About twenty years ago, my parents took a pre-adolescent me on an organized 10-kilometer hike. Although my feet felt like they were going to fall off around the 8K mark, I made it to the end, and I even earned a little medal, as well as a stamp in two passport books, one measuring distance and the other keeping track of my events. Thus began my career as a volkssporter. The American Volkssport Association is a great organization that sponsors non-competitive walks all over the country, and there it has its international counterparts in several other countries. I walked happily with my parents for a while, and then I became a teenager and there was nothing less appealing than spending two hours walking with my parents through unknown towns.
About a decade later, I moved to upstate New York to move in with my now husband and attend graduate school. Eager to explore this new part of the country, I remembered volkssporting and discovered that there was an active club and lots of walks nearby. My dad dug out my old passport books from the late 80s, I bought my husband some books, and we started walking.
Once our daughter was born, our volkssporting dissipated until it halted completely about six years ago. The sleepless nights of early parenthood and the egotistical demands of an adorable toddler didn’t mix well with extended hikes through varying terrain. This past spring, we were contemplating what to do on one of the first nice days of the season, and we thought about looking into the walking clubs again. There was a walk right in our new hometown, so we packed the kids in the car and drove a few minutes across town to do our first volkssporting walk as a family of four.
The kids made it through that first walk just fine, and our daughter’s favorite part was stopping for lunch halfway through. It was so much fun sharing this with the kids, and we told them tales of our walks nearly a decade ago, exploring new places and always relishing the meal that we earned after working so hard. Now we’ve been at it six months, and our kids just completed their 26th walking event, having walked more than 260 kilometers in total!
This past weekend, we attended the wedding of an old babysitter of ours in southern Connecticut. Since it’s a bit too far to drive, we booked a hotel room, and started looking around for a nearby walk to do the day after the wedding. We found on in Hartford, which was perfect because the kids could get their first “state capitol” stamp for the walk.
We tend to judge the towns we walk in by the friendliness of the people we walk by. If these strangers say hello first, it’s a super friendly town. If we say hello first, and they simply respond, that’s not too bad, but if there’s no interaction or they don’t respond to our overzealous friendly hellos, we wonder what’s wrong with this place. We were somewhere between friendly and cool on our six-mile trek through Hartford, but some of that could be attributed to the brisk fall weather.
We had just finished our bundle of apple cider donuts we purchased along the route near the 7-kilometer mark, and we were making our way down a busy street when a black woman in a white minivan pulled over. She rolled down the window and yelled something at us. We stopped and moved a little closer to her. And now we could hear her far more clearly:
“Whose children are those?” she demanded.
“Their ours,” I said, trying to remain calm.
“But they are black and you’re not,” she haughtily replied.
“You’re right.” I was trying my hardest not to be a complete prick to her.
“Whose children are they?!” she screamed.
“They’re our kids,” my husband said.
“How can that be?” she scoffed. She then turned her attention to the kids directly,” Tell me who these men are.”
“Go ahead honey,” I said to our daughter, “tell her who we are.”
The kids hadn’t really grasped the oddity of the situation, nor its offensiveness, and our daughter loves introducing us by first name, which she did right then. That didn’t help calm this lady down.
“It’s okay to tell her how we’re related,” I urged her. “You can tell her we’re a family.”
“Are you homosexuals?” The woman had now returned to attacking us.
“Yes,” I said slowly.
“Oh, that’s why,” she mumbled as she started to roll up the window.
We started walking away, as she drove a few feet than pulled back over to us, rolling down the window in an attempt to offer some explanation for her outrageous behavior.
“You know there are people who will kidnap little kids. That’s why I was asking.” We thanked her as kindly as we could and she eventually drove off.
“What was that lady talking about?” our son asked.
“Well…” I thought for a moment before suggesting, ”She just wanted to know more about our family. She obviously doesn’t know many families like ours and she probably thinks all families have to look a certain way. That’s pretty silly isn’t it?”
“It sure is!”
As we walked on, my husband admitted, “The more I think about how that went down, the more angry I get, both at the questions she was asking and the way we responded.” Thankfully, the kids seemed unfazed by it; I even asked them if they had any questions about it before bed later that night, but they had almost forgotten about it. My husband and I however just felt weighed down for the rest of the walk and the entire drive home.
We understand that our family is different in so many ways; we understand that, to a certain extent, we have to be ready to deal with other people’s questions about our family, and that’s something we have to help our children navigate as well. But this woman’s assertions that we were somehow doing something nefarious with these kids, that we had kidnapped them and were absconding with them to some evil lair, makes me furious. The kids weren’t in distress; we were simply walking down the street, enjoying our day. I can’t imagine a scenario where what that woman did was okay, with the exception of our kids screaming, “You’re not my daddy! Help!” And I can’t imagine her doing that if were all the same color, or even if we were women.
It could have been a lot worse. What if the woman had called the police? They’d have an obligation to look into it, and even though all the legal experts say we should, we don’t walk around with paperwork proving our children are ours. Our kids walked away relatively unscathed, but how traumatic would it have been for our six- and seven-year-old children to be interrogated by a police officer, asking them to identify their parents? This sort of thing happens—like in Florida two years ago when Scott Henson was detained by police for walking down the street with his five-year-old granddaughter—and while these cases would never stand up to any real scrutiny, how many parents would like their children to go through a similar experience? And how many parents, especially those of color, are willing to trust the police to do what’s right and fair in these situations?
While volkssporting in twenty-six different cities over the past six months, we’ve never had an experience like this; people are kind far more often than they are unkind. We’ll continue to enjoy our leisure activity, hoping that most cities and towns will let our family enjoy a simple walk down the street.