In the New York Times Sunday Review, Ylonda Gault Caviness writes from the perspective of a black mom. Black moms have become all the rage, following Toya Graham’s smacking her son upside his head for donning a hood and engaging in the Baltimore protest. She was on all the morning shows, because she’s the sort of black mom that white folks like.
Did she need to smack him upside his head? I don’t know. But she was doing what she felt she had to. “I didn’t want to see him become another Freddie Gray.”
And that’s what moms do, what they feel they have to. But that’s where black moms and white moms tend to diverge.
I FEEL sorry for the others. You know those mothers: the highly informed, professionally accomplished — usually white — women who, judging by the mommy blog fodder, daytime TV, and new parenting guides lining store shelves, are apparently panicking all day, every day, over modern child rearing and everything that comes with it. They feel compelled to praise their kids, but fret the dosage. They worry about pesticides; this year’s best birthday-party theme; enrichment summer camps; preparing Johnnie for college admissions in 2025 (it’s never too early); and, of course, the biggie — keeping their kids happy.
These are the concerns of white moms. They are big buyers of bubble wrap, for fear that Harvard won’t want bruised babies.
Thankfully, I am a black mom. Like many of my fellow sisters, I don’t have time for all that foolishness. Our charge is to raise — notice I did not say “parent” — our children in a way that prepares them for a world that, at best, may well overlook their awesomeness and, at worst, may seek to destroy it.
By “overlook their awesomeness and, at worst, may seek to destroy it,” she might mean anything from toss them against a wall before arresting them for existing to severing their spine. It’s hard to know exactly what’s meant by euphemistic writing. But if I had to guess, I think she means keep her child alive and relatively intact so that her child can live a relatively happy and fulfilling life. Whether Harvard is part of it isn’t the primary concern, since Harvard rarely accepts convicted criminals or dead kids.
Much as I’m an old white guy, Caviness’ explanation of a black mom’s concerns strikes me as unduly kind. When we speak of the black experience in America, it comes at us from a distance. Guys like Charles Blow couch issues from an oddly erudite perspective.
Us white folk think of the problems as poor, uneducated, single-parent black kids in the ghetto. Sure, we know there are educated, successful, brilliant, talented black people, but they are these weird anomalies to us. We know individual black people, and we like and respect them, but they’re not “those people,” but our friends. There is a tacit disconnect between the “good ones” and the kids on the street in the hood.
What we rarely think about is that even the “good” black people, the ones who are smarter and more successful than we are, still have some mall cop staring at them in Nordstrom because they’re sure they’re going to shoplift something. Because, you know, black.
No matter how many blacks we know, or like, or respect, or interact with, the prejudice is still there. We don’t live their lives, because we don’t have to wake up every morning with the presumption that our skin color explains why we’re probably going to do drugs, rape or steal.
I’m no less prejudiced than any other white person, and that realization hits home every day, but especially when I read (and write) about another black man killed. I don’t fear the police. I don’t assume that by making eye contact with a cop, there’s a fair chance he’ll arrest me or kill me.
The “trick” isn’t to believe that you’re not prejudiced, but to try to keep it in as much check as you can. When I walk into a store, a salesperson will be obsequious to me. Phony, of course, but salespersonish. The salesperson will not ask me to leave or he’ll call the police.
The difference in life experience for a mom reminds me of Herzberg’s hygiene-motivator factors, as do many things, but I digress. There is the upside, the downside and the neutral. For the white mom, they seek to control their child’s world to move it from neutral to the upside, the happy child and the Harvard admission. For the black mom, they seek to control their child’s world to keep it from falling from neutral to the downside, arrest and death.
It’s not that black moms don’t want happy children, but that they are more concerned with having living children. It’s not that black moms don’t want their babies going to Harvard (right, Mrs. Mystal?), but that they are more concerned that their babies aren’t going to Rikers.
By no means is this an endorsement of the #WhiteWorldProblems, as if the obsessive need to bubble wrap junior is the right approach to child-rearing (note I didn’t say parenting), but when a mother’s fear of one-in-ten-million harms like the child-snatcher is more pressing than the potential one-in-three chance of being incarcerated, the difference in approach is manifest.
Only a foolish mother would risk boosting her child’s self-esteem to the point where he might be perceived as uppity by whites. Tough love is what it’s called today. Back then, it was the only love that could keep a black kid safe.
All moms want to keep their kids safe. Dads too, but that opens up another can of worms. Safe from what is the difference, and it shouldn’t be.
* This is my variation on #FirstWorldProblems, just so you know.