Black And Brown Mums Like Me Are Judged Differently. Here's How I Know

When my parenting was criticised in public, I can only think the colour of my skin played a part in their judgement, writes Dr Pragya Agarwal.
Courtesy of the author
HuffPost UK
Courtesy of the author

Any woman of colour will tell you we get used to being noticed.

My children and I were in a small café by the Liverpool docks when I noticed an elderly couple kept staring at me – and at my kids. Though I began to feel uncomfortable, I tried to think nothing of it when suddenly the elderly lady spoke out, loudly and harshly.

“Get your children to shut up. Now.”

I was stunned. I froze, unable to react. The children were just being children, nothing unusual or disruptive. When my (white) husband, who had been sitting obscured from their view, stood up, their expressions changed. Then so did their tone: more placating and apologetic.

In tears after a lovely day ruined, I tweeted about what happened. My story went viral, but what really surprised me were the responses from white mothers, who told me their ‘really wild’ children (their words, not mine!) had never faced such judgement from strangers in any public place, ever. It was only then that I realised the colour of my skin – and theirs to an extent, though they are ‘white-passing’ – had played a role in this couple’s judgement of us. Did they indeed feel justified in ostracising normal child-like behaviour not just because I am a woman, and also one who is evidently non-white?

As the tweet gained momentum, an American woman came forward to tell me – and others – of the ‘cultural difference’ in how children are brought up. She had several Afghani friends and so she knew very well how they brought up their children to be ‘feral’ and had a more permissive style of parenting. The underlying racism in her tweets were so obvious to me and to others, but she refused to acknowledge she carried any prejudice – she knew someone from the Indian subcontinent so of course she couldn’t hold some racial bias.

“We know mothers are judged for their parenting much more than fathers... However, there is also research that shows women of colour face harsher judgment.”

All this really made me wonder if mothers of colour are judged by a different yardstick. We know mothers are judged for their parenting much more than fathers – they’re scrutinised for every decision they make. Michigan researchers asked 475 mothers of children up to the age of five across the United States about feeling judged for their parenting skills. Some 61% said they had been judged by strangers.

However, there is also research that shows women of colour face harsher judgment from others. Data collected in New Jersey showed that although black children make up just 14% of the child population in New Jersey, they comprise 41% of those entering foster care. A Brookings Institute study showed that a high percentage of families investigated by child-welfare authorities are poor families of colour. It is clear that the underlying racial bias extended to parents, and mothers of colour were being treated differently than white parents by the social care workers. One investigation found that white children in homes with drug use or domestic violence were seen as safer than children in similar situations in minority ethnic communities.

The case of Debra Harrell, a 46-year-old black mother in South Carolina, was a stark reminder of how racial bias leads to a rash assessment of neglect. Harrell was arrested for allowing her nine-year-old daughter to play at the park while she was working at a nearby cafe. Accused of neglecting her child, Harrell spending the night in jail. Her daughter being placed in foster care for 17 days. A 2018 study by sociologists Sinikka Elliott and Sarah Bowen, drawing on 138 intensive interviews and ethnographic observations showed that women of colour run the risk of being labelled a bad mother. They show that gender and race intersect to play a huge role in mothers of colour facing a higher level of institutional and social monitoring. The systemic social inequality is factor too, of course. There is a perception that minority ethnic communities are poorer, living in cramped inner city housing, with larger families. That leads to a generalised conclusion that this leads to more neglect of their children too, even though many minority ethnic communities are more child-centred.

“I want to be able to bring up my children without fear of judgement from strangers”

Stereotypical representation in films and media does not help. Think of Apu’s large, chaotic family in The Simpsons, and the various travel documentaries and writings about India showing cows and dogs roaming the streets have all contributed to an image of certain Asian communities being unhygienic and ‘dirty’ that is forged into the wider sensibilities. As we live in a world where lines are being increasingly drawn by race, and immigration is so prominent in political conversation, racial stereotypes set in, and the unconscious biases become more explicit. The colour of our skin is increasingly being used as an identifier to denote group memberships, and to question people’s right to belong.

From my daughter being monitored for her lunch at her primary school to make sure she was bringing healthy food from home, to a person in our local café telling me off for being on the phone recently (sorry for desperately finding two minutes to respond to an urgent work email while solo parenting toddler twins!), I’ve had my fair share of judgement as a mother. But I cannot help but wonder if the colour of my skin adds an extra layer of bias that gives strangers permission to not only judge me for my parenting, but also be more vocal about it.

I want to be able to bring up my children without fear of judgement from strangers, and I don’t want their childhood to be coloured by the shadow of my skin colour. Right now, motherhood has a very white face; what we on Instagram and in mainstream media are images and stories of overwhelmingly white mothers. Of course many experiences of motherhood resonate across racial lines, but we urgently need more diverse stories of motherhood, and we need to see more brown and black mothers – just like me – being open about the challenges they face everyday.

Dr Pragya Agarwal is a journalist and behavioural scientist. Follow her on Twitter at @DrPragyaAgarwal

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