It may not appear that we’d have much in common. But across the subway car, Girlfriend and I locked eyes in that kind of split-second moment of recognition when some soul-to-soul stuff happens. I don’t know what it is exactly. But it is as though our hearts cross and the ancestors start spilling tea. It’s feels like the Sledge chicks sang in the Seventies: “I got my sister in me.” It’s a black thing that sometimes, even I don’t understand. But it’s for real. There’s me, dressed in Gap capris and ballet flats—channeling Audrey Hepburn from back in the day. Then there’s Girlfriend, rocking Timberlands, Apple Bottom jeans and dookie braids from around the way. We’d barely made eye contact until we both heard the screams coming from a stroller in the middle aisle on a crowded train. At first, it was difficult to figure out what was bothering the child—all the yelling, the writhing, the squirming—but he seemed determined to escape the stroller harness. He was off the rails in the throes of toddler-tantrum speak…red-faced and buck wild. Then he threw his sippy cup at his mother’s pregnant belly and wailed, “I HATE you!” Despite the no-drip claims, said sippy did in fact leak. And as the kid’s mom dabbed her damp blond bangs, she simply sighed and said, “We’re almost home, Billy…There, there.”
I looked up at Girlfriend just as Girlfriend looked at me. Our faces high-fived each other across the crowded train and our eyes spoke. Hers said, “Oh, HELL no he didn’t.” And mine responded: “Yes. He. Did.” Then Girlfriend started to shake her head slowly and smile. I laughed. And we reveled in our bonding time. It’s that moment when black women share a secret without uttering a word. Not everyone knows we have secrets. Our confidences are not perceptible to outsiders, because that’s just how we roll. We keep secrets from men. We keep secrets from white people. We keep secrets from our secrets. Yes. It’s that deep. And it’s why we love one another with a fierceness no words can describe. That shared knowingness is the number one reason that Michelle Obama is our shero. The connection is so powerful I can only begin to explain by borrowing the words of the rapper who famously hails from Marcy Projects (“H” to the “O.V”): “Real recognize real…and you’re looking familiar.”
Have you ever looked—I mean really looked—at that sister’s face? Obviously, it is saying: I am the First Lady of the United States of America. You quickly receive her intelligence, grace and beauty. But what she communicates to us black women is home girl through and through. Birthers question her man’s citizenship. Feminists assail her at-home mothering choice. But while she is standing on a podium smiling and looking classy as all get out to the rest of the known world, the glint in her eyes is telling us: “Haters gon’ hate. You know how we do!”
I know it’s easy to get the impression from all the neck-rolling Sapphire-ness on TV that we black women holler and fuss all day long—that we loud-talk folks, read them for every little transgression. But in the quiet beneath the noise, I would wager that we are probably the most discreet, still and discerning population on the face of the earth. And we keep many, many things on the low. Especially when it comes to motherhood.
Allow me to explain. I’ll begin with a bit of a qualifier. You know when the gossip starts to get really good and a friend begins a statement with, “I don’t want to sound mean, but…” Inevitably, the words that follow will be spiteful and cruel. Right? The same is true when someone says, “Not to sound racist…”
There is no shame in my game. I won’t preface what I’m about to say with any attempt to be politically correct because the words I’m about to say are, well, you know…racist. I will own it. No mistake. Stereotypes are, of course, built on racist assumptions.
But, in all fairness, you know sometimes when people spout racial stereotypes, they can be a-little-bit-kinda true. Not entirely true, but a smidgen. For example, as a black person myself, I have never met another black person who did not like chicken. I know some vegans who don’t eat chicken. But that’s different. I never met one who didn’t like chicken. On other hand, we don’t all eat watermelon. My son Cole can’t stand watermelon and I know others who are not fond of it—admittedly, not very many.
Not all black people can dance either. Mama couldn’t find a beat if it was pounded upside her head. In stark contrast to the venerable Skeleton Song, I have long harbored serious doubt that mama’s hipbone is in fact connected (or within a half-mile radius) to her backbone. She doesn’t even have a little bit of rhythm. And I went to college with a sister whose dancing was so bad she thought she was good. In fact, her Greek pledge name was “Crazy Legs” and it was emblazoned on her sorority jacket. That her so-called “sisters” would play her in such a way was all the confirmation I ever needed to remain Me Phi Me. It was freshman year, I think, and Kool and the Gang had a song out called “Fresh.” When I tell you that poor girl would rush the dance floor in a fitful frenzy, her bony limbs going very which way. It was sad, really. But I digress.
Just as mainstream America has promulgated certain stereotypes about blacks, we have done the same. There is one particular stereotype I’d always heard, but one that never completely resonated until I became a mom. It truly pains me to say it, but I think it’s better that you all hear it from me—not in the streets. So here goes:
White parents are punks.
Aahhh. It feels good to finally let that out. I’ve never really put it out there before. Generally speaking every black person on the face of the earth believes this to be Gospel. Yes. We hold this truth to be self evident…That white kids are born with a license to run all over their parents, especially their mothers—with the only repercussion being a tap of the foot and some lame response like, “Now, Becky…”
The belief is so pervasive that when two black people—who are TOTAL strangers and wouldn’t otherwise give each other the time of day—observe a white toddler falling out in a public place, they instinctively connect and nod in agreement. Sometimes they trade non-verbal cues like head shaking or eye rolling. They might even laugh. Same thing happens when a white teen-ager is overheard screaming like, “Mom, shut up!” or “What’s the friggin’ big deal?” Here is what black people don’t say out loud, but think:
- “Is anyone else seeing and hearing what I’m seeing and hearing”
- “Where is my belt? I’m gon’ beat this child’s behind. Then I’ma whip his fool mama!”
- “White folks…go figure.”
Before you go and get yourself all offended, I hope you realize I’m sharing this information only out of love. The way I figure if we want to know the crazy thoughts whites have about black people all we have to do is watch Fox News. But you poor white people have no way to get the 4-1-1. If you tried watching BET, you’ve probably already been led astray, because, honestly, not that many black folks have as much sex as the average hip-hop star. Especially married folks. I know one thing, even if “I been drankin’,” me we don’t hardly be all night.
Make no mistake. Disclosures like this are risky business for a sister and could possibly cost me my black card. This may come as a surprise to many of you but there are certain things black people are not supposed to do or say in mixed company. I’m not making this up. It’s a hard and fast rule—a regulation…subject to very harsh judgment and shame.[Note to black folks: Fall back; I’m not planning to spill everything.]
It’s a scientific and well researched fact that blacks and whites operate under a different set of expectations—a different set of goals—when it comes to parenting. Many black parents believe that obedience and respect for elders are the main measures of a kid raised right—which explains why you’re more likely to see a black child get yoked in public if he acts out. I don’t think most white parents place as high a premium on compliance (duh?). Instead, ranking things like confidence and autonomy high on the scale of “good kids.”
Confidence, in the black households I know, is not wielded about. Be black and proud and all that good stuff. But as kids we are not encouraged to get to where they think we’re all that. It’s a black thing. And I know it sounds a bit confusing. Even as I’m talking, I’m beginning to question the logic of it. But that’s just the thing. The issue is not so much about logic as it is history.
Obedience is next to godliness. Curiosity, acting out, or any uppity or seemingly ill-mannered behavior simply can’t be tolerated.
Of course, I’ve never heard mama or any black mother actually say that too much confidence is a bad thing. But it was implicit in even the most mundane parenting interactions. What happens is this: A kid reaches a certain stage—not so much an age, mind you—wherein a sense of supreme confidence begins to well up inside. Said child becomes aware of her power, starts to feel emboldened; ask questions; challenge authority. This is good thing. Right? Well, now that all depends. In theory the emergence of self-esteem is something we parents all want to see in our children.
But there is also a huge downside once you began asserting yourself in a too bold a fashion. And mama would let you know she wasn’t having it. She was quick to say: “Don’t start smelling yourself up in here!” (Translation: Don’t get too big for your britches.)
Do not despair, white moms and dads. I have seen for myself that many of you are not at all punks. You are, to be sure, far more um, flexible, than most black parents. We simply have different expectations and discipline styles. Here is just a brief sampling of things mama would say that I don’t believe a white person would ever say to their child.
- “I’ll slap the taste outcha’ mouth!”
- “If you want to keep your eyeballs in your head, you bet’ not roll them again.”
- “You don’t have to run away; you can walk. And I won’t chase after you.”
- “Don’t let your mouth write a check that your ass can’t cash.”
Just because roughly four million black people claim something to be true doesn’t make it so. We blacks have been off the mark with our stereotyping in the past. Once upon a time, for example, it was widely theorized that all white girls had flat booties. Period.
It wasn’t unusual to speak ill of a white girl back in the day by saying something like, “That no-ass Suzy had the nerve…” My how times have changed. Most blacks have shed such prejudices, as a lot of white girls now pack serious junk in their trunks. In fact, per Anna Wintour—so thin her backside could stunt double for her front and doyenne of all things current and culturally relevant—2014 officially marks the Era of the Big Booty. Not because of sisters whose behinds have crossed zip codes for generations. Not because Sir Mix-a-lot waxed poetically so 20 years ago when he spit “Baby Got Back.” No. The Booty Era is here because of big ass wannabe’s like Iggy Azalea and the Kardashians. Vogue could’ve dug deeper and found white girls with real, not silicone-enhanced, big butts. I’ve seen them. In fact, as a race, blacks have taken notice. Instead of unfounded generalizations, our opinions are now shaped by sound scientific factors: including the inter-race marriage rates and contemporary white America’s Columbus-ing of all things black—like hip-hop, corn rows and, of course, chicken (fried, I suspect).
Don’t shoot the messenger, people. Think of the information I’m dropping in these pages as one, thick and, at times, rambling Public Service Announcement. Remember that trench coat-wearing TV hound dog warning us as kids to “Take a bite out of crime”? He talked about some scary stuff and probably made us anxious, but we needed to know about nefarious characters that might try to snatch up blond, blue-eyed girls like Amy. Notice how McGruff never cautioned that anybody might grab Sheneika or deal drugs to Daiquan? If you missed that nuance, don’t think it got past us black people. The message we get pretty much all the time is that white children are worthy of being protected. They are precious.
I’m not saying that many whites consciously think this way nowadays. But the relationship between white kids and black women as their protectors and caregivers goes way back. Ever since “Plymouth Rock landed on us,” as Malcolm X said—black women have been caregivers to white children, often even nursing them on plantations. These black women usually had children of their own (sold from under them), as do many of the black nannies pushing white children in strollers today.
Black people love their kids, for sure. But historically we never had the luxury of thinking them precious. Special? Yes. There is a big difference. We don’t see our kids as anything akin to fine china, not to be disturbed or broken. In fact, given our druthers, most black parents would choose to “break” their kids before someone else does. So habits like speaking out of turn, acting out in public or any action that draws the scrutiny of outsiders is to be halted—immediately. We fear that if we wait for our kids to simply outgrow such childishness they might suffer at the hands of authority, especially those men in blue. Authority, with its billy sticks and handcuffs and black robes, has not been kind to us. Too much adoring, too much lovey-dovey cooing might fill a child’s head with thoughts that would get him killed. Surely the overseer, the Klansman, the beat cop—or whomever—might find that confident black kid arrogant and do him harm.
Mama almost never talks about the past—especially the messy parts. I once read that Martin Luther King Jr. said that Birmingham, her birthplace, was to desegregation what Johannesburg was to apartheid. When I asked mama about that statement, she would only say, “You know good and well I’ve never been to South Africa.”