Nefertiti Austin, a college instructor and writer, got tired of “white privilege’s erasure of Black parenting perspectives and insistence that the word mother automatically meant white.” In Motherhood So White, she tries to produce the book she could never find as a “Black mother liv[ing] in a different America from white mothers,” especially as one addressing “how to handle … becoming a single mother in a country where the term single mother was code for Black, welfare mother” and normalizing an adoption journey when “the available literature excluded us.”
It should come as no surprise then that while Motherhood So White has a wealth of information from which white mothers can learn, it’s not written for me. Austin’s edge is not dulled, her punches not pulled, to make white people more comfortable. Deal with it, and white folks like me can learn something.
The memoir side of Motherhood So White tells, with a matter-of-fact sparseness, of Austin’s father who “never kicked his drug habit and was hooked on heroin when he was murdered in 1991,” of her emotionally and physically distanced mother, and of Austin’s adoptive parents, her grandparents, for whom she expresses a love as solid as the couple were. It includes universal insights about dating (e.g., “I was chasing my elusive, irrepressible, warm-and-fuzzy father, but expecting men to behave like my dependable grandfather”) and human nature. In one of the most moving passages in the book, Austin writes:
If only my parents understood how brave their parents were to ride that wave into the unknown, moving from the segregated South to the west and never looking back. If only my grandparents understood how brave their children were for directly challenging the man and standing up to an unjust, racist, sexist world. The only thing separating them was style. How wonderful it would have been if the four of them could have met in the middle. I guess I was the middle.
But the bulk of Motherhood So White is a manifesto-cum-cultural anthropology lesson.
- In my new skin as mother of a Black boy, I had to think through how we would navigate a world set up to challenge his very existence…. It broke my heart to tell August that no one would look at him and assume he was a train aficionado or catcher for the championship Cardinals. The opposite would be true. White people would see a Black boy and judge him according to their preconceived notions…. [A]s Cherish grew older, she would learn how to carry herself with class and dress age appropriately (and that was not always enough), because Black girls were overly sexualized at a young age and vulnerable to rape and human trafficking. Knowing that microaggressions were not just reserved for Black boys, she would learn to express herself, so as not to be accused of having an attitude or being an angry Black woman for simply rolling her eyes…. August was a Black boy, assumed to be less innocent than he was, and Cherish was a Black girl, thought to be less beautiful, less smart, less kind, less everything.
- My parents got a Black divorce, which meant they physically and emotionally went on with their respective lives, but neither legally filed for divorce. This arrangement was common in the Black community, because a formal divorce involved lawyers, which meant a lot of money had to be spent to make a separation legal. If kids had been produced during a marriage, divorce was a direct pipeline to family court and child support, which could result in a father going to jail for missed payments. Many Black women did not want to see their child’s father imprisoned or buried in so much debt that he couldn’t contribute financially or emotionally to his kids’ lives, and an inherent distrust of the justice system throughout the community made it preferable to handle separations in a more informal way.
- As an adult, I realized that culturally Black people do not question the details of a family’s dynamic, as long as everything was going well.
- When school resumed, I went to the school psychologist. Once again, I was going against the grain, breaking ranks with cultural norms about how Black people handled family drama. White people put all of their business in their street, Black people did not. We’d rather self-medicate with marijuana or alcohol or sex or shopping or perfection or food or suffer in quiet desperation than bare our soul to strangers, especially white ones. That was a no-no, but I had nowhere else to turn. That was not me acting white, it was me trying to untangle my feelings.
- Sometimes I argued back, but mostly my responses were sotto voce. There was no point in engaging foolishness, bless their misogynistic hearts. In addition to getting clowned at work, I got mansplained at the barbershop, which was an environment bursting with diverse male energy…. Now an observer in the ways of men, I surmised that if more Black men had a chance to just be boys during their childhoods, our community would be further along, more cohesive, and self-hatred would have less of a foothold. I was determined that August not become one of those shut-down men or become unapproachable to please an archaic ideal of manhood.
- Too many Black girls dabbled in self-hatred due to a lack of Black female protagonists in literature, television shows, and movies.
Austin indirectly offered me an education, but she also served a lesson straight up:
For my white sisters, Black mothers have a lot of child-rearing experience and plenty to say about the state of preschool, family leave, healthcare, nutrition, bullying, video games, and our socioeconomically segregated school system. If we coalesced around even one of these issues, it would ease the emotional and financial burden of parenting we all experience. Also, be aware of your privilege and seek to build community with all mothers, regardless of race, religion, or socioeconomics.
Stop acting like motherhood is white, she tells us. It isn’t now. It never has been. And it’s much stronger that way.
A truncated version of this review first appeared in the Golden Gate Mothers Group Magazine.