Not All Black Mothers Abuse Their Kids

Wednesday night when I was flying out of O'Hare -- or rather, when I was WAITING for hours to fly out of O'Hare -- I got to witness another mom "interacting" with her child.

Of course, I captured it on my Twitter feed:

1) Another mom here at the gate has been yelling at her kid a LOT & has slapped this girl like 4x. Would u intervene?

The little girl is like 4 or 5 years old. The mom has yelled stuff like, "if u don't shut up, I'm gonna strangle u!"

Airport security just rolled up & they r threatening to arrest this mom if she hits her child again. WOWZERS!

OK, no arrest, cops walked away. Good Lord, that was some drama. Poor little girl.

Now, I know parents get stressed out at airports, especially when they are traveling alone with a child, but the little girl was actually being pretty quiet and behaving normally for a child that age. I'll go ahead and say it: I think the mom was being abusive. I mean, is it really necessary to slap your child just because she stood up to get a doll she dropped? I was clearly not the only one who thought so because the security showed up. I was not the one who alerted them to what was going down.

But what has been infinitely interesting (and sad) to me in the two days since I witnessed this is that almost all of the black people I have told this story to have assumed that the mother and the child were also black.

A typical comment from black folks I know has been like, "Well, you know we don't play that "Oh honey, sit down pretty please," crap when our kids act up in public."

They are FLOORED when I tell them the mom in this situation was white with a ginormous diamond on her finger and super long blond hair. Her child was also white with blond hair.

Black people aren't alone in their assumption that the parent and child are black. When I've shared these details with white folks I know, their response has been a shocked, "Oh, the mom was WHITE???"

This has really raised some red flags for me around how we view black mothers and black parenting. Why do we think black mothers are hard, abusive, rough, and ready to beat their child's ass if he or she ever steps out of line?

I'm tired of getting the "Good Luck With That" eye roll from other black people when I tell them I don't beat my sons.

I'm tired of white women confusedly asking, "So you don't spank?" -- the unsaid comment being, "But, but, I thought all black moms spank!"

I'm tired of being told, "That must be the white side in you coming out because we all know white moms don't beat their kids.
Is your mom white?"

Do I need to make a t-shirt that says, "Not All Black Mothers Abuse Their Kids"?

Why have we bought the racist stereotype that white, Asian and Latino folks don't abuse their kids and black moms do? Really, folks need to stop acting like black moms are the only ones who beat, verbally threaten or emotionally abuse their children. It's racist to keep acting like cursing at, verbally demeaning, spanking, slapping or beating a child is contingent on skin color, and that black mothers are the biggest offenders.

Black mothers are not the only abusive mothers. If you need proof, pick up a copy of Mommie Dearest, mmkay?

I've always believed that if you beat your children, you are killing a part of their soul, and you're teaching them that violence is an option. Do I really need to slap my son just because he rolled his eyes at me? No, I don't. I can't hit another adult just because I don't like the way he or she looks at me, so why would I hit my child who I supposedly love?

This is not to say that different backgrounds of people don't have somewhat culturally different ways of raising their kids. But I think a collective "Check Yourself" needs to happen in regards to our racist thinking about black motherhood and parenting. There are plenty of black moms who know how to use conflict resolution and non-violent techniques on their kids. There are plenty of black moms who have never threatened to strangle their child. And there are plenty of black moms who could've taught that mom at O'Hare thing or to about parenting.


I believe that when we perpetrate violence, we kill a part of OUR soul - a part that never, ever heals. I admire you for bringing this complicated topic up.

I assumed the woman was white. When I've traveled, I see black women having this conversation with their kids:

"This is what you are going to do.... (fill in blank)"

I never know if it happens, but I like the clarity in which it's said.
Sharifa said…
I know my white SIL who lives in Louisiana spanks her son. Spanking etc. has been illegal in Sweden since 1979, I remember being taught in kindergarten that I could call the police if I was spanked. So, at the very least you don't see abusive behaviour in public.
nick said…
Well, I don't know what happens in the States, Liz, but in Britain plenty of white mothers (and fathers) use violence on their kids, it's certainly not a racial thing. And I do agree you shouldn't use violence at all, it damages them inside as you say, there are lots of other ways of encouraging good behaviour. My father for all his faults never physically punished me however truculent I was being.
DJ Black Adam said…
"Not all black mothers abuse their kids"?

Are s all forms of corporeal punishment abuse?
Anonymous said…
My white mother was horrified that I refuse to spank my son. She considered it good parenting and said some very harsh things to me when I turned down her advice on the finer points of how to spank.

My black mother-in-law was supportive of our no spanking rule from the begining. All of her grandkids have been raised that way and her point of view lines up well with what you said in your post.
alyosha19 said…
I totally assumed the mom was white from the beginning. Am I biased? (and no, I'm not black...)

I based my guess on past observations of different groups in public settings.
Liz Dwyer said…
I definitely think it affects the soul of the perpetrator as well. For sure. It's such a tough topic because people are quick to jump up and say, "I got spanked and I'm just fine." Corporeal punishment is still legal in all 50 states. It seems like it's the opposite of everything that gets taught in what few parenting classes their are these days.

Interesting about your SIL. Have you ever asked her about it? Wasn't Sweden one of the first countries to outlaw corporeal punishment? How amazing that you got taught that in school. When I was a kid we got taught there was no way the police were going to intervene unless your arm was broken or something like that. I kept thinking about how the mom must be if this was how she acts in public.

I'm sure there are plenty of parents of all colors and nationalities who do so, which is why the attitude that black mothers or black women are more abusive really bothers me... especially since black women were the ones taking care of the children for upper and middle class families for like forever in this country. Sigh.

I think a lot of it is, particularly when folks start getting beaten to the point that they have bruises. Or broken limbs. Now do I occasionally swat my youngest on the butt with my hand? Yep, it happens, but very rarely. And it usually has more to do with me losing my patience with him than anything else.

I just think there are different ways of teaching kids how to behave and hitting them doesn't need to factor into it. I also think what this mom was saying to the girl was just nuts and just as damaging.

What do you think?

So you've experienced the reverse -- very interesting. Why do you think your mom was so horrified? Why do people automatically think kids will turn out horribly if they aren't spanked?
DJ Black Adam said…
Hey Liz:

Well, I think there is a very significant difference between occasionally spanking your child and abuse. Spanking a child is perfectly acceptable in my opinion, BEATING a child is not.

As for how this lady was talking to a 5 year old, verbal abuse (psychological / emotional abuse) can be worse than psychical abuse, she went far beyond a verbal chiding.
That woman had no home training as my 70 yr old momma would say. I developed the look - if I gave you the look in public for acting up, you knew "death" was waiting for you at home! My daughters still tell stories about how the look made them soooo afraid...never had to raise a hand with the look!
pooneh said…
Honestly, I assumed she was white -- don't know why, I just did.
Anonymous said…
i had no assumptions about her race. but i guess that's because i knew from an early age that white parents can abuse.
as a teacher, i did see that more of my black parents were strict than were my white parents, but there wasn't an abusive component that I saw.
Beating a child is wrong. I also think verbal abuse is just as bad. I have heard parents say some horrific things to their children. I get that being a parent is stressful but I wonder what kind of adults the kids will be.

That said, I have no problem with a little slap on the bottom for a toddler.

Then again, I grew up in a Caribbean household. My parents and relatives think spanking is fine and don't understand why many Americans have an issue with it.
VonRipper said…
...perhaps I am very strange, but I assumed the mother was white from the very start of this post. And yes, I happen to be white myself.

I must say though, it's quite possible that I'm biased, considering that the (white and blonde) mother of my closest friend/possible lifetime traveling companion has always been emotionally abusive to a downright disgusting degree.

Anyhow. On a slightly different note, I cannot begin to express how sad it is that you even had to witness that scene at the airport in the first place. Gah. I do thank you for writing about the incident though.
Liz Dwyer said…
Thank you so much for weighing in on this! Clearly, the folks I know are the exception for thinking this mom is black. I also posted a link to this on my facebook page and came to an interesting conclusion over there. I said:

"It hadn't occurred to me to connect a race with the actions, but in that regard, I'm also guilty. Most writers don't note the race of a subject unless that person is not white. It's a code in our modern written language that if you say, "A woman ran down the street naked" she's assumed to be white -- because if not, the author will say, "A black woman..."

When we're communicating verbally, we probably also do this. If the speaker doesn't note the person's color, we are trained to think the person is white.

Yeah, readers are so trained to assume the protagonist is the same color as the author of the book --i.e. white authors only write about white main characters, etc., and so in conversation, I wonder if it's assumed that the person we're talking about is the same color as the speaker unless it's noted otherwise.

I'll be mulling that over for quite awhile.
Maria said…
I think abusive parents are just that - abusive parents - and their behavior is passed own no matter what color they are. There are some "survivors" who have had the strength the recognise their abuse and stop the circle of abuse.

I am white - I got the belt from my Dad - ONCE - to tell the truth I only remember him taking it out of the closet - that may have been enough for an over-sensitive child as I was. My brother on the other hand - well -lets just say he got it far worse. Today he is such a great Dad and I often wonder how he'll handle a teenage son - my nephew has about 8 years to get there - and I feel as though my brother remembers the pain and won't go there.

My husband was beaten and mentally abused by his Mother (black). The more I speak with her half sister the more I understand where it comes from - turns out their Mother threatened to put them all in the oven once (amoung other things) how to you survive that? But their case, in my opinion is mental illness more than culture, learned behavior or habit.

So for me - I've seen it on both sides and think families are families. They are what they are and the survivors can choose to not pass it to their own children - if they recognise it.

My biggest concern is in pop-culture where in movies and books and music all too often the black familes are depicted as almost celebrating the abuse. (see: big mommas house, etc...) Many of these movies also have a strong family tie message of love and togetherness as well that gets overlooked.

You mentioned Mommy Dearest - and if you know the story - who doesn't think of Crawford when we look at a wire hanger? Even there we link her abuse with mental illness more than culture. (are white Moms just sick and black Moms abusers? I think not)

To be honest - I thought your story was about a black Mom - more for the title than anything else - because I've seen my share of white Mothers who just plain shouldn't have children. See the news reports of mass murders of their own children - so many white Moms... but pop culture I believe is a big problem - todays society gets their news, history, and research from MOVIES - not books or real life experience.

That said - another thing people automatically assume - black kids have no fathers - I blame pop culture for that as well - but that's another post...
Liz Dwyer said…
Very very good point about the connection to mental illness being overlooked when it comes to black moms, because wanting to put someone in an oven is definitely mental illness. I don't personally think abuse is tied to skin color, even though I have thought a LOT about how abusive behaviors may/may not be a legacy of racism/oppression. I think the stress of racism can cause serious mental health problems, but, like you said, that's another blog post! Thanks for weighing in!
Nina Moon said…
What a sad thing to witness, but your most recent comment about what we assume about the unmentioned race of the subject is so very interesting. Not to be overly cynical, but I think you are right that most people make assumptions about black mothers/parents vs. white parents although as your commenters pointed out, it's a totally incorrect assumption considering how many white people beat their children. Anyway, the fact that we assume that the subject is white unless otherwise's one of those sad and insidious things that is so hard to throw off without a concerted effort.

My mother (who is Asian), for instance, will always ask after I tell a story about somebody, "What is he/she?" (meaning race), as if it's relevant to the story and she cannot pass judgment about the person till she knows what his/her race was.

As an aside, I don't think it's assumed that Asian parents don't beat their kids. Admittedly I'm not sure what the outside perspective is, but I know that culturally it's totally accepted for Koreans to use corporal punishment (usually on the butt with a stick or spoon, not with an open hand). And it's generally accepted, though not embraced, for fathers to beat their children. Parents are perceived as having absolute, unchallenged authority. Of course, there is more cultural nuance, but it's interesting that it does not easily change even in the context of post-immigrant families. I am one of the only Korean American parents I know that does not spank my children, though I have in moments of great frustration swatted my preschooler on the butt, followed by much guilt and wringing of hands.

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