Black motherhood is a beautiful thing, yet many of us have our full armor on each day. The Reproductive Justice (RJ) movement and framework state that Black women have the right to mother however we choose—by foster and adoption systems, surrogacy, teen pregnancy, or as the auntie in the community—in safe and sustainable communities. And achieving reproductive justice requires that we center the most marginalized Black mothers—the Black mamas most targeted by society.
The RJ movement and framework exists because we live in a world where Black mothers can be criminalized for still having their hair bonnets on while taking their children to school. We sometimes censor ourselves by making sure we look a certain way before leaving the house. We mute our hand gestures when we speak to authority figures. And we teach our children how to avoid police officers at all costs—and give them the “talk” about what to do if they encounter them.
But those talks still don’t quite prepare them for the wrath of hateful individuals, like the white supremacists that murdered Ahmaud Arbery while he was minding his business exercising.
Always being on watch for who is watching us is exhausting, making Black women hyper-vigilant and possibly desensitized to the tools that systems have created and weaponized against Black families. But, with so many stereotypes surrounding who society wants us to be and how we need to act to receive approval, where can we exercise our agency?
Child Protective Services is used as a bargaining chip against Black families, called when we are considered too loud or too strict. MST (Multisystemic Therapy) Services reports that while Black families in child welfare services were assessed with lower risk scores than White families, they had a nearly two-fold greater likelihood of investigation and removal from their homes, according to 2018 analysis from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Further, according to Working Towards Racial Equity in Child Welfare: The San Francisco County Disproportionality Project, “forty percent of all reports on African American youth are made by non-mandated reporters, and on parents in areas with housing projects.”
This level of devastation undermines mothers across the country, mothers whose situation may not deserve such punitive measures. And, tragically, the vilification of Black motherhood begins prior to a child even being born.
In the medical system, for example, a birthing person can ask detailed information about the effects of pain medication to best direct their own birth experience. However, provider bias can then consider them drug-seeking. In the carceral system, mothers fight for their human rights to birth unshackled and breastfeed their infants.
White supremacy and, subsequently, racial prejudice and implicit bias have created this toxic environment where demanding what we need is a threat to the status quo. Therefore, our demands and expectations are ignored and belittled by schools, the state, and even our so-called neighbors—often in communities where Black mamas—and Black motherhood—is scapegoated for poverty or community disinvestment.
We know better, though; the shame is not ours.
We don’t have to burden ourselves or give credence to racist rhetoric that seeks to harm us. We can nourish and sustain communities that allow us to live self-determined lives without fear, discrimination, or retaliation. New worlds are possible.
And evading systems that have been overseeing us and our families for generations is critical to our freedom.