There’s more to being a black parent than beating our kids, grieving for them or hollering at them. This may seem like an obvious point, but I’m compelled to make it after what we’ve witnessed recently in a spate of high-profile news events.
Images of black moms “whooping” their kids in public or expressing anger or stoicism after their children are caught up in violence have flooded our digital screens. I have two young-adult black children, so, yes, I am intimately familiar with the heightened emotions that black moms feel when our children are imperiled. The danger, though, is that we’ve entered an era in which these widely viewed examples of black parents in extreme and uncommon circumstances will harden stereotypes about black parents that have long existed:
* Angry mama (Toya Graham, the Baltimore mom shown on video slapping, punching and cursing out her son for taking part in a street protest);
* Deadbeat daddy (Walter Scott, who, sadly, was killed by a police officer in North Charleston, S.C., while fleeing during a traffic stop; Scott owed child support);
* Grieving mom (the mothers of Michael Brown Jr., Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin and so many others).
I know this is delicate terrain.
Black people weather the challenges in just existing: See “driving while black” and “walking while black”—and after the terrible scene in McKinney, Texas, last week, we’re reminded again of the long history of African Americans who get penalized for “swimming while black.”
There is no justification for criticizing black parents who face tragic circumstances imposed by white authority figures such as police officers, or whose children are injured or killed as a result of violence in their own communities. I’m making the case, though, for why we need to stay focused. We need to understand that in 2015, black parents are no more or less likely than other segments of the American population to have “perfect” methods and strategies for raising their children.
We face greater challenges on several key fronts—including economic, health and educational inequity—than do most white parents. At the same time, the hyperscrutiny that we undergo from the dominant population should not put us off our game.
Take, for example, recent interest in NBA star Stephen Curry and his toddler daughter, Riley. The duo became media sensations after Curry featured the busy Riley in recent press conferences. The public commentary has ranged from annoyed (sportswriters) to thrilled (most everyone else), with an underlying tone that implies a lack of awareness that black fathers can and do dote on their daughters.
Curry, who right now is struggling to keep his Golden State Warriors viable in the 2015 NBA Finals, is actually like a lot of black fathers in terms of his evident adoration of Riley. To say that there are millions of caring, loving black fathers is not a cheap Hallmark-card proposition or a bid for “respectability politics.” it is a common dynamic, supported by data (pdf), but is rarely celebrated in pop culture or the media.
But Curry and Graham are simply snapshots of parenting choices. Although they make for great armchair chatter, it isn’t really helpful to single out either one as an example of how black people should or should not parent.
More deserving of our attention are the stories and experiences shared by black women for centuries about how best to protect their children in a world where they are viewed as unworthy. As Dorothy Roberts, a University of Pennsylvania scholar on law, gender and race, writes, “It is impossible to explain the depth of sorrow felt at the moment a mother realizes she birthed her precious brown baby into a society that regards her child as just another unwanted Black charge. Black mothers must bear the incredible task of guarding their children’s identity against innumerable messages that brand them as less than human.”
The feelings of anxiety or fear that apparently led Graham to react the way she did in that moment in Baltimore are not unfamiliar to other parents, but for many black parents, they can be superheightened. The flip side of that fear and anxiety—unmitigated pride or joy in our children—is also universal, not something to be attributed only to white parents.
For black parents, as their children grow from toddlers to teens, fears about their children’s safety change from worrying about schoolyard injuries to deep fears that they’ll be arrested or tossed around by a law-enforcement officer—like Dajerria Becton, the teen girl who was physically abused by a white cop last week in McKinney—or shot and killed by one.
In my work as president of the Black Women’s Health Imperative, many black mothers have told us that from the moment they hear during prenatal visits the fateful words, “It’s a boy!” they are catapulted into a protective mindset, consumed with strategizing on how to raise a confident baby boy and see him safely into manhood. Increasingly, this worry is also extended to our daughters.
Freddie Gray. Rekia Boyd. Michael Brown Jr. Renisha McBride. Tamir Rice. These names represent an unfortunate roll call of unarmed young black men and women who have died at the hands of law-enforcement officers or private citizens who thought they presented a threat. They also have in common grieving families and, most of all, black mothers and fathers who are left questioning and agonizing over how their deaths could have been prevented.
This source of anxiety for black mothers is so long-standing and acute that it is likely a contributing factor to a 2010 National institutes of Health study that found that black women are nearly eight years older “biologically” than white women, meaning that even if a white woman and a black woman are the same age, the cumulative effects of stress effectively “age” the black woman eight years beyond her actual chronological years. The technical term for this is “allostatic load”—the physiological consequences of chronic exposure to stress. It effectively withers the body, and the health impact is seen as cardiovascular disease as well as in the body’s inflammatory response and in endocrine disorders.
The cultural and historic nuances in what informs different parents’ choices at a given moment, especially in high-stakes situations, can’t be overlooked. When we see viral videos of black parents reacting in extreme circumstances—whether tragic or celebratory—we should keep our own history in mind: We have a long record of being innovative, adaptive and improvisational in the quest to raise our children safely.
Linda Goler Blount is president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative, a national nonprofit providing programs that support the physical, emotional and financial health of black girls and women of color. She is also a Public Voices fellow of the OpEd Project.