that a lot of the swings, slides and monkey-bars (just like a good number of neighborhoods) are racially integrated. But they ARE socially segregated. At the same Uptown playground, I spied three black sisters with color coordinated dresses, ribbons and shoes, who wanted little to do with two white brothers wearing no socks and dirty sneakers. The kids on opposite sides of the teeter-totter aren't divided by race, but by class. You can see why it's hard to tell the difference. Thirty percent of pre-Katrina residents lived below the poverty line, and two-thirds were black.
The adults here take great pains to tell you that New Orleans doesn't care who you are, what you look like, or where you come from. The unofficial state motto: Laissez les bons temps rouler (let the good times roll) has always meant that everyone is welcome to the party here. But childs' play reveals something more complex. The code of the swing set is that it's OK that you're here, but don't expect me to play with you.
But there are encouraging signs. The floodwaters swirled the dynamics of neighborhoods, causing kids to venture into different playgrounds, pools and parks. So much so that a girl who was driven to the park in an air-conditioned SUV might end up playing tether ball with a boy who walked for blocks over sun-baked sidewalks to get there. And in spite of my initial anxiety, I believe my own daughters will find that New Orleans wants them to belong as well. At a playground the other day, a group of kids gathered around our double stroller. They looked at my two girls and then at me. Different skin tones, different eyes, different hair. We looked like an ad from Benetton. But being from New Orleans, they had only one conclusion: "They're sisters, right?"