White Feminist Privilege and the War on Mother’s Day

Over the past few days, I have watched a stark racial divide develop among my social media friends, many of whom are progressive clergy, academics, and social justice activists. The divide in itself is 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 videorecording of police killing an unarmed Black person, or the unjust conviction and sentencing of a Black women 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 are largely silent about Marissa Alexander. And the mostly Black female crowd organizing on behalf of Marissa are largely silent about Kelly.

mothers-dayBut the latest issue that divides my Facebook and Twitter pals is not a social justice concern. It’s Mother’s Day. For some reason this year, the holiday is engendering some vigorous antipathy. There’s been a proliferation of anti-Mother’s Day articles. Anne Lamott’s 2010 Salon article, “Why I Hate Mother’s Day,” seems to have started a new genre of writing. Several writers have joined their voices with hers to lament this holiday that celebrates mothers to the exclusion of non-mothers. One writer agrees with Lamott’s disdain for the holiday but says that it’s for an entirely different reason. Another argues that “Mother’s Day is NOT a Liturgical Holiday.” Every article has some variation of the same argument: Mother’s Day is bad because it makes too big a deal of mothers.

It’s bizarre that so many people are spending time complaining about a day that they think receives too much attention. It’s even more bizarre that it’s mostly my White feminist friends who keep 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 are largely silent on the issue.

Actually, they’re not silent. They are 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 are posting 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.

moms14n-1-webThey are reminding us to pray for the exclusive mothers’ club whose membership consists of women whose unarmed Black and Latino children have been killed by police and white civilians. They are grieving along with people who are motherless or childless for a number of reasons – death, neglect, abuse, infertility. They are acknowledging 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 are both celebrating Mother’s Day and lamenting 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.

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25 thoughts on “White Feminist Privilege and the War on Mother’s Day

  1. It’s a shame you can’t call for everyone to recognize and honor the struggles of mothers who are Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American without denigrating the struggles of women who live in communities that don’t value women who aren’t mothers and for whom Mother’s Day often seems like a day to marginalize them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • S. Moore says:

      I’m not a mother, but I have one. A mother *I* value. A mother who exists, for me, independent of any community assignations of worth. A mother deserving of celebration by me every day for no other reason than because she did, and continues to do 40 years into it, an incredible job as MY mother. She’s the only mother I called today. I feel no pressure to issue a sweeping, all-encompassing salutation to mothers as a whole. So, while I may not be a mother myself, I will never view this holiday as an indictment of my decision to not satisfy some outdated societal expectation of my role as a woman–because I have a mother. A good one. A mother whose struggles were such that I would never, ever, dream to insult the magnitude of what she had to overcome by calling my experience as a childless woman a “struggle”.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks S. Moore. I deeply appreciate your comment. One of my motivations for writing this was that I didn’t want stories like your mothers to be diminished as we wrestle with the difficulties of this day for others.

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      • Thanks Amanda. The irony is that I actually have mixed feelings towards Mother’s Day myself, but I felt like we needed to bring some balance to the conversation.

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      • I apologize for my belligerent tone and for not checking back to see your questions. Denigrating was probably the wrong word. My point was that I know women who say that their communities (typically, but not exclusively, church and family communities) do a poor job of making a place for women who aren’t married and don’t have children. Some of them say that Mother’s Day in particular feels like an occasion where their community holds up motherhood as the only true vocation for a woman, without the slightest acknowledgement of women who aren’t and may never be mothers.

        That’s the place that some of these anti-Mother’s Day sentiments are coming from and it seems possible to celebrate and honor the particular struggles of mothers who are Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American without…setting aside? ignoring? describing as ‘bizarre’?…I’m looking for a more fair word than ‘denigrating’…the struggles of women whose communities make a habit of ignoring them, especially on Mother’s Day.

        Again, I apologize for expressing my concern with such belligerent language. The concerns you express are certainly legitimate.

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  2. Friend, I read the article on Mothers Day is not liturgical. I’m glad I read it because what it said to me is that the priesthood (I’m Catholic) has pandered to the unreal image of motherhood, the one that has been domesticated by marketing. I write this as a Latina who along with my younger siblings was raised by a mother who worked to raise us. So I know how hard mothers work inside the home and outside the home.

    I posted the article on the Mothers March because I believe that women are more powerful than the media can understand. The women in my family are all strong, their home is their castle, and they rule. The ‘privilege’ that you find odious, many of us also find ‘odious’ because it is a once-a-year token that fails to recognize the struggles of women the rest of the year.

    I’ll count up the ‘white feminists’ posts and their messages, but I’m also suspecting that other feminists are coming from the same ‘space’ you’re coming from. Let’s count ’em up.

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    • Hi Chris. Thanks for responding. I think, though, that you may have misunderstood me. It seems that you think that I am referring to Mother’s Day as a privilege that I find to be “odious.” I never said any such thing and am truly regretful if people are interpreting it that way.

      The privilege that I’m referring to here is white privilege and the subtle ways in which it impacts perceptions of pain and injustice. The distinction between my argument and those of the women I critique is also subtle, but significant.

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  3. Cas says:

    I thankful to live in the UK where Mothering Sunday is celebrated during lent, an has a literigical place. And as a single women doesn’t exclude but celebrates how we along with the mother church have Mothering roles in society, that has no division on class race or age.. One of the greatest thing said to me by one of the young people who I know was your my second Mum…

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    • In many African American church traditions in the US, Mother’s Day also plays an important role in the liturgy. When done well, it provides a great opportunity for both celebration and lament.

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  4. Wendy Anderson says:

    Ridiculous article. All women of All colors have the same plight and should be Uniting to help each other. I am white and because I’m female, lower than a second class citizen, according to white men. Who want control over my pay scale, my right to birth control, my right to an opinion. If white men had their way, I wouldn’t have the right to vote. Stop whining, recognize that we march With you for your Civil Rights, and start marching With us, for change for All women!

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    • Actually, sister Wendy, all women of all colors do not have the same plight. The exclusion of women of color in the larger women’s rights movement has long been observed and documented. When Black women tried to join the voices of suffragists in the early 20th century, they were marginalized and silenced by their white sisters. It would be nice if white feminists have always had the backs of their sisters of color, but they haven’t, which is why Womanism, Asian American feminists, and Mujeristas are necessary. We share many common struggles, but others are unique (and often ignored/swept under the rug in favor of the majority’s narrative).

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Gini G. says:

    Thank you for this. I am a white feminist and only recently became cognizant of the enormous racial divide in today’s feminist movement. I would respectfully disagree with Wendy that we all face the same trials; I realize, for example, that I will never have to school my child on how to behave when she is pulled over by the police. Not a trivial issue. I appreciate your putting forth another facet of the divide. I now believe and teach that we who are privileged to disregard a particular struggle have an obligation to teach that very struggle. I hope there are white fathers out there doing the same.

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  6. Carla says:

    I’m having trouble understanding how Lamott’s article is an example of white privilege. She seems to be saying that she thinks this holiday leaves some people feeling bad – because they aren’t mothers, because they have lost their mothers (to death, perhaps, but as I think about it but she didn’t mention it – also through adoption – or lost their children to death or adoption) or because they had horrible mothers. And also that it ends up for some mothers and children to either be a day where they are made to feel guilty if they don’t feel like doing something for their mothers, or the mothers end up feeling bad because their kids don’t do something or enough for them – that it is a bit coercive and there are raised expectations all around. As someone who had an alcoholic, abusive mother, I remember as a young person, picking thru the Mother’s Day cards wondering if I could find one that wouldn’t make a complete hypocrite out of me and being envious of people who felt those wonderful feelings expressed in those cards about their mothers – so her article did resonate with me, personally. I do get your point about motherhood being a different situation for women of color and appreciate that perspective – I’m thinking now especially of the demonization of single mothers that goes on these days. I confess I haven’t read the other articles that you linked to, but I am trying and can’t see the white privilege in Lamott’s article. Is it that the tone of the article makes it seem that no one should like Mother’s Day? (I didn’t get that, but I can see it as a possibility). And for what it is worth, my facebook feed was filled with lots of tributes to mothers, black and white. I didn’t experience the racial divide that you did – although now that you mention it, it was only white women who posted Lamott’s article. In fact one woman, who I’m pretty sure is feminist, noted on her facebook page that she didn’t think there was another holiday with more celebrations and tributes and pictures than she had seen on this Mother’s Day. Not really trying to argue, just trying to understand.

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    • I had similar questions, reading Walker-Barnes’s article. Perhaps the argument is that we could conceive of Mother’s Day as a day of activism? Fighting for the rights and commemorating the plights of mothers? Otherwise it would not make sense to dedicate one day a year to a job – and that includes the same job when done by fathers – that is worth appreciating all year round. Because, as it stands, the sentimentalism and commercialism that surrounds it in many cases only denigrate mothers further (I am observing this in Europe, in any case: took a photo of a rather laughable example recently: https://historianatlarge.wordpress.com/2015/04/10/the-perfect-gift-for/).

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  7. Hi, Dr. Chanequa,
    Thank you for linking to my piece! I was glad to read yours.
    I actually had been trying to say that I disliked Mother’s Day because it celebrated mothers too little, not because it celebrated them too much.
    But I’m glad you’ve been able to say it more clearly than I, and with more attention to those mothers whose path has been filled with so much pain.

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  8. Rebecca G says:

    I really appreciate your words, Dr. Chanequa, thank you.

    Here is my annual MD message~
    Happy Mother’s Day to my Mom ___, my sis ____, my darling daughter___, my dear friends __________!

    Happy Mothers Day to all of us outlaw mothers ~ Stepmoms, Queer moms without legal rights, moms who relinquished their children, moms whose children were taken from them, non-custodial moms, and men who mother!

    And Ms. Wendy – I appreciate your passion for women. It’s long past time for white women to stop telling women of color how to behave.

    Like

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