In feminist circles there is often commentary regarding our shared experiences as women. What is ignored is that though certain situations are similar based solely in gender, quite often we experience them differently when there is a race or class intersection. As mothers our capacity to love our children is boundless, but this is not nearly the universalizing experience as presented by most forms of media, or mainstream feminism. All mothers are not created equal. For the middle/upper class white woman, with her mini van and Prada purses there are plenty of visible representations of positive motherhood. If however you are a woman of color, the erasure in the discourse of motherhood is totalizing.
Women of color are not constructed as mothers; they are presented as irresponsible breeders who did not have the decency not to burden society with their offspring. Their right to reproduce is continually challenged because a capitalist economy does not encourage production without an obvious profit. The reality of the situation is, if a child grows in a poor household despite the pull yourself up by the boots rhetoric, they are most likely to grow into poor adults trapped by a system that has refused to give them equal opportunity from birth.
The mother/breeder binary is readily obvious in most parenting magazines. The stories are often written by white women of the privileged class, while the lived experiences of women of color are absent from the pages. Despite the courage and strength of will that is necessary to raise a child, when you exist as a marginalized body your stories are not deemed compelling, or marketable. Women of color are meant to serve as “mothers helpers,” not exist as actual mothers.
As the elite rush off to mommy and me gatherings in between scheduling for their high intensity careers, what is ignored is that the option to pursue such a range of possibility only exists because of the ability to exploit another woman. Poor so-called third world women who are often separated from their families function as an invisible support staff, permitting women of the privileged class to announce that yes Virginia, we can have it all.
These elite women are often presented by feminism as having benefitting from the legacy of women’s organizing struggles. The question then becomes, was it the goal to emancipate all women, or endow women of a certain class and race with the ability to exploit in the same fashion as white males? While Betty Friedan was writing about the gilded cage, women of color where already employed within the homes as domestic servants to white women that claimed to be imprisoned. For some it was the drudgery of domestic labour to feed their families, and for others it was a prison of the intellect.
Women of colour have experienced motherhood in unique ways. For the elite pregnancy often meant a time of reduced labour, but for the slave physical labour continued on in the fields. The faith and confidence with which a white mother bonded with her child was not accorded to the black female slave, at any moment her precious child could be sold away from her forever.
Even at the end of slavery, social workers continued the trend of destroying familial links for people of color. Native children were often stolen from their parents in what was considered benign friendship. The wombs that bore them were considered unfit to raise them. Their intuitive ways were not considered acceptable in a society that now encouraged scientific home management. What was this but the brutal repression of a culture in the name of uplifting a race?
Black families underwent the same sort of relocation plans. After a day of cooking and cleaning in white homes, when black women returned to their own family settings they were often too exhausted to provide the same form of care that they had given the white children under their charge. Often angry from the ill treatment and the daily debasement at the hands of her white employers, her children in whose name she daily laboured bore the brunt of her frustrations in the form of physical and mental abuse. Instead of seeking to diminish the responsibilities of these women, or search for a common bond based in their shared humanity, social workers removed black children from their mothers and placed them in the foster care system. In The biography of Malcolm X he relates the pain of being separated from his siblings and his mother after the murder of his father. Dick Gregory has also spoken openly of the harassment of his mother by social workers under the guise of child safety.
A poor working/under class mother of color faces the stigmatizations of gender, class and race; therefore their prescriptions on the idealized family unit could never be applicable. Deciding that one is an unfit mother for being unable to provide a home with heat, or a cupboard that is always stocked with the finest possible nutritional elements is not a reflection of motherhood, rather it is a physical testimony to the imbalanced racist, patriarchal, capitalist state, that seeks to profit from the exploitation and marginalization of poor women of color. That these social workers who invaded the spaces of women of color could not acknowledge the ways in which the very system that provided their employment created the living conditions at which they were so aghast, is a sign of unacknowledged white privilege. Whiteness will not see its own culpability in maintaining the hierarchy that has served to support the politics of so –called benign aid.
The white woman as expert on motherhood continued to be a model that was maintained. When we examine the sterilization of Indigenous women and Black women, the reason offered was to save us from our own biology. Unlike the pure sexuality that has been constructed for white women, women of color could not be trusted to choose when reproduction was appropriate and desirable. It was often theorized that we were overcome by our supposedly natural hyper sexuality. In many cases the women were denied informed consent and were sterilized against their will. Since reproduction is tied to womanhood in many Indigenous tribes, not only was the ability to become a mother removed but so was their female identity. To this very day many Indigenous women go without vital medical treatment for fear that their bodies will be violated once again by the medical establishment.
The purposeful sterilization of women along race and class lines amounts to a form of genocide. Programs like this were endorsed by women like Margaret Sanger. While the ability to choose is of paramount importance in the life of a woman as it endows her with agency in terms of reproduction and autonomy over her own body, such standards were not universally applied. The children of women of color were deemed a plague upon society for conditions that were not of their own making. Instead of examining the social markers like race, class and gender that lead to the issues that poor children of color face, sterilization was employed as the great equalizer. This was clearly an erroneous policy, as wealth and race advantage does not endow the body with anymore maternal instinct than destitution and race.
The demonization of poor mothers continues to this day. That the system is inherently imbalanced is not considered in the effort to justify the supposed failings of mothers of color as naturally occurring. When representative LaBruzzo offered one thousand dollars to women as a reward for submitting to sterilization this represented yet another attempt on the part of the elite white bourgeoisie to attack the poor and bodies of color. Eugenics has always been aimed at the most vulnerable members of society. When one considers his connection with David Duke the intention to secure white supremacy behind this proposal can hardly be denied. While his suggestion was attacked by the media, his ability to even offer it as a solution to the problems that are faced by poor women of color, is predicated on the historical disavowal of the legitimacy of our motherhood.
Our child rearing efforts are only noteworthy when they are performed in the maintenance of white supremacy. When mammy nurtures the white children under her care, though infantilized, she is considered a necessary cog for the maintenance of functional reproduction. In the ultimate form of betrayal she will one day witness the white children she was forced to nurture, instead of the fruit of her womb due to economic and racial disenfranchisement, apply their unearned racial privilege to her. In the end despite her efforts mammy is despised by all.
From the moment black women set foot in America in chains the entire experience of our motherhood and femininity has been complicated by the desire of whites to assert a hierarchy in which we are firmly located at the bottom. From mammy to jezebel to sapphire our roles continue to be constructed in complete absence of any recognition of our shared humanity. Sojourner Truth once famously asked ain’t I a woman, and today her daughters are still waiting on a response.