Videos of Black parents beating up on their children should not be entertaining. But I guess it’s easier to laugh at our own pain than to examine it.
TW: Child abuse
There was a viral video that went around last weekend, which I still haven’t watched completely, where a Black mother was hitting and screaming at her daughter. A huge debate rose up about whether or not she was justified in hitting the child, who was supposedly being disrespectful.
There were tweets about how horrible Black parents are in general, and also tweet threads condemning the abuse. But there were many who defended the mother’s behavior, on the grounds that the child was disrespectful and also the common sentiment, “My mother/parent would have done worse.” I couldn’t even watch the whole video.
All I saw was the mother square up on a skinny child and I was done. Done because I have had my mother square up on me in a similar manner several times in my life. There’s never a real reason for it. The child walked away and the mother chased and antagonized her. I didn’t stay to hear her call the girl a bitch, but others did.
I grew up in an abusive family, but we never called it abuse because that was “dramatic.” When my mother put us out in the cold because of some nonsensical kid error, when I tried to run away after she put me out at age eleven with no shoes, that story, and similar traumatic incidents, became comedic fodder at family barbecues. I didn’t even know it wasn’t healthy or normal until I began speaking on my experiences to other people as a teenager.
I suspect that my mother was depressed. She was a single mother of three. She was verbally and emotionally abusive, sometimes physical, but rarely. My extended family condoned abuse and were also abusive themselves in various ways. We, as children, were not allowed to talk about it. We were not allowed to speak negatively about our mother.
We pick and choose what we recognize as abuse. Indeed, if it isn’t physical we almost always tend to ignore it. With children, it has to be “extreme” as well. If there are bruises we find that unacceptable. But if it’s “just a whooping” or if the child is resisting–it was justified? Children are not supposed to resist. And what exactly does that mean in Black families? Why do we expect our children to be silent? Why do we consider obedience to be one of the highest merits of a small Black person? Why do we laugh or dismiss people when the subject of children’s rights comes up?
My mother thinks that the reason my son needs to learn obedience is so that he doesn’t end up dead. This is a common fear for Black mothers, who have a high rate of becoming single mothers, primary parents. We want our children to be respectable, and silent. Actually, I would say obedience is the most pushed and most prized quality across the board no matter the race. But it means something different to Black children who will face racism and sexism and have been taught their whole lives not to resist and to obey authority.
Children like me are often silenced because of learned/reflexive Black respectability. Even I feel a way about calling out Black mothers who are often scapegoated within our community as the cause of our own abuse as well as the follies of Black men.
In “Mapping the Margins” Kimberlé Crenshaw discusses how a lot of Black people believe that bringing up Black male violence will stoke anti-Black hatred and justify our substandard treatment. In a similar manner, we are often taught to bury instances of abuse, whether maternal or otherwise, to protect the race or the family’s reputation.
Maternal abuse is still somewhat taboo to talk about – Black men tend to use it to blame Black mothers for Black male violence and misogynoir. Stacey Patton did this in a similar way in a 2015 article questioning if Black mothers are beating our sons into misogyny.
Simplification of such a broad and important issue – which touches on not only child abuse, but economic inequality, lack of childcare and resources, the criminalization of Black mothers and the role of the state (foster care), and lack of adequate mental health for poorer mothers – prevents us from helping and understanding both mother and child.
I say this as a single mother who is struggling with depression, breaking the cycle of abuse, and having very little support: there are many reasons the rate of child abuse is so high in our community. It is a very important issue that needs to be discussed openly. We have so much research on spanking and hitting children that prove it to be ineffective. But obviously, there is more work to be done.
For my part, I stopped at one child. I knew I only had the emotional capacity to give this much of myself once, at least at this point in my life. Conscious parenting is difficult when one is used to emotional neglect. I am dealing with my own mental health issues and the weight of poverty and lack in a lot of areas. One child is manageable for me.
I am working on building a better support system. I have minimal support right now from my mother, but I would like to build my own chosen network over the next few years. I think having that extra support is key to surviving single motherhood, but it’s difficult because some of us come from not-so-healthy families, and end up having to compromise (like me) in order to have help. Also: I allow my son to have a voice. He is still very young, but I want him to know his opinions matter. I listen to him when he talks to me. I teach him about boundaries and I don’t disparage his likes/dislikes or try to map out his future for him. He is homeschooled and we mostly unschool, with him leading the way with his interests and me as a facilitator. He is allowed his secrets, and his space.
Children’s rights are a definite part of womanist rhetoric, and hitting a child is indefensible, yet even some self-proclaimed womanists hold onto the belief that sometimes a child “deserves” to be hit or, “Some kids just need to be hit.”
Until we come around to the idea that children are autonomous beings with agency and rights, fighting child abuse will continue to be an uphill battle. Videos of Black parents beating up on their children should not be entertaining. But I guess it’s easier to laugh at our own pain than to examine it.
Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453)
Darkness to Light 866.FOR.LIGHT (866.367.5444) (For: Child Sexual Abuse)
National Parent Helpline® 855.4APARENT (855.427.2736) (available 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., PST, weekdays) (For Parents and caregivers who need emotional support & links to resources)
For additional hotlines and resources, please visit the Child Welfare Information Gateway.