Real Talk: On Debra Harrell’s Arrest, Motherhood & Race

Real Talk: On Debra Harrell's Arrest, Motherhood & Race

In last week’s Mommie Dearest column, I wrote about Debra Harrell, a South Carolina mother who was arrested for “abandoning” her nine-year-old daughter at a park while she worked at a nearby McDonald’s. (Just yesterday we learned that Harrell has been let go from her job.) I had mentioned in my post that Harrell is Black, prompting a few folks to ask why I needed to note her race. Instead of penning my own response, I thought it would be a good idea to hear from women of color who are mothers. We gathered for a virtual roundtable to discuss Harrell’s situation and  explorehow race impacts motherhood in the United States today. Meet:

Our conversation begins after the jump:

The Frisky: Why is it important to bring up Debra Harrell’s race when discussing what happened to her and her child?

Kelly Wickham: It’s important to bring up Harrell’s race because this has been an unseasonably hot summer and I’m not talking about the weather. I’m talking about the number of people who leave children in cars and are judged for making child care plans about which people feel the need to criticize. We’re looking at more mothers and yet not linking the consequences to race when they’re clearly inequitable. The day Harrell’s story came in my timeline there was another story of a mother (no race mentioned) who locked her kids in the car by accident. Video of that event showed a judgmental man narrating that she left them there and people were quick to jump on her for abandonment when witnesses later said it didn’t happen exactly the same way. Of course, there is backtracking on that now, but we can’t deny that there isn’t a standard and fair response to mothers of color in the news. It was obvious to me that looking at this with a critical lens meant that her race was a factor in both her actions but even more so in the consequences of the aftermath.

Stacia L. Brown: I’m always disheartened to find that the answer to this question isn’t an obvious one, when more than half of children in foster care in the U.S. are children of color, when 26 percent of those children are Black, and when 26 percent is twice the total percentage of Black children in the U.S. The disparity is that great — which means that far more black children are being taken away from their parents and far more black parents are being deemed unfit than white children and white parents.

When we hear about a Black mother’s custody being taken away because her child played at the park during the day while her mother worked, we get a clearer picture about how that disparity has become so broad. Black parents aren’t often given “benefit of the doubt” or “warnings” when authorities are alerted — especially not if we’re poor, which Sarah Jaffe highlights over at In These Times.

Veronica Arreola: I feel [the In These Times piece] did not address race in the manner that is required. Talking about economics and/or class is not a proxy for race despite the large overlap between the poor and communities of color. They are two systems that need to be discussed on their own merit. I firmly believe that we can’t talk about motherhood or mothering without talking about race. The image of the good mother is white and middle class. That’s the bar all moms have to live up to.

Feminista Jones: Race is essential in any serious conversation about life experiences because it has an impact on the ways in which we experience life. We also know that Black motherhood has long been demonized, as Black women have been required to put other people’s interests (and those of their children) ahead of their own. The idea that a Black mother is good enough to raise her own children is challenged because of the accusations of neglect because she’s had to spend so much time working and caring for OTHER people’s children. This twisted, contradictory approach to considering (or not) the humanity of Black mothers has lingered entirely too long. Dorothy Roberts writes about it in Killing The Black Body: Race, Reproduction And The Meaning Of Liberty. I recommend it. Angela Davis, too, on race, gender, and class.

Wickham: Feminista brings up a fantastic point about caring for other people’s children to the detriment of our own. That’s a long and ugly narrative that our country leaves as a legacy that shapes this story.

Jones: Black women spent 16 to 18 hours a day as domestics cleaning the homes of White women and raising their children, forced to leave their own children at home. Prior to that, enslaved Black women were forced to nurse White babies and tend to fields, often leaving their own babies alone. They couldn’t protect their children from abuse of owners either. For these things, Black women have been called “bad mothers.”

I’ve seen a lot of “If I was in her shoes…” ways of framing the story. What are your thoughts on the “this could happen to me” stories that seem to come out of this?

Brown: When this story first broke, a lot of my white social media peers shared their own experiences having hours of unsupervised play as children. I think this story resonates so with white readers because they recall so fondly the freedom they had to roam their neighborhoods as children. Historically, Black family experiences haven’t been informed by the same freedom. Between 1933 and 1966, there was a publication called The Negro Traveler’s Green Book that existed for the sole purpose of letting Black families know where they were welcome to eat, lodge, and drive. And even that wasn’t a failsafe. Segregated spaces have never been safe spaces for Black parents and children; they could still be profiled by police or white passersby, still interrogated, reported or attacked, just for trying to get from point A to point B. This may seem like a digression, but Black parents bring all this history to bear when they make decisions about what may and may not be safe for their children. And when Black readers encounter stories like Debra Harrell’s, we also hearken back to that history. And we can’t help but feel like Harrell was profiled — not just because she was unable to afford child care; to be clear, this isn’t just about class — but also because she’s Black.

Wickham: In terms of “this could happen to me,” I am acutely aware of the fact that not only will I refuse to judge her, I have had this exact thing happen to me. I left my nine-year-old home alone while working and trying to provide for my family and, yes, I felt like she was definitely mature enough to do so. Necessity brings that out in those living that struggle. The privilege we haven’t discussed yet with her case is twofold: one, that those lucky enough to provide adequate care are also privileged with the task of parenting that can coddle kids and produce highly immature children and, two, that the first abandonment we haven’t acknowledged is that of the father of this girl left alone. Women are shouldering the burden of single parenting and then the judgment of their decisions to take care of children that men have left. I think I was lucky enough to not have experienced any of my parenting of my young daughter when the Internet was invented since she’s now 28-years-old.

Arreola: I firmly believe that we make these statements because we hope it never will be us. Just as women are quick to say, “I’d never be out at 3 am!” after they hear about a rape, we do the same in many different situations: violent relationships, bad mothering, etc. It protects us from our own “bad choices” to make us think we are better than someone’s bad choice. I think it’s been said here, but wanted to make it clearer… When we have public discussions and debates about motherhood, we often, if not always, start at the Donna Reed model. A middle class, white, suburban mother who has devoted herself to caring for her children. Stephanie Coontz in the book The Way We Never Were: American Families And The Nostalgia Trap rips apart this myth and according to time logs, most moms, even working outside the home moms, spend more time with their children today than any Donna Reed did. Because they let their kids have unsupervised play time. Thus, any discussion about the pitfalls of moms of color — neglectful Black moms, fertile Latina moms, or even overly aggressive Asian moms — will fall short of the sweet loving White mom myth that we continue to cherish and write policy around.

For more on motherhood and race check out Stacia’s piece, What Black Latchkey Families Stand to Lose and this older roundtable at Bitch Magazine of  Mom bloggers and race.

Avital Norman Nathman blogs at The Mamafesto. Her book, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood To Fit Reality, is out now. Follow her on Twitter.

[Image of mom and child via Shutterstock]

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