by Erin Newton, LCPC
Welcome back to our fourth and final installment of The Weight of the World: Being a Black Mom in America. If you’re new to the series, please go back and get caught up! You can find the other weeks here: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
We’ve explored so much in the last three weeks! From birth trauma to the layers of systemic racism that Black people face, we’ve dug deep. If you’ve stuck with us this far, thank you. Today we wrap up with exploration into names, joys, fears, and finally, the most important takeaway of this whole series – change.
Ok, show of hands: how many of you chose your childs name based on what you felt would cause them the least amount of struggle, the best opportunity to get a job or a school placement without having to contend with stereotypes before anyone even met your child? …no? I know that I didn’t! We picked names we loved and names that were part of our family history. Black moms know better.
When we discussed this, Jess stated that, “when you’re Black, you can’t always be who you are.” She stated that she intentionally chose the names of her children so you could not identify their race – Audrey and Anastasia. Her son, Jason, she adopted. His birth mother is Hispanic, but Jess decided to change one of his more Hispanic sounding names as well. “I wanted to give him a chance,” she says. “I don’t want people to think he can’t do the job before they even meet him.” Michelle Santos agrees, stating that she considered all of her sons names as well to give them the best chance in life that she could. Shizuko and Natalia agreed, stating that they definitely had to think about the implications of what they decided to name their children.
And they’re not wrong! This article references a study that found that when African American and Asian applicants “whitened” their resumes by deleting references to their race and changing their names, they received significantly more callbacks than if they left their resume with their ethnic details intact. Even more alarmingly, this study found that participants judged a “Black” sounding name to be attributed to “a larger and more dangerous person.” Not only that, but they also judged those with the more “Black” sounding names to be lower in financial success, social influence, and respect in the community. Conversely, when the researchers used a “White” sounding name, participants envisioned that person to have greater status overall. This was solely from a neutral vignette using a “Black” sounding name. This is what we mean by systemic racism. Judging a person as more dangerous, less successful, and poorer simply because of their name.
The implications of this practice of Black families dropping more “Black” sounding names are vast. I don’t know about you, but it was really important to me that my children have family names. My oldest was named after my sister, my middle, after her great-grandmother, and my youngest has both my middle name and the maiden name of my grandmother. It was so important to me to honor my family by using these names. It keeps them alive in a sense, continues to keep their presence long after they’re gone. But what about Black families? What is happening to their family names if many feel they cannot pass them down without hindering the progress of their children? If your grandmother was named Diamond, but you don’t feel you can use that name, what happens to Grandma Diamond? How do we keep her memory alive? How is this not cultural erasure?
I wanted to give the women I interviewed an opportunity to share whatever they felt that people needed to know about being a Black mom in America. I wanted to make sure we really gave them a seat at the table and listened to what they think is important that we all understand.
I want people to know that all moms have a SuperWoman complex. We all want to do what’s best for our children and protect them and love them. But black women do that with the weight of the world on them.
We touched on this last week, but it bears repeating, Jess tells me that she thinks about her race everyday and there isn’t one thing she does where she doesn’t consider it. She tells me that she never takes her purse into a store for fear she’ll be accused of stealing and she never puts her hands in her pockets either. She doesn’t wear hoodies. She has to constantly prove herself at work. She’s been held at gunpoint at a traffic stop (where she was stopped for no reason other than having White children in her car). Part of being a Black mom means never ever forgetting about that “Black” part because even if she can, no one else around her ever does.
Michelle stated that she wants people to know that Black moms are good moms and that they care about their children just as much as other races do. Shizuko stated that “raising Black children makes you stop and think before you do anything.” Even something as seemingly simple as letting her children play outside can be terrifying for her. Boys of all races play with toy guns, but for Black boys, that can get them killed. “You don’t know which side of the coin you’re going to be on when the cop comes up to you,” she says, also noting that as a child, “we were taught to be quiet too, to listen, to follow directions.” Black moms seem to know that when it comes to interactions with the police, their children might not get another chance to do it “right.”
Natalia stated that she wants people to know that Black women play a lot of roles. Jayme stated that she wants people to know that it’s really not easy, that racism is alive and well. Erin wants others to know that “we need support too.” She says that more multicultural support groups are needed. Michelle agrees, stating that these resources do exist at the school her kids go to, but they are not well publicized, meaning not everyone knows about them or trusts them.
I live in a majority White area. There are less than five children of color in my daughter’s entire elementary school. For years now, I have heard more than one White parent say they do not talk to their children about race “because that will call attention to it.” There is a ton of data to debunk that theory, stating that even babies can recognize different races, and that by not talking about it, you actually create a culture that perpetuates the idea that other races are “not ok.” This is a luxury only afforded to White parents, by the way. White children who do not understand racism certainly suffer (for one, they cannot be part of any change for the better) but it will not kill them. If you are White and live where I do you can absolutely be completely ignorant about systemic racism and not have to face it in any way.
When George Floyd died and the riots started, I told my husband we had to talk to our children about what was happening. I didn’t want to. It was sad and terrible and I knew it would scare them. But then I thought about how Black families do not have this luxury. They have no choice but to talk to their children about racism is an effort to keep them safe.
All of the mothers I interviewed echoed this. Erin stated that “there are things we have to talk about that other races don’t.” “Black children think that they’re privileged too,” says Natalia, “you have to tell them that they’re not.” She continues, “we have to have conversations with our kids about their race before we even talk about the police.” Jayme agrees, stating that she has to talk to her sons about how “being a Black boy means you have a target on your back.”
Michelle’s response was especially telling with regards to privilege. She tells me that she’s learned over the years from various experiences to keep her hands on her knees and verbalize every move she makes when she’s in the presence of the police. This is something she’s taught her sons, also adding, “Do not resist. Get arrested if you have to. I need you alive.” She also shared that on road trips, they no longer stop in small rural towns after an incident in Easton several years ago where the store owner accused her son of stealing. She says they purposely plan to stop in larger cities where they aren’t the only faces of color.
As a mother, I know that we all have fears. I can remember the first night my husband and I were left alone with our oldest daughter. She wouldn’t stop crying and I turned to my husband and said, “what have we done?” I remember thinking, “who thought we were old enough to take care of this baby?” I was afraid I didn’t know how to be a mother. But have I been afraid for the lives of my children on a daily basis? Am I afraid to let them play outside? No, I am not.
All of the moms I interviewed cited losing their children among their biggest fears. Jess stated that she is terrified in particular of having a Black son one day. “He’s cute until he’s 12,” she says, a sentiment echoed by literally every Black mom I spoke to. They seem to know their children have an expiration date on their cuteness, a point where they go from innocent to threatening. Erin fears the same, that her son will be judged as a threat for what he looks like. She also fears that despite all the discussions about race we are having right now as a society, policy change will still not happen.
Jayme says she worries about her children everyday. Natalia knows that sex trafficking happens at a much higher rate for Black girls (in one study, 40% of all sex trafficking victims were Black women). Shizuko worries about her children not being given a chance for no other reason than the color of their skin. Michelle worries in particular because one of her sons “likes to ask questions and talk back.” She says that he’s also a big kid and “looks intimidating.” She’s scared for him to drive, scared for what might happen if he’s pulled over and doesn’t follow directions exactly.
Despite all of this, all of these women stated that they have many joys and they love being a mom. Natalia, Shizuko, and Erin stated that their joys “are the same as any other mother” – watching their children grow and change, seeing them learn things they never learned, and teaching them. Many shared that they feel it is the most important job they have ever been given and they are so honored to get to do it. Jesska stated that she is hopeful her daughter will love her skin and her hair, something that she herself has had to learn to do. “I am so hopeful that things are changing, that we’re having conversations we didn’t have when I was a kid,” she says.
Jayme shared that her biggest joy is that her children are alive and that they are hers. Michelle stated that she loves the great conversations she gets to have as the dynamic between her and her children change with age. Natalia says that “in spite of all the struggles and worries, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else”
Now, if you’ve read all of this series and you’re saying to yourself, “I have Black friends. None of them have expressed feeling this way to me,” I want you to consider something. These are not things that Black people regularly discuss in mixed company. For one, they risk having their experience questioned. Questions like “well, what were you doing?” or “I’m sure there’s another explanation for that” abound. Their experiences are discounted on the regular, explained away as something else, as anything else, then the color of their skin. Would you share experiences with someone who is going to try to convince you that what you experienced didn’t happen the way that you know it did? I know I wouldn’t.
In essence, if you have never heard any of these things from your Black friends, you, my friend, may not be a safe person. That might be hard to hear, but you need to hear it. You need to hear it and think about it and make some changes around it. If you love your Black friends, you need to spend time listening to and believing them. Racism is not solely being actively mean. Just because you don’t use the N-word or chant “white power” or believe in segregation doesn’t mean you aren’t racist. Questioning the experiences of your Black friends is racist. Telling Black people they’re playing the race card is racist. Another really hard fact? You may never be a safe person. I know, I know, this one hurts me too. But Black people have been hurt so badly by White people for so long that some of them will just never feel very comfortable around them. It may not be you personally, but what you represent. This isn’t about you, so take those hurt feelings elsewhere.
The most powerful thing I learned in this experience? During my interview with Jess she said to me,
You don’t want to believe that these things are happening to you because you are Black. You want to think that it’s because you’re a woman or because you were just in the wrong place. But at the end of the day, nothing else makes sense.
The idea of “playing the race card” is one I’ve heard my whole life. Over and over again, these six women all said the same thing – they don’t want to believe that they are being treated this way because of their race. But what else are they to believe when nothing else makes sense? When their White friends do not have the same experiences? It’s a type of gas lighting really, when you know that something is happening but everyone around you is telling you it isn’t.
When I decided to start this series, I asked six women to share their stories. I didn’t ask women that I worked with, or women that I knew had trauma. Two of them are sisters of a good friend of mine, but I haven’t seen them in years and I’ve never asked them questions like this. They didn’t know my questions ahead of time.. It was truly a random sample of women with multiple backgrounds, geographical locations, and education. If these women had this many horrific stories to be told, how many more women have the same stories? How many women out there are reading this and nodding their heads?
One of my very best friends and I were having a conversation recently about society and change. She grew up in the South and moved to Maryland after she finished college. It was a different world for her. She had been questioning things she learned growing up for some time by then, but living in a more liberal state allowed her to take those tiny, nagging thoughts and hold a light up to them. This light allowed for change. It allowed for growth. It allowed her to think about what she really thought about things and not just what she was raised to think. We were talking about change and if people are able to change without having “a stake in it” so to speak. Like, if you don’t have gay friends, do you care about gay rights? If you don’t personally know any Black women, do you care about any of the stories I just presented to you? And I mean that genuinely, not in a judgemental way. Are we able to really care about things we do not have personal experience in? And if the answer is no, then why? My friend asked me, “Are we still so scared to be kicked out of the closed minded society we grew up in that we can’t let ourselves change?” Let ourselves change. Change as a choice. Change as an action.
I present to you, friends, that we can. Maybe you didn’t know any of the things I have presented to you over the month. Maybe you did but you didn’t want to believe them. Maybe you are seeking to understand. Maybe (if you’re White) this is all really uncomfortable for you to read. That is ok. No one said our experiences were all going to feel good or feel comfortable.
Recently, my children were watching one of their favorite tv shows and in it, the two main characters decided to go to different colleges because they wanted to pursue different things. I remarked that this was a really good thing and my oldest didn’t understand. They were sad. They weren’t going to know anyone. They were best friends – shouldn’t they do everything together? I told her no, we don’t grow that way. In order to grow, in order to change, we have to do hard things. Growing, really growing, hurts. I will tell you that I’ve been working on these blogs for over a month and it was really hard. I didn’t always enjoy it like I usually enjoy writing. Some of these women are my friends; it was hard to sit with their pain.
So, are you growing? Are you listening? Are you actively seeking understanding and change? Are you teaching your kids to grow, to listen, to sit with the hard and the painful? Are you choosing change as a choice?
Thank you so much to these women for sharing their experiences with me. I know that opening up with a privileged White woman like myself is the height of vulnerability. I understand it takes so much emotional weight. There were tears and pain in this process. I understand that it is no small thing. I am beyond grateful for that sacrifice.
And thank you especially to Dereka, my friend of twenty years (how has it been 20 years?!) It is because of you that I know I can ask questions and be curious. That curiosity has always been met with love and understanding and never ever shame. That is also no small thing. I love you for that.
If you have enjoyed this series and you want to learn more about white fragility, racism, and your part in seeking to end both, here are some great books and podcasts we recommend you check out.
Erin Newton has been working with individuals and families for almost nine years now. She specializes in perinatal mental health, birth trauma, and anxiety related issues. She strives to help her clients feel seen, heard, understood and to give them the tools they need to start their own journey of healing.
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