February 04, 2021
In this special episode, Liz talks with Gabrielle Union, Valerie Jarrett, Nic Stone, Meena Harris, Harmonia Rosales, Jurnee Smollett, Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, and LaTonya Yvette about the state of black motherhood in America. They tell her how they talk to their kids about racism, what makes them excited about the future, and how they are working to change the narrative for black mothers everywhere.
Liz Tenety: I found it so powerful last month to watch the first woman, the first black person and the first person of South Asian descent become the vice president of the United States. And yet, despite how far we've come, having a black woman and a woman of South Asian descent be vice-president of the United States, structural racism is very much a daily, hourly lived reality, and there is still so much work that we all have to do. And we have seen this acutely during the COVID pandemic where black families have been more affected. They've been more at risk through the kinds of jobs and lack of protections they may have at their jobs. From medical risks to economic risks, the pandemic has taken a particular toll on black families and black mothers.
But even before COVID the inequality in healthcare is profound and deadly. Black Americans simply don't have access to high quality healthcare, including for prenatal care. And black women are three to four times more likely to die from a pregnancy related ailment. And the black infant mortality rate also keeps going up. And it doesn't have anything to do with wealth or education.
Black mothers also have to worry about their sons being targeted by police violence. And while mental health is a concern for all moms for black mothers, it's a crisis for black mothers. A 2017 study revealed that moms of color suffer from postpartum depression at a rate of 38% compared to somewhere around 13 to 19% for all moms. And they're less likely to seek out or have access to support for their mental health. So, there's no doubt that while our system for motherhood is broken, it is especially broken for black mothers.
And yet, I have also heard from so many black mothers that there is so much they're looking forward to, and that they're hopeful about. We have a presidential administration that has talked about affordable childcare, high-quality childcare and paying childcare providers what they're worth, a living wage. They've put those issues front and center in their platform. We have women of color in highly visible positions, where they can make an impact. Systemic racism is real, but our generation is starting to do the hard work. So hopefully the world, all our kids grow up in, can be a better one.
Liz Tenety: Hey mama, welcome to The Motherly Podcast, where we have honest conversations about modern motherhood. I am Liz Tenety, the co-founder of Motherly and a mom of four myself. I'm recording in a snowstorm, if you can hear it in the background. This episode, we're doing something a little different in honor of Black History Month.
We're celebrating the voices of black mothers we've had on the podcast, diving into what they have told us about the state of black mothers today, the specific challenges they face, and the work they're trying to do to rewrite the narrative. Additionally, all month long, we'll be spotlighting black voices talking to three amazing women about their motherhood journeys, their work, and what makes them hopeful about the future. Let's dive in.
Gabby Union: I'm a fighter. I get in the ring. Sometimes the gloves are on and sometimes they're off, but I will fight. I will fight until I don't have any breath left. Being a black mother gave me that because you'd never get to turn the fighter off. You are so clear as to all of the challenges that are ahead of you and your family. And so if you're not a fighter, you will get run over and your kids will be. United opportunities and access. So you always have to be ready and up for and prepared for the fight.
Liz Tenety: That's actress and entrepreneur Gabrielle union. In response to my question about her superpower. And Gabby isn't alone in her acknowledgement of the realities of what black mothers face, when they're raising their kids.
Even black mothers who know they are privileged when it comes to their financial status or their education. It's also something we heard echoed by actress Jurnee Smollett, reflecting about raising her son in the backdrop of police brutality.
Jurnee Smollett: I remember years ago before I became a mother, the situation with Trayvon Martin happened, I remember being so outraged.
I think I was on Twitter, just like ranting about it and ranting to everyone I could talk to about the actual fear I had in raising a black son. I hadn't become a mother yet, but I was internalizing these situations and look growing up. I have four brothers, right? So, I've witnessed things. I've witnessed them being targeted. I've witnessed them being put in the back of police cars when they're pulled over for a ticket. It's a problem that can no longer just be our problem. That's really what it is. It's going to be about, like, we can't fight this on our own. We need allies because unfortunately you're never going to have to have the kind of conversation with your children that I'll have to have with my son, just because he has a different complexion. Like that's the hard reality of it all.
Liz Tenety: For Dr. Joy harden Bradford preparing her sons for the reality that they grow up with somewhat of a target on their backs is something that she says she struggles to teach her kids, to talk to them about, even as a seasoned therapist.
Dr. Joy Harden Bradford: I think specifically black moms are also struggling with racism. So, as we continue to see people being killed by police. And so, I think as black mothers, it feels really hard to continue to try to help your child to develop in a world with that kind of a backdrop, right? Like I'm already just trying to make sure that they can show up as like good people in the world, but then also preparing them for a world that may not be so kind to them, you know? So, I think that there's always that additional pressure and stress related to being a black mom, but I haven't figured out how to have the race conversation with them at this point.
Liz Tenety: Other moms, we spoke to have adopted a different approach to addressing race with their sons, although it's equally challenging. Artist Harmonia Rosales said her approach was largely influenced by how her own parents talked to her about race and a desire to correct it.
(Liz from audio clip): How do you talk about bias and being a child of color, a young man of color with your kids? How do you do that?
Harmonia: I speak to them like an adult. So, I've always done that. I think that's the best way. I don't baby them. I was babied a lot and I was sheltered a lot. It took me a while to get to the point where I'm at now.
Liz Tenety: Stylist and writer, Latonya Yvette also talked about how she contrasts her approach to talking to her kids about race, to the way that her parents tackled the issue. And she was hopeful that increasingly open discussions about race and racism that she's seen in her community are signs of positive change to come.
LaTonya Yvette: My dad came from Panama and to the US when he was like 13 and his mother didn't speak English. And he had really dark skin, which I like talk about in the book. And my mom was super light and her mom was indigenous American and black, you know, they just had biracial down the line. And so, my mom was super light-skinned. And so being a darker brown person, woman and young girl, was always really odd for me.
And it was weird, there was so much going on in the 90s, but we never really openly talked about race as kids. And whereas like my daughter, who is brown skinned, she's like "I'm a brown girl. Like I'm black girl." Like she just came up with that on her own. And I think, and that, for her was her own identity. But it's funny cause they come up with their own, their own stories. And that's what for me is really important about raising children is that they are allowed to find out who they are.
Liz Tenety: For young adult author, Nic stone talking openly about race and racism with her sons has also been critical. In fact, the bias she anticipated her sons receiving when they're older even prompted her to write her books, to create something that teaches her son about the reality of growing up as a young black man.
Nic Stone: There's something about having a creature that you created in your arms when you're hearing about terrible things happening to other people's children that sparks it really like sparked something in me. And I think it reminded me of the lack of things I had that reflected me and my experiences when I was young. I knew I wanted my children to be readers, but the death of Jordan Davis highlighted to me that like my little boy that I had just that there would be potential for him to just have a target on his back simply for existing at some point. So, when I originally started writing, it was with my own son in mind. I wanted to create something that I could give him when he got older and he started to kind of see how unkind the world can be.
Liz Tenety: Nic also talked about trying to change the narrative, rewrite the narrative, not just through her writing of Dear Martin, but all her books.
Nic Stone: So, I'm like a queer black woman and growing up, I never saw myself in books and never saw myself writing the books. It took me a long time to realize that I could actually insert myself into the places that I wasn't seeing me. So, I decided to give it a go. And I'm glad that I did. I'm getting to write these stories that I didn't see.
Liz Tenety: Harmonia Rosales also talked about rewriting history, changing the narrative and trying to paint pictures of people who look like herself and her children in her work.
Harmonia Rosales: Renaissance work always told the story of our history, religion, religious wise, or, you know, factual. And looking at them, it was so beautiful to me. But the one thing that was missing was a connection, a history that wasn't falling in line with mine. I have a multicultural background, so I'm, um, Ashkenazi Jewish and Nigerian. I do have Portuguese of me as well. And then, you know, Spanish. But that's everything. Now, my history though, coming from me is in America, so I have all these cultures coming at me that I identify with and how did I come about? How did people like me come about? There's no story really with that. It's always literally black and white these categories. So, I thought maybe if I can incorporate this, interpret these or my favorite paintings into something that I can relate to, maybe others can take that and also see themselves in history.
Liz Tenety: We heard from Jurnee Smollett as well on how she's using her art to change society and shift the predominant narrative to one that is more inclusive
Jurnee Smollett: One of my weapons, one of my tools is my art and I grew up doing this. And so, I see the importance of storytelling. I see the impact it has. When you see things, you can be things. And sometimes if you don't see it, you can't even dream it because you don't know to dream it. And so, representation, inclusion is something that's so important to me and being a part of the change that's happening in our industry.
Liz Tenety: And Meena Harris whose aunt, Kamala is now Vice President of the United States said the same about her own children's book Maya and Kamala's Big Idea sharing that she wanted to show to young women of color persevering in the face of resistance.
Meena Harris: I was really, you know, thinking about again, raising my girls and how do I teach them? You know what? My grandmother taught me, what my mother taught me. And what better way to do that then through their grandma and auntie, this was so formative for me as a kid, right? Hearing these stories about them, meaning my mom and aunt as children. And this was one of those stories. It's all about community organizing, leaning on your community to make it better. And it's the story of two sisters that have a big idea, and it's all about, you know, persevering in the face of resistance and people telling you "no." And the face of people telling you that something can't be done, that you are too small, that it is too expensive that, you know, it's not possible. And learning that you can really derive power from your community and coming together and asking your community to step up, to make it better.
Liz Tenety: Many of the mothers we spoke to are trying to change the narrative goes beyond their own children. It's also about starting important conversations in our culture and building allies journeys. Jurnee Smollett spoke directly to this and mentioned colorism as part of this important conversation.
Jurnee I think honestly, silence is arguably just as deadly and listen, it's not even about overt racism. Like we're not even talking about the situations that we're seeing in the news. We're talking about how to start on. Just a foundational level with kids who actually could be allies who could grow up to, to see the world differently.
That's what I'm talking about. Your children are inevitably going to have inevitably a different level of privilege that is inherent because of the way our nation was built. And I think we all have a certain level of privilege. Look, I have a certain level of privilege that I have to walk around being aware of as well.
I have access to a certain lifestyle. I mean, I can go on and on about my privilege within my community, like colorism is real. So that's something that I have to be aware of as well. Like I think we all just have to be aware of what is the privilege that we walk around with and what is the responsibility that we then have to be accountable to that privilege.
And that it's really what I'm asking for; an allyship, you know, just being aware of your privilege.
Liz Tenety: And it's also something that LaTonya Yvette acknowledged. The importance of building allies and to use her own privilege, to further the conversation.
LaTonya Yvette: Unfortunately, black women, you often need to provide and don't have time and don't, you know, and don't have the capacity to sit there and like work on a website and hope that like, it gives them money in like a month, you know what I mean?
And so,it also goes into like I had a white partner and so I was able to do that, you know, and that's my reality. And so, it's a tricky thing. So, part of my own system has been like, being honest about it, still sharing my story, but also opening up the doors for like other women of color and providing jobs.
Liz Tenety: The mothers we spoke to also talked about the urgency to use their platforms for good and to help other black women, Dr. Joy Harden Bradford explained why she started her platform therapy for black girls.
Dr. Joy Harden Bradford: And so, I always noticed that the black women like on campus would not necessarily come into the counseling centers at the same rate as their peers. And so, we know about the stigma related to mental health, especially in communities of color, particularly for black people, you know, that people feel afraid or what's going to happen. When I go to therapy, what does this mean about me? Like all of those. There are lots of factors that lead black people not to solicit the help of a therapist as much as their peers.
And so, it always felt really important for me to create spaces on the campuses that I was in to have groups for the black women on campus.
Liz Tenety: Gabby Union also talked about using her privilege to help women of color have access to healthy food, which is why she joined the kids' snack company Bitsy's.[JB1]
Gabby Union: I was a fan of Bitsy's. I was a disciple. And when I would post other moms would be like, where'd you get that? I'm like, "Oh, darn it." Where Bitsy's was being sold was, you know, pretty much to a higher socioeconomic folks and not as accessible to all of my friends that were asking about it. So, we just reached out and they were so open and willing to embrace me being a part of the brand. And we just started to fly and we got into CVS and we started going back to the lab of like, what more can we do? How many more kids can we reach?
Liz Tenety: And beyond helping others right now, the mothers we interviewed were also interested in acknowledging the many pioneers, trailblazers who came before them. Meena Harris, for example, talked about her Phenomenal Woman brand, which exalts the incredible women who got us, where we are today,
Meena Harris: Who are the women that came before us, who were the women that paved the way for these movements that made it possible for us to turn out in historic numbers? And those are often black women. Those are women who often are, you know, sort of hidden figures who are on the front lines, doing the work, but are not, you know, getting the credit and fanfare and all that. And you know, Maya Angelo, her poem, Phenomenal Woman has always been a favorite poem of mine. And what's amazing about her as an individual is that, you know, she was an incredible author and poet, as most people know her, but she was also this fierce, you know, advocate for civil rights and, and, and an activist. I really wanted to think about, how do I honor women like her? How do I honor, you know, women like my mother, other black women that came before us?
Liz Tenety: And while all the mothers we talked to, acknowledge that the fight is not over, and that structural racism is something they continue to battle and that their kids are likely to battle, they are all hopeful for the future. Valerie Jarrett has some especially inspiring words to end on.
Valerie Jarrett: I am heartened by the level of activism that I'm seeing. As I travel both around the country in the world, are the people who maybe gotten a little complacent and just kind of [assumed everything would go along swimmingly now realize, Oh, I have to actually show up and I have to vote and I have to get involved in my community. I can't just take it for granted that things are going to go the right way in the United States. I think I noticed that the day after the last inauguration, when we had the Women's March, the young amazing students from Parkland who traveled the country and created March for Our Lives, and they were registering people to vote in blue and red States. And we had demonstrations all over the country trying to end our epidemic of gun violence. The #metoo movement and #timesup. We have now more women in Congress, women than ever before, but it's more than just demonstrating against something.
There are people who want to be advocates for something who are willing to get in the arena and fight for their country and their world. And as I travel around the country, I see these ordinary people who are doing extraordinary things and they give me, they give me, faith.
Liz Tenety: Well, that's it for our show this week. Thank you so much for listening. Thank you to all our guests for so openly and candidly sharing their stories. Next week, we'll be speaking with Raquel Roxanne Nowak, founder of skin skincare line developed with pregnancy and postpartum needs in mind as always. I would love it if you spread the word about the motherly podcasts, so leave us a review if you can, on Apple podcasts, it takes 30 seconds against it really helps other moms discover our show. And I love reading your feedback.
The Motherly Podcast is produced by Jennifer Bassett with editing from Seaplane Armada. Our music is from the Blue Dot Sessions. I'm your host, Liz Tenety. Thank you so much for listening.
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Liz is an award-winning journalist and editor, and the co-founder of Motherly. A former Washington Post editor, she thrives on all things digital community + social media strategy. She's passionate about helping to provide women with more support, (and way less judgment), on the journey through motherhood. This podcast is an extension of her commitment to hosting honest conversations about modern motherhood. Liz resides outside NYC with her husband, two sons, one daughter and one amazing au pair.