The Accidental Toxicity of Black Mothers

Random pic of my kid, because shes cute.

Today, as I perused the wall of my facebook page, I came across a video on the Cocoa Butter facebook page titled “24 things every black mom has said”, and it deeply disturbed me. Some of the quotes that stuck out to me were:

· I brought you into this world, I’ll take you out

· When we go into the store- don’t ask me for nothing and don’t touch nothing

· You’d better shut up before I give you something to cry about

· Don’t make me get my belt

· Stay out of grown folks business

· You’d better fix your face before I fix it for you

· You think I’m playing with you?

· Keep talking and I’ll knock the taste out of your mouth

· I am the mama, you are the child.

There were other, harmless, life advice and boundaries setting quotes as well about being home at an appropriate time, denying the child something they want in a way that isn’t abusive or demeaning, but the above quotes stuck out to me because they forced me to pose the following question: Why are we ok with this being the acceptable standard for black motherhood?

I am sure that some people reading this are wondering: What are the issues with the above quotes? I am going to itemize each quote I’ve honed in on and explain exactly what’s wrong with them because I understand how intergenerational cycles of abuse and internalization/ normalization of this abuse works.

“I brought you into this world, I’ll take you out”, “You’d better fix your face before I fix it for you”, “Don’t make me get my belt” ‘You think I’m playing with you?”, “Keep talking and I’ll knock the taste out of your mouth”, You think I’m playing with you?” Each of these quotes bothers me for the same reason. They are threats of violence and tantamount to verbal and mental abuse with a threat (and most time follow-up of) physical violence. This is not normal. This is not ok. As a community, we have normalized these behaviors and physical violence as “good parenting” but decades of empirical international research, across economic lines, racial lines, and borders all have the same conclusion: hitting children as a form of discipline is an ineffective parenting method that creates more long term behavioral/ mental health issues than it solves in the short term. In addition- use of physical violence as a primary means of discipline is most common in socioeconomically impoverished and under/ uneducated communities.

“When we go into the store- don’t ask me for nothing and don’t touch nothing”, “Stay out of grown folks business”. These quotes both bothered me for the same reason. Children are going to ask questions and want to explore the world around them. Of course I understand the frustration of a child wanting something that you don’t have to give at the moment, or a child asking questions that you aren’t prepared to answer- but being aggressive, abrupt, and dismissive of this natural childhood curiosity and natural childhood desires is denying black children of their innocence and right to childhood. Black childhood is important and valid and preserving the innocence and childhood experiences of black children should be the primary duty of black parents. Saying no is a natural part of parenting. Preventing the asking of questions should never be. Children are young and are meant to explore the world around them and as parents- we are their guide to how they see the world.

According to Dr. Philip Atiba, “Children in most societies are considered to be a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection”, but a study conducted in 2014 by Dr. Atiba and Dr Matthew Jackson of UCLA found that black boys are deemed as “less innocent and childlike” than non black boys starting at age 10. A similar study by Georgetown found that black girls are considered less innocent starting at age 5. Dehumanization and denial of childhood innocence is waiting for black children en masse outside the home. It should not exist within it. In my personal experiences, I have witnessed black children receive similar threats for other very childlike things like dirtying their clothing, running, being loud, and making messes. This is not ok and should not be normalized, much less by black parents nor taught to black children as a standard of parenthood.

You’d better shut up before I give you something to cry about”. Denial of black pain and the right of black people to valid emotions is as American as apple pie. Much of modern medical science was researched (without consent) on black slaves. The Tuskegee Experiments and the medical advances from the stolen cells of Henrietta Lacks come to the forefront of my mind. The “father of modern gynecology” J. Marion Sims, notoriously conducted experiments on African slave women without anesthetics because it was widely believed and scientifically accepted that black people do not experience pain in the same way that white people experience pain.

Racial bias in pain perception is an issue that exists to this day. According to a study by Kelly Hoffman, a UVA psychology Ph.D. candidate who led a study on this bias in 2014, “Many previous studies have shown that black Americans are undertreated for pain compared to white Americans, because physicians might assume black patients might abuse the medications or because they might not recognize the pain of their black patients in the first place. Our findings show that beliefs about black-white differences in biology may contribute to this disparity”. Black people are literally dying because of lack of recognition and acknowledgement of our pain. Mental health issues in the black community are also largely ignored and seen as a sign of weakness for this very same issue. Black children have a right to be hurt and to express their hurt. Threats of violence are not conducive to teaching proper coping skills for pain and disappointment. This form of medical racism should not exist in black homes- even if its on a much smaller scale.

I am the mama, you are the child. I hate this quote the most. Yes, you are the mother of the child and thus an automatic authority figure. This does not mean that you are above reproach or question. This does not mean that your child has no right to autonomy. This does not mean that you can never be wrong. This does not mean that you have the right to be a domestic tyrant. You are a mother, not a dictator. Listen to your child. The idea that as the parent you are perfect and infallible is one that I would love to watch die in our community. My child has a say so in my household because this is her life too. I am not perfect and I make mistakes so I am very careful to keep the channels of communication between us open and as a result- my child is willful, intelligent, respectful, independent, and has her own voice. Stop brow beating black children into submission. Children are people too. Treat your child like a person. You would not tell your employee “I am the boss and you are the employee” (or maybe you would depending on if you actually have the balls to attempt to bully other adults or just helpless children in your care- idk). Have some tact, be respectful, and honor your child’s inherent personhood. Oh, and work on your conflict resolution skills. They’re lacking.

So Now What? So- at this point in reading this I’m assuming that one of four things are happening:

· You are aware of these issues and are in agreement.

· You are aware of some of these issues and are researching others, and doing some level of reflection on how your own childhood trauma could be affecting you as an adult.

· You are battling with your cognitive dissonance because you have managed to be a (barely in most cases) functioning adult despite this trauma and you are getting ready to type me a long comment about how all of this toxic nonsense is ok because you “turned out fine”.

· You’re gonna be a contrarian headass and be like “wHaT aBoUt BlAcK fAtHeRs”

If you are person one or two- share this post with more person 3s. If you are person 4 and wish to do your own research and post on the parenting methods of black fathers or lack thereof- please go do that and tag me in it- do not deflect THIS TOPIC. Thank you :).

If you are person 3- you are not fine. I know that that is a hard thing to hear but you are not fine. You are getting ready to type a dissertation in defense of hitting someone less than ¼ your height, size, and weight because they “potentially” “did something wrong”. According to pediatrician Dr Nadine Burke Harris- childhood trauma stays with you forever whether directly or indirectly and it also starts to affect one’s physical health as well.

“The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study was done by Dr. Vince Felitti at Kaiser and Dr. Bob Anda at the CDC.” They found, “Two things — number one, ACEs are incredibly common. Sixty-seven percent of the population had at least one ACE and 12.6 percent, 1 in 8, had four or more ACEs. The second thing that they found was that there was a dose response relationship between ACEs and health outcomes. The higher your ACE score, the worse your health outcomes.

For a person with an ACE score of four or more, their relative risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease was 2.5 times that of someone with an ACE score of zero. For hepatitis, it was also 2.5 times. For depression, it was 4.5 times. For suicidality, it was 12 times. A person with an ACE score of seven or more had triple the lifetime risk of lung cancer. And 3.5 times the risk of ischemic heart disease, the number-one killer in the United States of America. Some people looked at this data and they said, come on, you know, you have a rough childhood, you’re more likely to drink and smoke and do all these things that are going to ruin your health.”

In addition to research by Dr Burke Harris- Dr Bessel van der Kolk- psychologically traumatic events change the physical structure of the brain. Your literal brain was shaped by this trauma is that is why you think that this is ok. You need to be unpacking that, unlearning that, and breaking that cycle for your own children. According to Bessel van der Kolk “When you’re traumatized you’re afraid of what you’re feeling, because your feeling is always terror, or fear or helplessness”. Your brain is literally wired by emotional and physical violence to be in a constant state of terror and uneasiness. This is not normal even if you’ve internalized it to be so as a coping skill.

So… all in all- don’t come here to argue with me… Literally go argue with ya mama.

To other black women- I know that it is hard to hear, but we are breaking our children and leaving them with lifelong trauma. We need to do better. They deserve that.

More Reading:

Black boys viewed as less innocent at age 10: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/03/black-boys-older.aspx

Black girls viewed as less innocent age 5: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/study-black-girls-viewed-as-less-innocent-than-white-girls/2017/06/27/3fbedc32-5ae1-11e7-a9f6-7c3296387341_story.html?utm_term=.5e46a6fa2fed

Childhood trauma wires the brain: http://sideeffectspublicmedia.org/post/childhood-trauma-leads-brains-wired-fear

Trauma stays with you forever:

https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=545092982

racial biases in pain perception: https://news.virginia.edu/content/study-links-disparities-pain-management-racial-bias

the case against spanking: http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/04/spanking.aspx