What White Feminists Take for Granted About Mother's Day

by Chanequa Walker-Barnes

Last week, I watched a stark racial divide develop among my social media friends, many of whom are progressive clergy members, academics, and social justice activists. The divide in itself was not unusual. I have noticed it each time that some major social justice concern has occurred, whether it is the impending execution of a White woman, the video recording of police killing an unarmed Black person, or the unjust conviction and sentencing of a Black woman defending herself from an abusive partner. Just like most of U.S. society, social justice concerns tend to be divided along racial, ethnic, and class lines. So the mostly White activists organizing on behalf of Kelly Gissandaner were largely silent about Marissa Alexander. And the mostly Black female crowd organizing on behalf of Marissa is largely silent about Kelly.

But the latest issue that divided my Facebook and Twitter pals was not a social justice issue. It was Mother's Day. (Yes, the holiday.) For some reason this year, the holiday engendered some vigorous antipathy. There was a proliferation of anti-Mother's Day articles, with Anne Lamott's 2010 Salon article, "Why I Hate Mother's Day," seemingly starting a new genre of writing. Several writers joined their voices with hers to lament the holiday that celebrates mothers to the exclusion of non-mothers. One writer agreed with Lamott's disdain for the holiday, but had many different reasons for doing so—including the way it dictates how we’re supposed to showcase our emotions. Another argued that Mother's Day "is not a liturgical holiday."

Every article had some variation of the same argument: Mother's Day is bad because it makes too big a deal of mothers.

It was bizarre that so many people spent time complaining about a day they think receives too much attention. It was even more bizarre that it was mostly my White feminist friends who kept posting these articles on social media, with comments such as, "This writer says everything I ever thought about Mother's Day." In contrast, my Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American friends and acquaintances were largely silent on the issue.

Actually, they were not silent. They were posting photos of and tributes to the women who have mothered them, to those whose mothering they admire, and even to the children who have made them mothers. They posted articles about women of color whose rights to mother were taken away by hospitals and Christian missionaries who stole their babies, by states who forcibly sterilized them, and by a society that undervalues them.

They reminded us to pray for the “exclusive mothers' club” whose membership consists of women whose unarmed Black and Latino children have been killed by police or white civilians. They grieved along with people who are motherless or childless for a number of reasons—death, neglect, abuse, or possibly infertility. They acknowledged that all mothering is not good and that many people have complicated relationships with their mothers. In the best traditions of womanist, mujerista, and Native and Asian American feminist thought, women and men of color both celebrated Mother's Day and lamented the sources of individual and systemic pain that the day can bring.

I suppose it's much easier to denigrate a day that venerates motherhood when it is your culture's ideal of motherhood that's being elevated, when your right and capacity to mother have never been systemically questioned, threatened, or denied. But for some of us, motherhood has not always been a crystal stair.

Tread lightly, my white feminist sisters. Your privilege is showing.

Photo: Shutterstock

This piece previously appeared on the author's blog under a different title.

Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes is the author of Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength. A theologian and psychologist, she teaches pastoral care and counseling at Mercer University. You can follow her on Twitter @DrChanequa.

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