In Defense of Angry Black Mothers.
(Originally posted June 17, 2017)
In the moments after her son’s shooter was acquitted, Philando Castile’s mother told the press, “People have died for us to have these rights and now we're devolving. We're going back down to 1969. Damn. What is it going to take? I'm mad as hell right now, yes I am.” I don’t know where she found the strength to find the words, but she did. “Mad as hell,” says another “angry black woman.” She has every right to be. Not because I say so, not because you think so, but because her son was fatally shot by the police at a traffic stop and a jury of her peers deemed that acceptable. In that light, every black woman in the US has every right to be furious. Every day of their life. Anywhere they go. The mere fact that Ms. Castile is not the only angry black mother this country has seen in the past few years, watching her son’s shooters get away with it, should make all of us angry. Ms. Castile is unfortunately one of many and she is only part of a subset of the justifiably irate black women in this country. However, as a society, angry black women are instantaneously written off as histrionic and irrational.
Black female anger is continuously de-valued and stigmatized as an inappropriate and counterproductive emotion. For examples, peruse the following link with lists of articles exploring the “angry black women” label and how it is used to cast aside black female opinion http://www.huffingtonpost.com/topic/angry-black-woman Or take a look at this article discussing the impact of pejorative “angry black woman” stereotypes on black women in psychotherapy, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24188294 You can also, jump into the eponymous website www.theangryblackwoman.com The list goes on! As a white woman and a mother, I tread into this topic carefully because I am not using my voice to express my own experience or an experience I will ever have. I do, however, view this piece and others like it as the fulfillment of my duties as a white ally. As a white person in the US, silence is complicity. I benefit, every day, from the privilege of being white. Whether this privilege is bestowed on me individually or as a member of the historically oppressive racial group, I still benefit from it. It is incumbent on me and others to use our privilege to support racial minorities in their trek for equality, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [wo]men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke. So this is me doing the opposite of nothing, however small this something is.
Mr. Philando Castile, a black man, was at a traffic stop. His girlfriend and her 4 year old child were in the car with him. He told the officer he had a gun permit and a gun. He reached for his ID, following the officer’s instructions. 103 seconds later, Officer Yanez fatally shot Mr. Castile. This should outrage you. We don’t need more information to know the outcome of that interaction is unacceptable. Under no circumstance does an Officer have the right to fatally shoot a compliant individual. Under no circumstances should we accept that an officer cannot have a 103-second interaction with another human being without filling him with bullets. That Officer is a danger to society and needs to be stopped. Yet, on June 16, 2017, he got acquitted. He went back to his freedom even though he killed somebody's baby. Take a moment to think about that: Mr. Castile was somebody’s baby. Mr. Castile had a mother who is now heartbroken by the events and de-humanized by the judicial process. She has been told, in no uncertain terms, that her son’s homicide is par for the course and she should expect no justice. Every time our society does that, it sends the same message to black mothers nationwide: the society you live in does not consider it wrong for you to lose your sons to law enforcement’s inability to see black men as people. This should make you want to throw your computer out the window. Yet, it is the inescapable message sent to black communities time and time again: You don’t matter. How could they be anything but furious?
What strikes me the most about the lack of concerted political, judicial, or social response to the routine murdering of black men and teenagers by law enforcement is the simultaneous effacement of black mother’s pain. The archetypal American mother pours love, untold energy, and countless hours into raising her children. Mother’s day brings with it a smorgasbord of stereotypes about motherhood and its endless sacrifices. And although I cringe at the gender stereotyped and forced tropes, I recognize that motherhood truly requires a giving of self. From adjusting your daily schedule to match school calendars, to the mental load of tracking snacks, lunches, homework, and clothes, to the running around for playdates and doctor’s appointments, to the effort it takes every night to find whatever energy is left to read a book or cuddle, motherhood is a wholesale investment of our very selves. That is true for all mothers. If your mind snags at that statement because I am triggering negative stereotypes about black mothers, we’ve hit the right nerve. Stay with me.
Black women have every right to be angry, for a whole host of reasons. One of them is that our judicial and political system reminds them that even motherhood, which is supposedly a revered role in this country, isn’t quite as valuable when it is black motherhood. Mr. Castile, along with all the named others—Trayvon Martin, Eric Gardner, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Jr., just to name a few—and unnamed others were all somebody’s baby. They may have been someone’s memory of holding their infant for the first time, someone’s memory of hearing them say something heart-crushingly funny and endearing in their innocent pipsqueak voice, they were at one point little fingers holding on to mom’s hand, they were someone's memory of exasperatedly discovering marked up walls and dirty carpets, they were big sad eyes looking for comfort, and cuddles and kisses after a long day of work, they were adolescent arguments and decreasing but oh-so-welcome teenage hugs. They were somebody’s baby. They were somebody's heart. They were black women's children. And black women are forced to live in a country where all of this can be taken from them, by the police—of all things—merely because of their child’s skin pigmentation. Why are you not on your feet enraged at the injustice? If a police officer is racist or simply incompetent and these mothers have the unfortunate luck-of-the-draw chance of having them cross paths with their children, all bets are off. None of these women’s efforts and dedication and love means squat: their kid ends up with four bullets in the chest—as Mr. Castile did—and to hell with their pain. Can you begin to imagine their pain? Because I try, and fail.
(For an insightful read about black motherhood in white spaces, see http://time.com/1311/the-impossibility-of-the-good-black-mother/).
As I watch Mr. Castile’s killer get away with it and listen to his mother talk about her pain, I take a moment to imagine how proud she must have been to have raised such an amazing man. By all accounts, Mr. Castile was a beautiful human being. He was a cafeteria supervisor at a school where he worked for over a decade. He memorized the names of the 500 children he served every day, along with their food allergies. http://us.blastingnews.com/news/2016/07/police-shoot-philando-castile-after-pulling-him-over-for-busted-taillight-001002907.html
He brought calm to his work. He was respected and respectful. If this were a description of my children, I would be so proud. When I see Ms. Castile torn to pieces by our country’s refusal to vindicate her, I see a brokenhearted mother. That’s who we should be seeing. As humans, we want to believe in a just world. As Americans, we build our nation's promise on that idea. US politicians tout the notion that if we “work hard” and “do the right thing” good things will come. This is our social contract: follow the rules and society will not only be a safe place for you, it will be a prosperous place for you. So Ms. Castile did the right thing: she raised a compassionate, caring, and functional adult. She raised a man who worked with children and made them feel cared for. He had a job and he helped others. When black men are gunned down by law enforcement, any deviation from "compliant behavior," regardless how small, is used to justify their death. In this case, however, when stopped by the police, Mr. Castile disclosed his gun permit and the presence of a gun in the vehicle. It should have been enough. Both Mr. Castile (during the stop) and Ms. Castile (as his mother) held up their end of the bargain and society didn’t. (Two side notes are in order here. First, when the media tries to besmirch black men and describe them as thugs, it is an exercise in proving that all is well and that we are just witnessing the social contract at work. More on that in another article. Second, where is the NRA? After Mr. Castile's death not a peep was heard regarding the fact that he was killed, in part, for lawfully engaging in what the NRA considers a Second Amendment Right. The tacit message is that not only does the social contract not apply to black men, neither does the US Constitution). Not only does working hard and following the rules fail to produce prosperity, it fails to even provide basic safety from indiscriminate death at the hands of the government. And when the legal process fails to enforce the breach of the contract, that means there is no retribution to the breaching party. When a black person gets unjustly gunned down by law enforcement and law enforcement gets away with it, it tells the entire US black population: you are not a party to the social contract. While privileged whites get to live their lives without understanding this, black communities don’t get that luxury. Ms. Castile knows what’s going on, which is why she refers to 1969: the civil rights movement, the movement that forced whites into a recognition that the social contract applies to blacks and that they are entitled to its benefits as inhabitants of this country. When black mothers demand justice, and they are denied, they are told—for the millionth time in their lives—that the social contract simply doesn’t apply to them. They have no right to safety, no right to integrity, no right to justice. Wouldn’t you be angry, white reader? Between January and July 2016 alone, law enforcement killed 136 black people. That's 3 people every 2 days!
I sit here, at my computer, taking a moment to find a sense memory of the times I felt my children were under “attack.” I take that instant of chest tightening and blinding anger, instinct to protect, helplessness and vulnerability, and tell myself that this must be black motherhood in the US: All. The. Time. It must be exhausting. To then also be told that my anger is “unbecoming” and “unproductive” would most certainly leave me a pile of seething, incoherent, rage-filled nothing. Given that set of facts, I don’t understand how black women could be anything but angry. So when you watch an angry black mother give yet another speech about her child’s murderer getting away with it, I’d like you to take a moment and acknowledge that she, along with ever other black women in this country, has every right to be irate and that you have every duty to stand up for her in whatever way you can. “Angry black woman” shouldn’t be a trope, it should be a call to action for all of us.