Wednesday, April 18, 2012

More than stay-at-home vs. working-mothers: How the White woman conversation on motherhood ignores the realities of Black women

Breaking News: 
Angelina Jo Lee and Brad Pitt, after years of co-habitating and parenting 6 children out-of-wedlock, recently announced their engagement. 

Breaking News: 
 According to Hilary Rosen, 

“What you have is Mitt Romney running around the country saying, well, you know, my wife tells me that what women really care about are economic issues, and when I listen to my wife, that's what I am hearing.  Guess what?  His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She's never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school and how do we worry - and why we worry about their future.  I think, yes, it's about these positions and, yes, I think there will be a war of words about the positions.”

What do these two stories have to do with the so-called “mommy wars”? A whole lot. Both stories speak to privilege—class, racial and heterosexual privilege. 

I’m not particularly interested in the personal lives of Lee and Pitt, but the response to their behaviors and chiefly how the media seems to be going gaga over their presumed nuptials stands in contrast to lesser known, relatively poorer and particularly women of color who have children out-of-wedlock. Furthermore, how this couple is treated even stands in contrast to how married, relatively well known, couples are treated. The first group of women are often treated as suspect, as criminal and in need to monitoring. In the case of the second group of women, in particular Michelle Obama, Fox News constructed her as a “baby momma”—a term typically fraught with negative connotation Black motherhood is often shrouded in a meta-narrative of negativity regardless of family formation, regardless of whether mothers are in the paid labor force or not. 

Rosen’s assertion and the response also speak to a form of privileging of mothers—in terms of class and also race. Many took Rosen’s comments as contributing to and fanning the continual debate of who works harder—mothers who not only mother but work outside of the home or those who choose mothering as their primary responsibility. In other words, it’s the debate about who is a better mother, which is measured in terms of who spends the most hours on the job and what constitutes a job. I’ll leave others to have this conversation. My concern is centered on how this conversation seems to (conveniently) leave out some women. 

Left out of these conversations are women for whom parenting is made that much more difficult as a result of low wages, poverty and the impact of existing laws. While I recognize that these are issues confronted by women regardless of color/ethnicity, I focus on Black women. 

Mothering Black Women
“Black women were about half as likely as White women to be a stay-at-home mother,…married black women have always been employed outside of the home in large numbers, even following World War II, when many of their white counterparts had withdrawn from the labor force.” (Census)
Like so many have eloquently said—Black women often don’t have the choice between staying-at-home or entering the labor force. Several in the blogosphere and on Twitter have focused on issues of pay inequality as a factor in limiting the choices of mothering Black women. As such, I won’t belabor this point. Instead I want to focus on how other policies—and not just labor laws—influence Black women’s functioning as mothers. 

For many women, economic struggle, compounded by race and policies that have racialized outcomes, is their daily reality. 

Consider the following:
Black and Latina women face particularly high rates of poverty. Over a quarter of black women and nearly a quarter of Latina women are poor. Black and Latina women are at least twice as likely as white women to be living in poverty.

In addition,

“The number of women incarcerated for drug-related crimes increased by 433 percent between 1986 and 1991. But for African-American women it rose an astounding 828 percent, while the increase for white women was 241 percent, and for Latina women a 328 percent increase.”


“New research is showing that eviction is a particular burden on low-income black women, often single mothers, who have an easier time renting apartments than their male counterparts, but are vulnerable to losing them because their wages or public benefits have not kept up with the cost of housing. And evictions, in turn, can easily throw families into cascades of turmoil and debt.” 

Back to the uproar caused by Rosen. I don’t think that Rosen was really discussing which mother has it easier/harder. This seems to belittle her larger point around privilege—economic privilege and I add white economic privilege. So yes, I agree with Rosen. The Romneys have never dealt with “economic issues”. They have not struggled with paying rent versus paying the light bill. They, like most families, probably faced their own struggles, but more than likely they were not economic struggles. However, this is not my primary concern.

What I’m arguing is that many Black women don’t have the choice to stay-at-home—if they even have a home. The choice seems to be taken away from them either as a result of poverty, incarceration, their own or their partners’, or some combination. These issues cannot only be addressed via pay equity—yes this is a start. Pay equity, when not grounded in the realities of existing racial hierarchies, does little to change the fact that in many urban and rural communities, there is little to no access to jobs as a result of economic development policies. Furthermore, these women often have limited access to health care and education. These are all factors that impact the resources we have available to us and how we mother. A debate centered solely on pay equity or which mom works harder does little to address the fact that for many Black women, structural violence is a daily factor in their lives.

Interestingly most of the initial (mainstream) responses to Rosen’s comments seem to ignore these issues. Instead, they seem focused on having a debate that women of color feminists/womanists have long criticized traditional feminists of having. The construction of womanhood and motherhood, underlying the discussion of Rosen’s comments, relies on a hierarchy based on race and class. Black feminists and womanists have long argued that Black women have never been privileged as mothers. Instead, they have been thought of as dangerous, unfit (primarily because of the poverty they experience and their race) and to be controlled. Dorothy Roberts in Killing the Black Body eloquently speaks of the denigration of Black women’s bodies and as a consequence their performance of motherhood.

As a result of the often degeneration of Black women, regardless of class, policies are often designed not to encourage (poor—in terms of income and perceived moral failings) Black women to stay-at-home, but to join the paid labor force. Where they can undergo a different type of monitoring and have limited access to “corrupting” their offspring (as believed by some). They are forced to find a job with little thought given to accessible and affordable child care, access to health care and whether or not the job pays a livable wage, among other issues. Policies seem less concern about addressing the growing incarceration of Black women and the increasing impact of foreclosures and evictions among this group of women.

So Rosen, maybe you shouldn’t have been so quick to apologize to Ann Romney. Stick to your guns. Force a discussion on privilege. However, I encourage you to consider how race intersects with class to render some more privilege than others. Then maybe we can bring Black women into this conversation in a way that treats them with dignity and respect.

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