Mothering While Black: Boundaries and Burdens of Middle-Class Parenthood

Mothering While Black: Boundaries and Burdens of Middle-Class Parenthood

by Dawn Marie Dow
Mothering While Black: Boundaries and Burdens of Middle-Class Parenthood

Mothering While Black: Boundaries and Burdens of Middle-Class Parenthood

by Dawn Marie Dow

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Mothering While Black examines the complex lives of the African American middle class—in particular, black mothers and the strategies they use to raise their children to maintain class status while simultaneously defining and protecting their children’s “authentically black” identities. Sociologist Dawn Marie Dow shows how the frameworks typically used to research middle-class families focus on white mothers’ experiences, inadequately capturing the experiences of African American middle- and upper-middle-class mothers. These limitations become apparent when Dow considers how these mothers apply different parenting strategies for black boys and for black girls, and how they navigate different expectations about breadwinning and childrearing from the African American community. At the intersection of race, ethnicity, gender, work, family, and culture, Mothering While Black sheds light on the exclusion of African American middle-class mothers from the dominant cultural experience of middle-class motherhood. In doing so, it reveals the painful truth of the decisions that black mothers must make to ensure the safety, well-being, and future prospects of their children.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520300323
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/12/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Dawn Marie Dow is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Faculty Associate at the Maryland Population Research Center.

Read an Excerpt


Creating Racial Safety and Comfort


I interviewed Maya in the living room of her home, which was located in an upper-middle-class enclave in a city noted for its high crime rate. Now an academic, Maya was raised in a two-income household by working-class parents. Her own family is blended, comprising a child from her spouse's previous relationship, children from her own previous relationships, and one child she and her current spouse had together. Describing how her approach to parenting compared to her parents' approach, she said,

[We do a lot] more middle-class parenting in a lot of ways. We do the shuttling, you know, soccer and [this and that], and who has to be where when, and we both do some of it, in a way that my parents didn't. n... [Growing up working class, my parents told us] go play, go outside and play, whereas our kids are much more sheltered and shuttled, but they do have chores. ... It is not coddling, but in many moments, it is child centered in a way that ... for my parents, it wasn't a child centered life. ... [Our parenting] is much more nurturing and looking at their talents and thinking about what to put them in [activity-wise].

Like Maya, the vast majority of the African American middle- and upper-middle-class mothers in my research enrolled their children in a range of extracurricular and academic enrichment programs, including Little League, soccer, swim class, ballet, karate, and music lessons that lower-income mothers often do not have the same economic resources to do.

Conforming to the images of other middle-class families portrayed in mainstream media and academic sources, the mothers in my research and their families led busy and highly scheduled lives. Their family lives were often child centered and their routines were often tied to weekly calendars. Indeed, during my interview with Maya, she retrieved a weekly calendar posted in her kitchen to use as a visual aid while she described her children's weekly activities and the parental division of labor in the drop-off and pick-up schedules.


On the surface, Maya's account sounds similar to many popular depictions of middle-class parenting. Compared to her own upbringing, she described her children's lives as "sheltered and shuttled." Nevertheless, Maya's description of how she made decisions about the schools her children attended and their extracurricular activities revealed additional layers of concerns. Her decisions were motivated by her desire for her children to acquire additional skills to address challenges related to intersections of race, class, and gender. These concerns recurred not just in her account but also in the accounts of the other mothers in my research. The concerns and the skills these mothers underscored are generally not the focus of discussions of middle-class mothers, who are often presumed to be white and, thus, have the luxury of not needing to prepare their children for the distinct and explicitly racialized and gendered societal reception they will encounter throughout their lives. Although African American middle-class mothers have more resources than their lower-income counterparts, they also continuously navigate parenting challenges that are of a different character and consequence than white middle-class mothers.

Existing research on middle-class families typically does not account for mothers who deliberately and, at times, necessarily, weave themselves and their children in and out of communities marked by different configurations of race, class, and gender, and how that weaving requires different types of social and cultural capital. This research often ignores the class diversity within African American middle-class families' social and community networks, which demands this weaving and the skill sets that accompany it. This scholarship also tends to focus on the experiences of race and/or racial stigma as it intersects with lower economic status.

The accounts of the African American middle-class mothers in my research suggest how racial stigma continues to influence their experiences, regardless of having more resources at their disposal. Despite having similarities to white middle-class families, the accounts of these African American mothers show how considerations of race, class, and gender have continuously influenced their parenting. Their accounts connect experiences within the family with structures outside of the family and describe how their families experience those structures. Maya explained,

I think about balance in their lives as a whole. Because there's always this compromise about schools, right? There are not schools that exist in the Bay Area ... where you can send your African American kids and know they will have African American teachers and ... be treated with that kind of community love and be well educated. You just can't do both. You have to choose. ... When I think about the outside activities, I want to balance out what I see as an imbalance in their school experience. So, my other child is in a preschool, but there's only one other black child in his class, but the teachers are black and that's why I still have him there. My other child is at a school where it is maybe 20 percent black, but it is culturally very white. ... There's maybe one black teacher. ... And, so, when I think about activities, I want them to be around other black people.

For Maya and the other mothers in this study, ensuring a balance in the racial and economic composition in their children's peer groups in educational and social contexts was a recurrent consideration in their parenting. A mother might believe that her child's school did not have the ideal level of diversity, so in response she would work to balance that through extracurricular activities. Unlike lower-income mothers, these mothers had additional resources that enabled them to have more control over their children's neighborhood context and peer groups.

The definition of the "ideal balance" was not the same for all mothers, but racial, gender, and class identity played key parts in determining that ideal. This balance related to creating racially comfortable environments for their children, and, as I will detail in Chapters 2, 3, and 4, it also informed these mothers' approaches to the development of their children's racial identity. Mothers varied in whether they were raised in families that were solidly middle class for more than one generation, became middle-class through upward mobility and had substantial economic diversity in their families, and the racial diversity in their families and social networks. These factors also informed their definition of the ideal balance.

A parent's decision to take a child to singing practice at a church choir comprised of children from a range of racial and economic backgrounds is influenced by different concerns and motivations than a parent's decision to take a child to a high-priced violin lesson in a predominately elite, white neighborhood. Similarly, enrolling a child in an athletic league in his or her middle-class neighborhood rather than one across town in a more economically and racially diverse or low-income community served different purposes. Opting to live in a more racially and economically diverse neighborhood rather than in a less diverse one (either white or nonwhite) is also connected with different concerns and motivations. Mothers' specific concerns related to race, class, and gender, and to fostering specific kinds of identities in their children influence how they use their economic and social resources, time, and involvement in organizations within African American and mainstream communities. Although the African American middle-class mothers I interviewed used strategies that scholars describe white middle-class mothers as using in raising their children, they also used additional strategies and modified others to address challenges related to race, class, and gender that they believed their children would face.

Maya described having an ad hoc community of African American parents with whom she talked about school and childcare choices and whom she described as sharing her experiences and outlook:

[We are in a network with several families that] are all navigating these spaces at the same time and we are able to be a resource to each other. [The network is comprised of] people that I went to college with who are all professionals in the Bay Area [and with whom] I can have those conversations. ... "What are you thinking about for your child for middle school?" And we can talk about the choices.

These mothers collected and shared a valuable body of knowledge to help each other find and make choices about the best settings for their children. When I asked Maya if she ever talked about her choices with white mothers, she said,

Oh no, because you can't have those conversations; ... there is a way that it is a different space that I navigate. ... I do have white colleagues that I talk to about childcare and whatnot, but it is very different; their position is very different in the space. And their sets of concerns are not the same ones. ... There is not that worry about race.

Maya believed the white middle-class mothers in her network did not share her concerns about race, so she did not raise these topics with them. She gave a concrete example of this dynamic of talking about parenting concerns but excluding anything related to race when she explained a conversation she had with a white colleague while visiting a prospective preschool for her daughter. During her visit, she had observed that the student body was all white, save for one Asian American student. On the tour, she ran into her colleague, who was very enthusiastic about the school. Maya stopped short of revealing her concerns about diversity, instead simply agreeing that it did look like a great school. Explaining her decision not to broach the topic, Maya said, "For her kid, it is great! That is the thing about it, because race is so salient in this country and because our kids are going to have to wrestle with these things, we need much more from a school space." Maya's words are telling when she says that "race is so salient," yet she simultaneously acknowledges that, in her view, this is not the case for white parents.

For Maya and the other mothers in my study, it was clear that they had distinct worries related to race, gender, and class that they did not believe overlapped with those of white parents in their professional or social circles. Maya was not looking only for a school that was known for high academic achievement but also wanted a space that would be racially supportive of her children. Ultimately, a high rating in terms of academic excellence could not overcome Maya's concerns over her daughter being the only African American child in the classroom. She enrolled her daughter in a more diverse preschool that had a lower rating for academic achievement; this was similar to compromises many mothers in my study made. She feared her daughter would feel isolated instead of experiencing school as a racially comfortable, if not empowering, environment in her early foundational years. Maya's four children were currently in four different schools that she selected based on each child's perceived individual talents and on each school's level of academic achievement and diversity. Her account suggests how race and gender complicate class status and the ability of mothers and families to successfully deploy their middle-class resources when parenting their children. Although African American middle- and upper-middle-class mothers have higher incomes, those resources cannot change the demographic characteristics of the current landscape of public and private schools, extracurricular activities, and other parenting settings and their respective racial climates.

In the remainder of this chapter, I unpack the "more" that Maya and the mothers in this research believed their children needed. I examine the strategies these mothers used to meet those needs as they navigated spaces that often primarily catered to white middleclass children and their families, and in which these mothers, at times, experienced various degrees of stigma and exclusion. Mothers' concerns over their children's racial comfort were not activated only occasionally — instead, they were a constant part of the backdrop that informed their parental decision-making. Some of these mothers' concerns and experiences related to race and racial stigma likely overlap with those of lower-income African American mothers, but as members of the middle-class, they had more resources to address these issues. The final part of this chapter examines how these concerns and strategies were further complicated by fears of the gendered racism that their children would confront in the future and, at times, were already navigating.


For the mothers in this study, addressing race and racism and ensuring racial comfort started when their children were very young, and it was woven into their searches for places to live, childcare, schools, parks, extracurricular activities, and everyday parenting. Mothers worked to create environments for their children that sheltered them from early experiences of racism and that they hoped would protect and strengthen their racial self-esteem.

Mera, married and the stay-at-home mother of two, said she believed African American and white mothers used different decision-making criteria to raise their children. She developed this belief through her experiences attending two different mothers' groups; one was comprised primarily of white middle-class mothers, and the other was entirely of African American middle-class mothers:

I attended [a white mothers' group] and I would just sit there and feel like their world was completely different. There were a lot of things that they wouldn't talk about. It was a class issue or a race issue. ... I wouldn't want to get super-personal with that group, whereas with the [mothers in my] black moms' group, we could talk about anything. From sex to, you know, anything, you know, like what is going on now, and the differences in our bodies, money, and education. We talked a lot about education and preschools and stuff. ... [The white mothers' group] would have different priorities when it came to education. Talking about places that I would never send my kids or neighborhoods I would never live in ... like Montclair or places like Piedmont. And, I would think, I am not going to send my children through a school in Piedmont that is all white or something.

For Mera, the racial comfort of her children was an important factor that influenced her decisions related to their educational, social, and residential environments. This was a factor she neither believed was explicitly considered by white mothers nor one she felt she could raise in the predominately white mothers' group that she regularly attended when her children were younger. Piedmont and Montclair are both affluent and predominately white neighborhoods. Piedmont, a tiny city with its own school district, is geographically surrounded by Oakland, but its public schools have records of high academic performance and better resources than neighboring school districts. Montclair is an affluent neighborhood located in the Oakland Hills, and its schools are partially subsidized by the substantial donations from parents in the form of contributions of time and money to the parent-teacher association. Despite these favorable characteristics, Mera was not willing to enroll her children in these schools. Like Maya, Mera did not think the white mothers with whom she interacted would understand her concerns. She sought advice from other African American middle-class mothers who were navigating the same spaces and were thus facing the same issues.

Similarly, Jordana, a married mother of two, whose husband was white, described why she was not willing to live in certain neighborhoods because of concerns over how it would impact the racial makeup of her children's peer groups. She said,

Where [my husband grew up] sounds like it was really idyllic ... but there are not enough black people for my taste. ... [W]hen we first got together and we were talking about where we wanted to live, he kind of was talking about that, and I was like, "Look, dude, I can't do this, I can't. I don't want my children to be the only black kids at school."

Although Jordana said she did not necessarily select her children's school because of its level of diversity, she referred to diversity in the student body and among the teachers as "a plus." She added, "I would never put [my children] into a situation where they were the 'only' — where it was all or heavily one race." Overall, mothers were less than enthusiastic about the prospect of their children attending a school or living in a neighborhood in which they would be racially isolated. The fact that their children would be one of only a few African American students in a predominately white school often outweighed a school's record for high academic achievement. Jordana's account also suggests how the legacy of residential segregation influences the choices of African American middle-class parents. Despite having the option to move to an area with better schools and more resources, Jordana perceived it as coming with the cost of her children, and herself, being racially isolated.


Excerpted from "Mothering While Black"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Dawn Marie Dow.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Tables

1. Creating Racial Safety and Comfort
2. Border Crossers
3. Border Policers
4. Border Transcenders
5. The Market-Family Matrix
6. Racial Histories of Family and Work
7. Alternative Configurations of Child-Rearing
Conclusion and Implications

Appendix: Methods
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