Mothers and “Black Mothers” by Crystal Valentine


I am sure that the last thing the world – or the internet- needs is more ink spilled over the two recent tragedies in the headlines involving children and animals.

First, there was the story of the three-year-old boy who fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinatti Zoo, culminating in the fatal shooting of Harambe the gorilla to protect the child. Then, within weeks, a two-year-old was snatched by an alligator while splashing in the shallow end of a man-made lake at a Disney resort in Florida. The first boy was saved, the later lost his life. The first boy was black, the later was white.

Onnesha and I had planned to continue discussing race and beauty this month, but the recent headlines prompted us to take a detour. It was obvious to both of us that these two families with parallel stories (with different outcomes) were treated differently by the media.

In the aftermath of the tragedies, I’ve read and listened to so many stories that friends and online acquaintances have shared. It seems like, if we’re being honest, the majority of us have had brushes with disaster and terrifying “near misses” with our kids. Even the most loving and attentive parents among us are sometimes reminded that the world is a fragile place, and that our kids are unionized little tyrants whose main job is to wreak havoc and make us look incompetent.

Last night, Onnesha and I stood around talking about our own near misses. Onnesha was still shaken from an incident that took place earlier that day in which a dresser fell on top of her son. I recounted the time that my daughter dropped a brick on her foot as a toddler, leaving her tiny toenail dangling by a thread as I rushed her to the doctor’s office with a trail of blood in our wake.

How could I forget the time when my (then three-year-old) son managed to unbuckle the seatbelt of his booster, climb into the driver’s seat of my van and PUT IT IN REVERSE in the 30 seconds that it took me to push my cart in the cart corral just a few feet away. Thankfully, I was able to maneuver quickly enough to push him out of the driver’s seat and stop the van before any people or property were damaged. It was something I never would have imagined could happen.

It seemed that neither of the families involved in the tragedies have escaped the vicious judgment of strangers who take great pleasure in tearing people down. Here are a couple of choice comments left by brave men and women on the internet:

“All I’m saying is if I had had the gun, I know which one I would have shot.” – regarding the decision to shoot Harambe instead of the three-year-old human child

“You know where my kids are when we go to the zoo? Right next to me. Sorry, but this Mom was NOT watching her kids. Obviously she was negligent. Hopefully her kids will be removed.”

“If there was a sign that said “No swimming,” why the f*** was this child in the water? That’s what happens when you can’t read signs.”

“If only these parents were watching their kid. I think more will be revealed about what really happened as time goes by. Seems very fishy to me.”– regarding the Father who fought an alligator in an attempt to rescue his two-year-old son

Even amidst the outpouring of sympathy and a plea for compassion that was prevalent in comment threads surrounding both incidents, both families have still been subject to harsh scrutiny and judgement. News of the black Father’s criminal background was released within days after Harambe was shot, which had exactly ZERO to do with the incident. His record was years in the past, and the Father wasn’t even present at the zoo that day. It’s worth mentioning as well that being white and even losing your child to the jaws of an alligator doesn’t exempt a family from being ripped to shreds by strangers on the internet.

So what did discussing the intersection of race in these two stories make clear(er) to me?

White parents can dissociate from negative stereotypes. Black parents are mostly denied this privilege.

When the news broke about the Harambe incident, Onnesha described the sinking feeling she had upon learning that the family involved was black. She described the number of times she has heard and read statements about how black parents “need to do better” and the feeling of being scapegoated every time a black Mother is cast in a negative light.

She asked if I felt personally responsible for the upbringing and the actions of Brock Turner, the rapist who has recently made headlines for his lenient sentencing. Or Dylan Roof who shot and killed nine black church members in Charleston. And what were my feelings about the number of white men who have terrorized or raped or murdered? Or the white women who have neglected or hurt their children? She asked if learning that these people were white made me concerned that their whiteness would reflect on me in any way, or did I see them as a sort of anomaly?

I answered honestly. It has never occurred to me to feel personally responsible for the acts committed by those people. I denounce them wholeheartedly. And until fairly recently, it wouldn’t have even occurred to me that this is some sort of privilege.

Shouldn’t it just be natural that people can be exempt from ownership of acts committed by other people?

Of course. It should be natural. IT IS NATURAL. And yet, this does not happen for us all. This discussion is an opportunity to highlight privilege. Admittedly, privilege is still a difficult concept for me to grasp. What I am realizing is that oftentimes, privilege isn’t found in extravagant luxuries, but simply in the ability to expect a baseline of decency and reasonableness.

Both families involved in recent tragedies have been scrutinized. But the black family is more likely to be seen as “all black families” while the white family is seen as “a family.”

When a black Mom feels like the proverbial shoe has dropped every time a black parent is in the news for their parenting, and a white Mom doesn’t have to think about it, that’s privilege.

Read Onnesha’s blog for this conversation here.

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