Dear Mother Wit:
Is there any role for White parents (such as myself) who see an example of prolonged emotional abuse by a Black parent of their child in public?
Today, for example, I saw a Black mom screaming at her two-year-old daughter for half an hour to sit down and shut up. As the child was screaming and crying, her mom kept forcing her out of a hug and down into a seat. The mom said, “You can’t have candy! What did I say?? Why are you making a scene?? Goddamnit, what’s wrong with you?” The girl didn’t want candy anymore; she just wanted to be held and for her mom to stop yelling.
First and foremost, I’m a White dude, and I understand any angry confrontation would be completely counterproductive (and every Black person on the bus would rightly consider me a racist asshole). It just hurts, and I want to know if there’s any reasonable intervention, or if it’s strictly a matter for folks like me of supporting folks like yourself and waiting for institutional change.
First, thank you. Thank you for caring and for speaking up and for asking from a place of respect and humility. That doesn’t happen often enough, so I want to appreciate you for your concern and your question.
It can be the hardest, most heart-breaking thing to witness a scene like the one that you’ve described. When I see that, first I have to calm down my own “mother bear” instincts to correct the parent and comfort the child. That usually takes several deep, deep breaths.
That helps me to realize that I’m not looking at an adult and a child. I’m really looking at two children. The older one, the mother, is a big child who was never loved or nurtured in a way that makes it possible for her to be empathetic, loving, and nurturing to her son or daughter. I recognize that they are both frustrated. Maybe deep down, the mother wants to do better, but she has no idea how to start because she doesn’t even know what it feels like to receive that kind of tenderness, so how would she know how to give it?
It’s still heartbreaking, but seeing it in that way sometimes helps me to calm down. Still, there’s the natural desire to “fix” the situation, especially for the very young child who is simply trying to get her needs met.
I don’t have an easy solution for you, Jim, because you’re right: the fact that you’re White—and a man—makes it hard for us to see anything else. The way that society works, we’re so surrounded by the fact that White and male equals power and often oppression, that sometimes it can be challenging to view you simply as another concerned human being. And when we as Black people are corrected or criticized by a White person—especially in the area of parenting—we’re not likely to be receptive or responsive at all.
But don’t let this make you feel hopeless. Even if it’s uncomfortable, I hope you stay alert and aware and I hope you keep caring and wondering what you can do. Because it’s possible that maybe one day you CAN do something to make a difference. Maybe there will be a situation where you’ll find it appropriate to acknowledge the fact that you’re White and a man, but that you’re also a parent and you know that’s the most frustrating job in the world. And maybe you can share how you know that sometimes parents just need somebody to understand what they’re going through, or that they don’t have all the answers, or that sometimes their children need more than they can give them right then. You might be able to share a story about how your child/ren drove you to the brink and you weren’t sure what to do, and that it helped just to have another parent say, “Hey, I get it. I’ve been there. I’ll be there again. And I just wanted you to know that you’re not alone.”
Once I was in a fancy department store, in the gift section with my 5-year-old son and my 3-year-old daughter (who refused to stay in the stroller). I was holding my daughter’s hand and my son pulled away and knocked an expensive glass decoration onto the floor. I was already tired, hungry and frustrated. And I started to grab him to get us away from all of the beautiful, delicate, expensive stuff that looked so scary to me because all I could think of was that he’d break something I couldn’t afford to pay for. And suddenly, this woman appeared right in front of me. She was an older woman. She was White, with silver hair, looking like somebody’s grandmother.
She looked me in the eye and spoke in a soft, soothing voice. She said, “It’s hard, isn’t it?” I nodded, wanting to cry. She nodded and said, “I understand. He’s a good boy. You’re a good mother. It’s going to turn out fine.”
And just like that, she was gone. I swear, Jim, I thought she was an angel because I hadn’t seen or heard her approach me and I didn’t see her leave. But she saved me from my own fear and frustration. She slowed me down just enough to take a breath, and her reassurance was everything for me.
Because those are the moments, Jim, where a little bit of human sunshine can break through the clouds and we can acknowledge our differences while connecting on our common ground. Where we just reach out to help someone because we understand and we just want them to know that we care. Without judging or criticizing or trying to fix it (and that can be the hardest thing). Without scolding or correcting or acting like we know something they don’t (even when that’s the truth). Just reaching out for a quick minute to say, “Hey. We’re different in a lot of ways, but some parts of parenting are the same for all of us. And I just wanted to tell you that you’re not alone and it’s going to be okay.”
I have a feeling you’re going to be that kind of “angel” for somebody—maybe even for more than one somebody—Jim. So please, keep watching and caring and waiting for that moment when you can break through the barriers and help somebody make it through a tough, tense moment of parenting. You’ll be making the world a better place when you do.