By Lynntia (Kir-Stimon) Sutton
The simple intention is for two friends to take their children to the mall over spring break, meet for coffee and treats, and then see a movie together. First, pokey kids thwart any plans the mothers might have had to meet first to catch-up. Then, even though the movie starts in just a few minutes, the kids have quickly reversed speed and scattered. A dash to grab a hot dog, a warm pretzel, into a clothing store to return an item, to another mall level for an accessory purchase and more. This group is everywhere and then nowhere, and then suddenly there is movement toward the theatre. As rapidly as the group disappeared, all are now miraculously seated for the start of the previews.
From first description, our gathering may seem rather ordinary. A typical mall outing? Yes.. for us. No, likely… as viewed by those around us.
We look strikingly dissimilar to others in this environment; two Caucasian moms with a small group of the United Nations who are managing a lot more than most. Our group includes…
A severely autistic Romanian-born young adult, at times displaying broad exaggerated physical motions. A petite Russian-born middle schooler with head shaved in the back and a long strand of dyed orange hair in front. A college student, Chinese-born, who is navigating a hearing challenge. Several African-American high school teens; one with flamboyant make-up more typically seen on a fashion runway than in the mall; the other looming large but extremely cuddly, with Afro displaying a distinct bleached spot in the front and a pick on the side. A sometimes hard to identify mix of cis-gender and gender-fluid identities.
Yeah, we are in an upscale, extremely homogeneous suburban environment and stick out like sore thumbs. But, we are not sore thumbs. We are, in fact, beautiful thumbs of various shapes, sizes and colors. And, we are fine.
This is everyday life for us and, for the most part, we navigate it pretty well. This includes the quick changes in group dynamics, appearances that often don’t match the environment, and the constant compromising and adjusting of plans. Not only are we fine with being here, but note this incredibly important point… we have found our stance within our own community without isolating from the larger community.
To elaborate on this point, I recall an uncomfortable and unproductive discussion about inclusion when I confronted an ex-in-law with a question. I asked why our family was not invited to outings with extended family or even to birthday parties with other neighborhood kids. “I just can’t envision what that would be like…” was the reply. Both saddened and outraged by this, today my response would likely be less talk, more statement. I imagine now that I’d say, “I can tell you exactly what it would be like; it would be fine. It would be the way it’s supposed to be with family and with community. Inclusive. Accepting. Open. Fine.” Maybe a little flip on my part, but honest.
In a similar story, a friend accepted an invitation to a neighborhood party to watch the Academy Awards. This mom attended the simple gathering with her nearly adult daughter, who was fully dressed for a fantasy gala walk on the red carpet- complete with gown, tiara and long gloves. Was it uncomfortable? Perhaps. Did my friend overcome that discomfort, and in doing so make an ideal statement to all present in a perfectly confident way? Yes, she did. Even among neighbors who had made previous unkind reference to “that special bus” her daughter took, she allowed her wonderful daughter to be her wonderful self. Our family members don't always relate to the external world, to each other, to us, or even to themselves in the ways one would typically expect. Again, this is ok. It’s fine.
It’s normal for extended family to be accepting and handle anything that might come up with love and compassion and non-judgement. It's not normal or o.k. to isolate families or people in community due to differences. Judgement and ostracizing causes hurt, shame and pain. Damage. This harm exacerbates any challenges that may already exist, and impacts not only the individual, but also all members of the family and community.
My good friends and I have been able to find some remedy for this. We did so by creating another type of family, a tolerant group that could allow for what others, unfortunately, could not. In our own community we’ve shared our successful experiences conquering awkward situations. We’ve proudly owned our personal stories and those of our kids. Although it will never fix scars left from shame and isolation, we have worked hard to find ways for our family members to feel fully embraced as the valuable individuals they are.
There is profound joy in grasping the opportunity for compassion and acceptance instead of creating harm in the face of discomfort or a little bit of the unknown. There is power in knowing that whatever the concerns, we can and must try to handle them in community with all our united families- nuclear, extended and created.
We never give pause to standing tall when our external appearances, needs and behaviors may not match the scene. In doing so we give aid to expanding the boundaries of comfort and openness for others- whether with race, sexual identity, mental health, physical abilities or other. We also know that underneath the often seen “everything is fine” external persona, there’s really a lot more going on for most all of those around us. We are, after all, human.
So, here we are, at our movie. We are the epitome of Diversity contrasting a more Vanilla environment. Again, it’s fine. Drawing side-glances or flat-out stares, we are together in life and openly embracing our ability devices, our wild movements, our multi-textured and multi-colored hair choices and all facets of who we are.