“I’m scared for you. I love you. I’m going to teach you how to be a gentleman. I’m going to teach you how not to be a statistic. I’m going to teach you the skills I know to make you successful in this world. The world already has three fingers against you: You’re supposed to already be in jail, you’re supposed to be a dad, and you’re supposed to be a deadbeat and not take care of your kids. I don’t want that for you. I want you to be able to go to college. I want you to succeed. I want you to have a family, I want you to love people, I want you to be able to show love, I want you to be able to cry. I want you to enjoy this world, but this world will never enjoy you because they are scared of you.”
Tamara, a 26-year-old mother of one son, was among the low-income Black single mothers who shared their hopes and concerns for their children with Assistant Professor of Sociology Jennifer Turner as part of her dissertation, “#BlackMamasMatter: The Significance of Motherhood and Mothering for Low-Income Black Single Mothers.”
“It’s important that we talk about what it means to be Black in the United States and how that impacts Black mothers and Black motherhood,” Turner said. “For Tamara, the fear that her son would be stereotyped, criminalized, and/or become a target of racist state or vigilante violence manifested itself in this diary entry before her son was even born. This passage illustrates the significance race, class, and gender play in shaping the anxieties of low-income Black single mothers. Tamara recognizes that she will have to work hard to protect her son from the racialized class and gender discrimination that he will likely face for a lifetime.”
Recent statistics demonstrate why those fears are present for all Black mothers. A database established by The Washington Post to track fatal police shootings since 2015 shows that Black Americans are killed by police at more than twice the rate of White Americans. The journal Pediatrics reported in 2020 that Black children, especially those between the ages of 12 and 17, were six times more likely to be shot to death by police than White children.
Turner also cites the disproportionate rates at which Black children are punished in schools. “Scholars call the phenomenon the ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline.’ Black students represent 31% of school-related arrests. They are three times more likely than White students to be suspended or expelled, and then three times more likely to enter the juvenile justice system in the year following. Later in life they are more likely to enter the criminal justice system. All of this shows us that Black children are not seen in the same way as White children. Black children are presumed to be bad or criminals at a very young age. Black mothers of all social classes grapple with how to protect their children from discrimination.”
In her research, Turner sought to learn more about how low-income Black single mothers talk to their children about race. “Racial socialization is a significant component of Black parenthood. Primarily, Black mothers are doing this work and these conversations begin with their children at a very young age. It’s not only talking with them about how to interact with police, it’s also teaching them how to interact with educators and other authority figures in the hope that their children will not be subject to racist stereotypes and/or violence.”
Turner also addressed what she sees as a deficit in Black parenting studies. “So much of the previous research on the racial socialization practices of Black mothers has focused on middle-class mothers, and I wondered, ‘What’s the difference here with low-income moms, and why isn’t there more focus on them?’”
Turner set out to build upon that previous scholarship. The literature shows that class status doesn’t insulate middle-class Black families from racism. They worry that their children, particularly their sons, will be mistreated by their White teachers and targeted in their predominantly White neighborhoods. These families also face racist stereotypes that associate Blackness with poverty. However, middle-class families are still able to draw upon their status to avoid discrimination.
“[University of Maryland sociologist] Dawn Marie Dow found that these mothers engage in what she calls ‘experience management,’” Turner said. “They encourage their sons to develop skills in athletics and the performing arts that will allow them to traverse racialized class and gender boundaries. They expose them to aspects of Black history, culture, and Black male role models that affirm positive messages regarding Black masculinity. They also pursue ‘environment management,’ in which they scrutinize their sons’ everyday social environment to eliminate discriminatory sources, and enact ‘image and emotion management,’ which involves helping their sons contain their anger, frustration, and excitement, and monitor their dress and appearance.”
Turner argues that these practices fall under the umbrella of “‘respectability politics,’ which essentially is an attempt to counter negative stereotypes of Black people as poor, lazy, and uneducated, emphasizing middle class values of hard work, education, dressing tidily, using proper English, and respecting authority figures.” Respectability politics has its roots in the early 20th century and the Black church. “The idea was, if we could try to dismantle those stereotypes about Black people, and achieve a proximity to Whiteness, we can avoid racial discrimination.”
According to Turner, previous studies of low-income Black single mothers haven’t necessarily examined their parenting concerns, but looked primarily at problems these women experience, how they view and navigate motherhood generally, and/or the resources upon which they draw. “So, I really wanted to focus on mothering from the perspective of low-income Black single mothers and what it means to them to be a mother. I also wanted to study their parenting practices. I illustrate the work they do every day to negotiate their specific challenges to teach their children about issues they deem important.”
Turner interviewed 21 mothers from Central and Southwest Virginia in 2017 who participate in, or had previously taken part in, Social Services benefit programs. These mothers often face increased scrutiny and are stigmatized for seeking out food stamps and other social welfare services.
“The findings of my research suggest that the practices of low-income Black single mothers are heavily informed by social class,” Turner said. “As in previous studies, the mothers in my research often invoke respectability politics when racially socializing their children. Specifically, as previous research on Black motherhood demonstrates, the mothers in my study fear for their children’s safety, especially their sons, and they often discussed encouraging their children to behave in certain ways in an effort to prevent them from facing discrimination on the basis of their race, class, and gender. Unlike middle-class mothers, however, low-income Black single mothers are unable to assert their class status to avoid racism and discrimination. For these mothers, their employment of respectability politics seems to be more about helping their children surpass their current class status in order to achieve a level of respectability that may help them avoid becoming targets of racism, specifically racist state violence, and also to help them ultimately have a better life than what they currently have.”
The participants in Turner’s study echo similar concerns as those expressed in previous research indicating “that in a lot of ways, race may trump class, at least in some cases, when it comes to the experiences of Black mothers. That is, it appears that Black mothers of all social classes are united in their anxieties about raising Black children in a racist society. Nevertheless, low-income Black single mothers do not have access to the same social, political, and economic resources as middle-class mothers to help them protect their children from racism.”
Turner believes that this study “enhances our understanding of racial socialization by illuminating how race, class, and gender are interconnected in influencing low-income Black single mothers.” She is currently working in collaboration with a Hollins student on a paper that spotlights the racial socialization of Black girls.
“Racial socialization practices look very different when we’re talking about sons and daughters. Typically when socializing boys, Black families tend to emphasize racial barriers. But, when talking to their daughters, Black parents tend to instill messages of racial pride and self-esteem to combat the negative messages that Black girls and women are less feminine and less beautiful than White girls and women. They face disproportionate threats of becoming victims of domestic or intimate partner violence, and threats of sexual assault at the hands of police officers. I’m interested in the role that racial gendered socialization can play in helping Black girls avoid or deal with these threats, and how Black mothers are talking to them.”
Watch Turner’s presentation, “To Be Black and a Mother: The Significance of Black Mothers’ Racial Socialization Practices,” part of the Faculty Authors and Achievers series sponsored by the Wyndham Robertson Library.