What comes to mind when you picture a mother? For many people, the concept of motherhood, and by extension of a family, is associated with whiteness. We spoke with Nefertiti Austin about her memoir, Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting in America, the reality of Black women looking to publicly adopt and how she settled into her identity as a Black mother without appeasing societal or cultural expectations.
Your book discusses not only your personal experience of becoming a single parent but the absence of positive representation of Black motherhood. How can Black motherhood be a radical act?
The fact that Black women continue to pursue motherhood despite our history in America is definitely a radical act. Brought here in chains, we were property and so were our children, but we persevered. Even when we were denied access to our kids or forced to nurse and nurture white children, we created a village of grandparents, elders, siblings, neighbors and friends who became family to keep our kids safe. At every juncture, we have laid claim to our offspring, whether or not we gave birth to them, knowing that slavery, segregation, discrimination, criminalization, sexism, homophobia, racism and erasure are no match for a Black mom’s love.
What is the most surprising thing you learned about yourself while on the journey to adopt your son, August? How was this self-revelation different from your experience adopting your daughter, Cherish?
Before becoming a mother, I never considered giving up my free-spirited ways. I was accustomed to coming and going as I pleased, but once the decision to adopt took hold, I realized that I was ready for a more routine-driven existence. Overnight, my life expanded to include carpool, sports and family time; and I was good with that. When my daughter came along, she easily blended into the mix.
One of Toni Morrison’s many nuggets of wisdom includes the quote, “The very serious function of racism . . . is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.” How do racism and, by extension, the white gaze prevent Black mothers from simply being mothers?
Though Black motherhood has often been diminished, we are still mothers. Racism makes our jobs harder because it adds another layer of stress and worry about the emotional and physical safety of our children, but it doesn’t stop us from teaching our kids to tie their shoes. We are primarily focused on loving and caring for our families and less concerned with the white gaze, unless it interferes with their welfare. Then, you will hear from us.
What was the most challenging part of writing your memoir? Did having a blog make it easier to assemble and write a full-length book?
The most challenging part of writing my memoir was being vulnerable. In order to share my story and convey the sensitivity that I feel as a Black mother raising Black children in America, I had to shed layers. I had to remove my academic hat and be open to divulge how I felt different from my peers as a child, to discuss my father’s persistent incarceration and accept that I didn’t know my mother in an intimate sense.
I definitely thought my now-defunct blog, Mommiejonesing, would make writing my memoir a breeze. I had assembled a lot of articles written by others and myself on the subject of race, motherhood and adoption. I was armed with information but no feelings beyond outrage and disgust. Plus, I was writing from a distance, and that would have kept the reader from understanding the problem of erasing Black mothers from the parenting canon. In the end, much of what I blogged about did not make it into the book.
Your book opens with you taking 5-year-old August to a Black Lives Matter rally. You discuss the very real mixture of fear and anxiety that comes with being a mother to a young Black boy in America. How does white privilege contribute to and sustain the accelerated loss of innocence for Black children?
White privilege gifts white children with a shield that blots out the ugliness of the world. They get to be kids, where mistakes are encouraged and then forgiven. They get to live moment to moment without fear that someone hates/fears/despises them because of their race. This is the power of white privilege.
Simultaneously, Black parents do not have the luxury of not teaching our children about the perniciousness of racism and how, despite best efforts, microagressions and random acts of discrimination will come their way. Our children learn to code switch (act one way with us and another way with whites) and what to do if detained by the police or surveilled by merchants—early. These lessons—i.e., innocence-snatchers—occur as early as 5 years old, because white privilege perpetuates a system with the deck stacked against us. These are our gifts to Black children to keep them safe.
In the chapter “Building My Village,” you write, “It had never occurred to me that there was an expectation for little boys to adhere to a specific masculine salutation.” How does the myth of Black hypermasculinity work in conjunction with toxic masculinity? And how can it finally become obsolete?
Personal and emotional safety is a huge issue in our community. Showing fear can be death in some spaces, so emotion or affection between men is not promoted. However, expecting boys to remain in a man box, where not showing emotion or admitting to hurt and acting like nothing touches them, is heralded as masculine and is extremely problematic. It is toxic and a recipe for a shortened life, troubled relationships and mental illness. Plus, it plays into the stereotype of the hypermasculine Black man who needs to be put down by force. We saw this in the case of Rodney King.
As long as systemic racism, mass incarceration, gangs, drugs, poverty, homelessness, unemployment, poor health, undiagnosed PTSD and undereducation prevail where the opposite is true for their white counterparts, Black toxic masculinity isn’t going anywhere.
One of the most pervasive stereotypes about Black women is the “Strong Black Woman.” In the chapter “Got My Sea Legs,” you say, “More than one friend commented that I made parenting look easy, but part of the reason I was exploring on my blog how Black women were faring as mothers was because I was feeling the weight of trying to do everything myself.” For Black mothers, especially single Black mothers, how is there power in the decision to be vulnerable?
Self-care is empowering, and we have to give ourselves permission to ask for help. We are so used to doing everything ourselves that we don’t know how to ask for help or we think that being vulnerable is a sign of weakness or admission that single motherhood was a mistake. So we put pressure on ourselves to just handle things and succumb to the societal pressure of being all things to everybody. Most women, regardless of race, take care of the children, elders and work. It’s too much, and the reality is that Black women’s mental and physical health are taking a nosedive. Heart attacks, autoimmune diseases, cancer, obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes are taking their toll on us in a big way. We suffer when we don’t take care of ourselves or each other.
How can a sense of community benefit adoptive parents? How does it shape the identity of a foster or adopted child?
Adoption communities offer a safe space for families and children. Here, we do not need to prepare an explanation for why we chose adoption. It is understood that we wanted to become parents and viewed adoption as a natural path to achieve that goal.
Kids who spend time with other kids who are adopted see their experience as normal. Among kindred spirits, they can safely share how it feels to be the only adopted child in their class, or how they met their first parents and it went well or didn’t go well. In these spaces, they do not carry the burden of explaining why they don’t look like their (adoptive) parents or why they do look like their parents but are adopted. It frees them to enjoy life as part of a special club.
How do you think the definition of a family has changed in recent years? How has the idea of a “traditional” family excluded marginalized people, especially single Black mothers?
Modern American women are free to define and create family on their terms. We have moved away from believing that a nuclear family—father, mother, 2.5 kids and a dog—is the only way to be a family. Women are less likely to be shamed for having a job or wanting to stay at home with their children. The definition of family has even expanded to include single moms, adoptive families, LGBTQIA family configurations, kinship family dynamics and mixed-raced couples.
Depending on the socioeconomics of a community, sometimes the traditional paradigm of a family was not modeled or available due to poverty, racism, incarceration, unemployment, homelessness, etc. Also, many Black families are multigenerational, with grandparents or other relatives on hand to support the entire household. Our nontraditional familial configurations deem us marginal by mainstream standards, even when we do not.
In the case of white women willing to go it alone and bring a child into the world without a partner, she is often described as badass in mainstream culture. This nod to the independence of white women does not always extend to poor women or women of color. The reason is simple. Black mothers exist at the bottom of the racialized motherhood totem pole, as we are still saddled with negative stereotypes if we’re thought of at all. There are obvious exceptions—Michelle Obama and Serena Williams come to mind—but these ladies are married and have the means to provide stable homes for their families. Single Black women who pursue nontraditional paths to parenthood receive a side-eye from Blacks and whites. It is assumed that homes headed by single Black mothers are poorer, less intellectually stimulating and a breeding ground for children who are prone to delinquency. This racist characterization of single Black mothers suggests that our kids don’t stand a chance.
What has been your favorite Mother’s Day to date?
Mother’s Day 2014 was my hands down favorite because it was the first Mother’s Day I had with both kids. Their godfather and a close friend made brunch: salmon croquettes and waffles, two things I don’t normally eat. No one bothered to ask if I liked either dish, but the effort let me know that I was appreciated.
What has been the best piece of advice you’ve received? On the flip side, what has been the worst, and if applicable, how has it revealed the conscious and/or unconscious racial bias of the speaker?
The best advice I have received is to put my oxygen mask on first. Self-care is critical to my being the best mother possible, and every day I strive to make myself a priority.
The worst advice was that my future baby from the foster care system would be a “crack” baby. The speaker believed the 1990s media frenzy about how the first parents who used crack cocaine would produce babies who would not thrive, would be sickly, would have physical and developmental delays and grow up to be criminals. Of course, this was nonsense, and research later confirmed that foster children who were drug exposed and then placed in stable homes showed no academic or developmental differences by third grade. It all came down to children having a safe, loving and stable home environment. Sadly, this bad advice was not a function of racist unconscious basis but media-sponsored fear and misinformation run amok.
If you could go back and do one thing differently during your adoption journey, would you? And if so, what would it be and why?
My adoption journey had peaks and valleys, but the outcome was two healthy, sweet children. I wouldn’t change a thing.
How do you think the foster and adoptive system can be improved in the U.S.?
One way to improve the foster and adoptive system is to hire additional social workers and reduce their caseloads. Smaller caseloads would serve three purposes: (1) individualized support for first parents, who often unconsciously repeat their own cycles of abuse and neglect and lose custody of their children; (2) better screenings for prospective foster/adoptive parents when family reunification is no longer feasible; and (3) the ability for social workers to really bond with children on their caseload, in order to find the best matches for them.
Do you envision August and/or Cherish reading your memoir when they’re older? What is the most important thing you hope they take away from the book?
Absolutely. August has already tried to read it, but I keep taking it from him. LOL
I hope they know how much I love and admire them. I did my best to make their journeys easier and hope they remember to pay it forward.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Motherhood So White.
Author photo by Bobby Quillard