It says something about our society that it takes an experience as rare as Obama’s, as First Lady, for a black woman to have the world’s ear.
I devoured Michelle Obama’s Becoming during the recent holidays. What gripped me wasn’t the political drama or the rare insight into White House life. It was the Former First Lady’s journey to believing in herself, and the intrinsic value of her perspective. For me, it is no coincidence that we are only hearing from Obama following the “incredible platform” gained through her husband’s presidency.
And yet Obama’s story – even without the inclusion of the Former President’s political exploits – has much to offer people from social groups with less status. An accomplished black woman from modest beginnings, her personal journey is important one. She moved from a working class home, through the elitist academic spaces of Princeton and Harvard, to influential positions in the Chicago mayoral office, a youth voluntary organization and in community health. I found her burgeoning sense of her own power, and the contribution she could make to society, without being twee, life affirming. I want to read more stories like this. But are ordinary women of colour with similarly luminous tales but much less of a ‘profile’ being given the same opportunities?
Black British working class people arguably struggle to find and amplify their voices as artists. Speaking personally, I initially thought I wanted to be a journalist, and younger me spent a lot of time pouring over British newspapers and magazines. Glancing at bylines and studying contributor pages, the faces of white creatives stared back at me. When you don’t see people like yourself succeeding in your profession, it can reinforce your sense of invisibility, reducing your sense of your own value.
My social location as a raced/gendered/class subject has undoubtedly shaped my experience of trying to become a writer. The fact that it takes courage to be creative has gone unexplored. You need to possess a belief in your own credibility, and feel reasonably confident that people will have some interest in what you have to say. You also want to communicate as your authentic self, but question if you will be taken seriously, understood or undermined. For some, self-belief may have to be built along the way. I was recently struck by a comment by the incredible writer and commentator Roxane Gay. “I’ve never waited for the confidence to do anything,” she said, “because if I was waiting for confidence, I would still be waiting.”
Without my long and gradual accumulation of degrees and a dogged determination fuelled by my circumstances as a single parent, I’m not sure you’d be reading me right now. I wouldn’t have the (false?) sense of entitlement and a hunger borne of many years of silence while studying and parenting. It says something about our society that it takes an experience as rare as Obama’s, as First Lady, for a black woman to have the world’s ear. In this moment, with relatively more spaces and opportunities available for communicating, let us find the courage to be louder.
Those who wield power define who is deserving for their own advantage
Some of the causes and the effects of the Grenfell Tower Fire disaster are best understood in the context of imbalances of power. Before I attempt to explain this, in the spirit of highlighting social positions often unspoken I should perhaps first declare mine. I didn’t know anyone who lived in the Tower. However as part of a working class family, the two homes in which I spent the duration of my childhood and early adulthood were council blocks. In other words, in another time and/or space I could have been a resident in Grenfell.
Power asymmetry in action pre-fire. There was a struggle around fire safety at the Tower. Some Grenfell tenants were actively petitioning the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and their local Tenant Management Organisation for standards to be improved. Challenging a powerful institution, especially one that is intent upon protecting its profits, can be frustrating to say the least. The concerns of residents were rejected while the conditions imposed upon the residents of Grenfell by others with decision-making authority proved deadly.
Power asymmetry in action post-fire. Beyond the sensational, the voices of people directly affected by events at the Tower, those living in similar circumstances and the groups to which they belong, mostly working class and/or migrant communities, are not being given room. A comfortable chatterati narrates and interprets the tragedy as it unfolds, dominating the conversation. In Yearning: Race, gender and cultural politics, bell hooks wrote (p.151-152) that arrogant, authoritative speech by ‘others’ on those deemed less powerful can act as erasure.
For her the attitude is:
‘ “No need to hear your voice when I talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. […] Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story and then I will tell it back to you in a new way […] I am still author, authority” ’
Members of the commentariat have surreptitiously linked themselves to the Tower in order to legitimise their co-optation – their child ‘had school friends who lived in Grenfell’, they ‘rented a house in the area in Nineties’, they ‘used to live a quarter of a mile away from it’. These comments are uttered with full awareness that such hellish circumstances would never touch their lives. Meanwhile the majority of those who have perished remain unnamed, unpictured and therefore unacknowledged by the public. This unusual response in a disaster – albeit in a rare and extremely difficult one – perpetuates the notion of certain migrant and working class people as a monolithic mass not worth differentiating, defined by their apparent victimhood and powerlessness. Who the deceased were remains largely unknown. We are still waiting to see their faces, recognise their humanity and learn of their individuality, their dreams and their achievements.
There remains a narrow image of who is deserving. Deserving of a safe decent home, worthy of being heard and taken seriously and worthy of remembrance and respect. Those who wield power define it so for their own advantage. For too long such distorted perspectives have been able to dominate and shape society – it is time to redress the balance.
A holiday has always meant going somewhere I could easily blend in
I have recently returned from the first short break I have taken in England as an adult. This is despite England being the place I call home, the place of my birth and the only home I have ever known. For me a holiday has almost always involved going somewhere else – specifically, a destination where I could easily blend in among the people. This meant either locations with a superdiverse demographic or a place populated by people also of African origin.
Bluntly speaking, this is due to the fact that as a person racialized as black, a carefully chosen trip abroad can offer a much needed, but temporary escape that is much mental as physical. An escape from being treated as a second-class citizen, from being made to feel ‘other’, an anomaly. This allows for a period of mental peace, during which the stream of what African American sociologist W.E.B Du Bois (1994:2) called second consciousness – ‘always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others’ – vanishes. For me one key aspect of second consciousness involves being hyper-aware of whether one could be perceived as justifying any of a long list of racial stereotypes and further stigmatizing yourself and many other others. This awareness is taxing but almost as automatic as a survival mechanism. Opting for a holiday in an English county, I was concerned I would be letting myself in for more of the same discomfort instead of being able to disconnect.
However, while a couple of microagressions did occur – including being studied with suspicion by a resident as we ran down a street for a soon due bus – our British staycation was a pleasant surprise overall. Locals were accustomed to tourists, friendly and helpful. Though initially chosen due to budget constraints, taking this trip has proved a revelation as it has forced to challenge the spatial boundaries I had imagined, my beliefs about where my son and I, as Black people, should go and where we should not. I have concluded that my son and I should venture more widely on this English land – it is our liberty. We are equally entitled.
Equally distributed child care could improve the circumstances of single mothers
I’ve just read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s new book, Dear Ijealwele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. I found it brilliant and affirming, full of rich wisdom and powerful insight. I particularly enjoyed the ‘second suggestion,’ that child care is a responsibility that should be equally shared between mothers and fathers not disproportionately borne by female parents. However, I was struck by the writer’s claim that this sharing of care was not possible for a single mother, that in this case ‘ ‘doing it together’ would then not be an option.’ I must disagree with Ms Adichie here. In most cases, co-parenting and shared child care between parents who do not live together is indeed possible. In fact it is arguably a matter of critical importance.
Apart from the obvious benefits for children, child care that is more equally distributed between mothers and fathers could improve the circumstances of many lone mothers as typical caring responsibilities make a career and/or education more of a challenge. Clichéd assumptions of poverty and ‘benefit dependency’ are one of the main reasons single mothering is stigmatized. What is less discussed is how less gendered childcare arrangements could ameliorate the predicament many women face around choosing between – or trying to balance – earning and/or learning and caring. Why is it not being imagined how fathers – those not deemed a danger to women and children – could be a part of the solution?
In Dear Ijeawele, Ms Adichie asserts:
‘…please reject the language of help. [The child’s father] is not ‘helping’ you by caring for his child. He is doing what he should… you both made the choice to bring a child into the world, and responsibility for that child belongs equally to you both.’
In my view there is no reason why fathers who do not live with their children should not be held to the same just standard. While these fathers are often assumed to be ‘absent’, the reality is that the majority are present and active in their children’s lives to varying degrees. In reality some fathers want more involvement. Sometimes communication problems between parents prohibit this. This is where a specialist mediation service could help. The positive benefits of supporting separated families to resolve familial difficulties would be felt beyond the individual family unit. Doing nothing would only leave the current asymmetries of responsibility in place, in which mothers and children, as well as fathers themselves, lose out.
There seems to be little current discussion around how single mothers could be freed up from unreasonable caring duties. Feminism could play a role in this. In fact I want to suggest that there should be a more fully developed feminist vision for single mothers. There exists an erroneous assumption that single mothers are not interested feminism. As a part of this category of mothers I would argue that in our self-reliance, independence and autonomy we live feminist ideals every day. A desire for fathers to do their fair share of care is not a contradiction of this. It is an extension of it.
There is no perfect option and yet for some it is a symbolic crossroads
Last month I was one of the parents finding out which secondary school was offered to my 11 year-old son on National Offer Day. It had been a quite a tense wait for the outcome – unfortunately the quality of our local ‘school market’ is not great at present to the point that I only felt able to express a preference for two schools, rather than listing the offered maximum of six. Ultimately we are satisfied with the result as early impressions are that the school is a nurturing one with high standards.
Nonetheless, I can’t seem to shake a sense of concern at this pivotal moment. While some schools do a fantastic job, the inequitable of educational experiences of boys of African and Caribbean origin – being positioned as socially and intellectually inferior in relation to certain others, being differentially disciplined, low teacher expectations and negative peer pressure from others with a confused sense of identity – are well documented in sociological research.
And for many families opportunities to navigate these issues are limited by constraint. The notion of parental school choice is indeed an illusion – the variety and quality of options vary by geography, while the ability to have full access to the educational ‘marketplace’ is determined by economic resources. For example, some social actors switch neighbourhoods or head out of the city for better schooling options. Inner-city families without such resources or inclination weigh up their options: do they very carefully choose a state institution and see how things pan out, take a punt at a further afield grammar, consider the independent sector and perhaps compete for a bursary or take the leap into home-schooling? There is no perfect option and yet for some the decision is a symbolic crossroads.
This concern about how one’s child will be perceived and positioned by their new school is an isolating one, not at all reflected in the current conversations being had about schooling. Take into the account the experiences of minoritized families and different pictures and positions become visible and audible. For instance, the tone of the current debate about grammar schools would change – what aspirant, inner-city parent (myself included) wouldn’t seize the offer of a type of school that for many has provided an almost fail-safe path toward upward mobility? Alas, the opportunity of inner-London grammars will arrive too late for us, if at all. My son and I will make the most of what we have been given come September.
Mothering itself is marginalised, devalued, and blamed for certain social ills
I am largely ambivalent about celebrating Mother’s Day. On one hand, the assignment by patriarchal society of children’s care to individual women is both problematic and unrealistic. The communal, village approach to raising children is not encouraged here. Mothers often sacrifice hugely to do the maternal work society prescribes yet this problematic practice is naturalised. Beyond this tokenistic, commercialised day for mothers, mothering itself is marginalised, devalued, and blamed for certain social ills. And some mothering is valued even less than others. The parenting of poor women, Black women, single women and lesbian women is often discouraged, judged, disrespected and misrepresented. Further, mothering is unsupported by social arrangements and the state. The failure to allow some mothers to prosper through supported access to higher education, the availability of affordable quality childcare, equal employment opportunities as well as equal pay only serves to limit society from being all it could be through the increased contribution of women.
On the other, parenting work – albeit not only by women – should be recognised, supported and celebrated by society at large. Within the humdrum of everyday parenting lies opportunities to effect tiny bits of social change through what we teach our children, the actors who will shape and colour the social future. By raising children in ways that are conscious and radical – such as demonstrating to our daughters and sons the equality of the sexes, and raising girls and boys to resist modes of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ that are constraining and harmful – we can challenge the reproduction of degrading notions of gender. We can do the same for warped understandings of ‘race’, sexuality and much more. Of course, this is no easy task in the cultural context. And this responsibility belongs to all of society, not just mothers. Nonetheless, the radical potentiality of mothering is not highlighted enough. If something is worth celebrating today, it is this.