If You Think Good Black Parents Are Unicorns, You’re Part of the Problem

black_family_bannerRandomly, I heard a guy say, “May I interject?”

I looked over to find an older Black man holding a yard of cloth in his hands. He asked me this question just this past week while I stood in line at an arts and crafts store. I was in the middle of buying fabric for head wraps and explaining to my oldest son what a “preliminary exam” was and how it factored into a doctoral program.

“Sure,” I said. I figured he wanted to correct me in some way.

“I want to commend you on talking to your son like that. There aren’t enough of us in our community who talk to our young men like that. So, I just want to commend you” he said. I struggled with that assertion but I answered, “Thank you…” anyway.

This isn’t the first time someone has thanked me for how I interact with and raise my children. It’s always interesting though because they say it as if they have some sort of investment in my relationship with my kids. I understand the fictive kinship and racial ties we each, especially those of us in Black and brown communities, have with one another. I’m not disregarding how important ideas like “linked fate” and “social connectedness” have been for our survival in a country dedicated to eradicating us. What frustrates me, though, is how we reproduce negative stereotypes about ourselves simply because society forces them upon us. These acts of complicity are harmful in any efforts to get us free.

Let me break it down a bit. By thanking me for the way I spoke to my very own son, this well-meaning gentleman disrupted what my life partner and I have normalized for our children. We don’t act like unicorns. We don’t want to be addressed as unicorns. But, in this small act, that is what this gentleman did.

It was as if he cast a bright light on our dialogue to say that it somehow deviates from “the norm.” By setting my dialogue up as different and deserving of thanks, he signalled to my son that, somehow, other Black parents aren’t as good at raising their children as we are. He also said – without saying it – that my parenting choices were the “right” ones. This means that anything that deviates from that is, inherently, wrong.

In a larger picture, he created a point of reference making the Black Family synonymous with being broken or incapable of producing well-rounded, functional children. Because, as he asserted, “not enough of us” behave in ways that he deemed appropriate, most of us Black parents aren’t so great. I’m sure he didn’t think he was doing all of that but, the fact is, he most certainly was.

This act of normalizing factually inaccurate, racially-biased, and harmful ideologies about the Black Family is exactly what produced documents like the “Moynihan Report,” a report which has been referenced for fifty years as a testament to the failures of the Black Family and, specifically, Black mothers. I can attest to how isolating some of these negative predilections about the Black Family can have major impacts on children and neighborhoods. So, while these notions are rooted in bias against the Black Family and historical narratives which diminish Black women’s capabilities as mothers, they also fester within Black communities themselves.

It’s odd to me though because I’ve never felt the need to walk over to some random stranger and “interject” in their parenting. While I have seen kids acting a ham fool out in public, I never thought it my place to insert myself in any way. Maybe that’s because I was raised right. Maybe it’s because I know how irritating it is when it happens to me. But, I think it mostly stems from the fact that I don’t have any pre-conceived notions about what kinds of parents are good and bad. I don’t walk around waiting for an opportunity to valorize some family units over others. And, I certainly don’t agree that parents in “our community” don’t speak well enough to their children.

I am actually surrounded with amazing examples of parents in my communities each day. I see single moms who go hard for their kids, attending every sports event even when it means they have to compromise how they’ll be treated at work. I see blended families who make it work even when the kids don’t start off feeling like a “real family.” I see grands and aunt and uncles who raise kids as their own. And, like us, I see young parents who came from single parent homes trying to give the best they possibly can to their kids. I see a diverse group of Black and brown parents in my social circles and neighborhood. That this guy thought I was a unicorn might indicate he simply needs to get out more.

Whatever the cause, this gentleman’s actions were very striking to me. There was so much social commentary resting in his interjection that I almost didn’t know how to respond. While I issued him an uneasy thanks, I wish I had the energy to inquire further into what he meant at the time. And why did he emphasize that fact that I had a son? So many questions abound. Though, I think I know the answers to most of them. Sadly, they’re all the wrong ones.

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Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.