Writing by Aja Hannah

Editor’s note: This is an essay that reflects the writer’s personal opinion and experiences. Hell Raisers, The Devil Strip’s series for parents, publishes a variety of personal essays from a variety of perspectives on parenting and family life in Akron. Work in this section does not necessarily reflect the views of The Devil Strip.

I’m trying to get back into shape after two kids. Conveniently, our local YMCA has recently opened back and has special precautions at their childcare areas to stop the spread of COVID-19. After discussing it with my partner, I went in and signed up for a membership. I reserved a time for our kids the next week. 

Around rolls Monday morning. We show up a little early and we are the only family signed up. Awesome. I make chit-chat with the staff at the desk and then an older woman comes out of the childcare area and asks if we are coming in. 

I say yes although I am not sure who she is. She is wearing a Blue Lives Matter T-shirt and a star-spangled face mask. I’ve never met this person before. She introduces herself as the staff member that is going to watch my kids. 

I am clearly uncomfortable with this but I drop the kids off at the childcare area. I can hear my toddler still calling for me. The staff members at the desk reassure me that she is good with kids. That’s not exactly what I’m worried about. 

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I get to the exercise room but I can’t go in. I try calling my partner at work. He doesn’t pick up. I pace. I’m Black. I’m clearly Black. My kids look white-ish. Still, what if she says something to them? Even if she doesn’t have bad intentions, what if she says something like: “You’re pretty for a Black kid” or “You have such a good skin tone for a mixed kid” or “Is she your real mom?”

These kinds of comments are not wildly unusual. I have had people compliment me on my daughter’s skin tone before. I have also heard similar things growing up, because my mother was white. These microaggressions are more damaging than people think, especially when it is heard over and over.

I worry. What if the woman loses her temper quicker with my kid than she would with someone else’s kid? It’s not uncommon that mixed and Black children can be treated differently by teachers and caregivers because of implicit biases. 

It’s been maybe 10 minutes. I return to the desk and tell them I’m picking up my kids. Already? I tell them I don’t feel safe. I say it’s because of her shirt. They don’t say anything.

I go to get my kids and talk with the woman for a bit. Not about her shirt. Just about my kids. She reassures me that they are fine. I don’t want to have a conversation with this woman about her shirt. The fact that she wore a shirt like that to her workplace instead of her uniform tells me that nothing I say will be met with any kind of understanding. 

I call the Akron Area YMCA CEO Jill Kolesar instead and leave a message. She returns my call a day later. I tell her about my experience. I tell her about how neighboring YMCAs have made their stances clear and support Black Lives Matter. 

The CEO of the YMCA of the USA — the main man — Kevin Washington wrote his support in a statement: “As I have watched all this unfold, I’ve asked myself: What really has changed for people of color in this country during the past 50 years? Not enough. Not nearly enough. But I have noticed at least one very important, very encouraging difference as I’ve tried to make sense of what I’m witnessing and find the right words to express what I’m feeling: It’s not just black people marching for equity and justice, condemning police brutality, calling for an end to systemic racism and saying Black Lives Matter. They are joined by allies of all races and ethnicities—representative of the great diversity of our nation—and most of them are young people.”

Jill says she knows they need to take a stand, but they are still discussing it with the board and that they will probably go with what their mission statement says. According to its website, the Akron Area YMCA mission is “to put Christian principles into practice through programs that build a healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.” Several times during our conversation, she emphasizes the word “ALL.”

I explain that Black Lives Matter is not “only” and that it is “also.” I explain that when all men were created equal in our constitution, Black people were not included as equals. We weren’t even counted as full people. She continues to emphasize ALL. I can see where this is going. 

She said that the employee should have been wearing a YMCA shirt. She says she wants ALL people to feel safe at the YMCA. I say that even if the woman has to wear a YMCA T-shirt, the damage is done. Not only that, but I am now the one that has taken away that woman’s “rights” to wear what she believes in. I can’t go back. 

I call Jill back about a week later and she says the Akron Area YMCA Board of Trustees, made up of 19 people, will meet on Oct. 22 to finalize their statement. Right now, they are going to go with “Stand for All.” 

I don’t reiterate that Black Lives Matter is inclusive and that “standing for all” used to not include Black people, which is why we even have to remind people in the first place. I don’t say anything about this — because why should I waste my breath on someone who is clearly not going to listen? 

Their board of trustees has three people of color on it: Donald Rice, Grady P. Appleton, and Russell C. Holmes. Will these Black men say anything during the meeting? Will they even know this item is on the agenda so that they make it a priority to show up? Will they be able to represent me, as a Black woman and member of the YMCA?

Moral of the story: I don’t have much confidence in the Akron Area YMCA. I will wait until their announcement after Oct. 22, but it should not be this hard. I will not be surprised either if they continue to say “for all,” ensuring the continued erasure of the issues in the Black communities. Let them say “for all,” and I will withdraw my membership from the Akron Area YMCA. I will encourage other Black parents to do the same. 

Despite the fact that the CEO of all YMCAs believes that Black Lives Matter, the board is more important. God forbid they ostracize paying community members and do the right thing instead. 

God forbid they create a message that says “Of course Black lives matter. We must include Black lives when we speak of all lives” or even “End racism.” The YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas already put out a statement like this titled “We can, and must do better.” They also have the same mission statement. This workaround is better than nothing, better than ignoring the issue, because racism makes people uncomfortable. 

Perhaps this piece will push them to actually be inclusive. But it seems like comfort is their bottom line because they want to ensure that ALL people feel comfortable — including those who don’t believe Black lives matter. 

SIDEBAR:

I want to make it clear again that Black Lives Matter is not the anti-thesis to Blue Lives Matter or All Lives Matter. Those two “responses” were made as a reaction to BLM and gained traction through misinformation.

As a BLM person, I support police in my own way. I want them to get paid better wages as they complete more training. I want training to be rigorous as if they are going for a degree or joining the military. I want their training to include de-escalation, mental health or substance abuse identification, martial arts, implicit bias, and community integration. I want special police units to respond to a mental health scene just like police have special units for detective or drug work. 

I want officers to be held responsible for their actions like any other employee. I want them to be vetted for hate group ties and I want the reports of misconduct to be public so they cannot get hired somewhere else. I want to get rid of all these “bad apples” so we only have good ones.

I want officers to have the skills and tools they need to succeed at arresting people so that those people can have their day in court instead of a burial. I want officers to be armed with cameras so that they can stop getting accused of police brutality when it isn’t true.

I want to replace money that goes to the tear gas and tanks with community support so officers do not have to be placed in such dangerous situations as often. Police establish relationships with repeat offenders and many of these offenders have issues with drugs, alcohol, homelessness, or a combination of these things. If those people were given the help they need to reintegrate into society, police could take care of the real criminals. 

This is not impossible. I currently report on crime for another local paper. I have previously worked for a prison trade magazine where I researched what other countries do with rehabilitation to decrease recidivism. It’s actually pretty easy once people are being treated as people, especially the ones that aren’t proven guilty in a court of law yet. 

Aja Hannah is a writer, traveler, and mama. She believes in the Oxford comma, cheap flights, and a daily dose of chocolate.

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