There’s a premium on respectability in communities of color. We hear it in the frequent sermonizing our families, neighborhoods, civic organizations and churches champion daily: Pull up your pants! Get a college education! Get off welfare! Too many baby showers; not enough weddings!
Don’t embarrass us.
In any community where the positing of an “us” and “them” dichotomy is common, there’s no end to the ways in which its members seek to distinguish themselves as “better” than one another. Being “respectable” is then classified according to physical appearance, language, personality traits, behavior, class, and social/situational circumstance.
In her brilliant Bitch magazine essay, “No Disrespect,” writer Tami Winfrey Harris says it best:
.. Black women, particularly those in the public eye [...] are required to be noble examples of black excellence. To be better. To be respectable. And the bounds of respectability are narrowly defined by professional and personal choices reflecting the social mores of the majority culture—patriarchal, Judeo-Christian, heteronormative, and middle class.
Indeed, black women may feel a constant and suffocating pressure to be viewed as “deserving” of respect–not just from men, but from each other. In the past few years, as mainstream media’s focus on black single mothers has intensified, our defenses have also heightened. We may feel goaded into defending or explaining our choices and somehow distinguishing ourselves from the stigma of “single mother” as a pejorative label.
In so doing, we may find ourselves caught in the age-old web of Othering that blights the black community at large.
Beyond Baby Mamas is an organization in its infancy and as its founder, the mother of a daughter who’s only two years old, I’m still fairly new to single motherhood. But I entered the fray at the height of public curiosity with and scrutiny of black single moms. There are a few things I’ve noticed as a result of it.
Part of the reason I decided to start BBM is to unite mothers of color, regardless of how they came to be single. Every day since our inception has been illuminating. Some of us are inclined to define ourselves primarily by relationship status: divorced; widowed; unpartnered and never married; partnered and never married. Our willingness to bear the scarlet SM is contingent upon status; divorce and widowhood take precedence over mothering “out of wedlock.”
We often hear women disclaim single motherhood by insisting, “I’m not the typical single mother.” But typical, of course, means stereotypical. There are too many individuating circumstances and personalities that exist for there to be one predominant “type” of single mom.
What we want desperately to resist is being “lumped in” with the culture’s stereotypes of black single mothers: as impoverished social service recipients (or defrauders); as moms of multiple children by more than one partner; as uneducated women with minimal career prospects; as unmarriageable; as — you guessed it — not respectable.
It’s a very real concern, this idea that our singleness makes us morally suspect and thereby deserving of cynicism, rather than support. We’ve seen firsthand that no level of success or wealth insulates black single mothers from criticism and, subsequently, from a compulsion to defend themselves. Winfrey points to an epic example of celebrity black single mom shaming, as proof of this:
When neo-soul singer Erykah Badu announced her third pregnancy in 2008, some fans attacked her for having children outside of marriage with more than one father. One online commenter labeled the singer, known for rocking a mega ’fro, “trash with great hair.” A Zimbio.com article that referred to Badu’s “growing list of baby daddies” featured a “Knocked Up Again” headline. A blog article wondered baldly if the singer was “a ho.” She was derided as a poor example of black womanhood. The storm got so heavy that Badu bit back in a lengthy and poetically unapologetic online post about her family that ended with an entreaty to “Kiss my placenta.”
Though Badu is “unapologetic” (as she should be, since the public is owed no apology for her decision to mother), she does deem it necessary to publicly defend the circumstances under which she made her partnering and parenting choices:
every relationship i have been in was because i loved the person DEARLY and was dedicated to us “exclusively” FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS.
the fathers of my children are my brothers and friends.
we have a great deal of respect for one another and always will.
WE LOVE OUR CHILDREN TO NO END.
we took our own “vows” and CONTINUE TO UPHOLD THEM.
AND THAT IS WHAT THAT IS .
Caps Lock emphasis on “a number of years” and the shared love and responsibility of co-parenting is Badu’s.
I’ve certainly fallen prey to these kinds of defenses. Depending on my audience, I may be quick to emphasize my level of education or the length of time I was with the father of my child or the fact that I have a co-parent at all.
But over time, I’m becoming less inclined to do so–as those qualifiers are a participation in the Othering that occurs among single mothers. And I want to actively resist perpetuating those distinctions. They mean so little.
Whether we share responsibility with a noncustodial parent or bear the brunt of parenthood’s demands all by ourselves; whether we earn a middle-class wage or minimum wage; whether we avail ourselves of necessary social services or decline them (even when we need them); whether we have two children with one partner or four children with three, when we are doing our absolute best to provide love, care, and comfort to our children, we are respectable. When we prioritize our children’s needs and honor them in our decision-making, we are respectable. When we resist their premature educational or behavioral labeling and battle for an improved quality of education, we are respectable.
Ultimately, the only respect that should matter to us is our respect for ourselves. But if we should expect to find it in community, we should be able to find it among each other first. Single mothers of color, regardless of how they’ve come to be single or how they navigate the challenges of unmarried parenting, should pay each other the same respect we desire from others. And the best way to exercise that is to resist comparison and distancing.
What do you think? Do single moms of color “other” one another? Have you been on the receiving end of it?