Once again, Black single mother households have been cited as a cause of violent crime. As Miranda Armstrong discusses, these notions are not only based on stereotypes that do not reflect the reality for many, but can also prove harmful to Black mothers and their children.
Picture is a stock photo.
We are here again. Following the recent murder of 14-year-old Jayden Moodie in London, journalist Rod Liddle linked violent deaths among black young people to the number of single parent households within black populations. Liddle, backed up by educationalist Tony Sewell, are the latest in a host of public voices to make this simple conclusion. Their comments form part of a narrative that has been maintained since the mid-twentieth century.
Despite a perceived growing unacceptability of certain social prejudices such as racism and homophobia, intolerance to family diversity still persists. Single mothering has been politicised in claims that single parent women drain the public purse through a dependence on state benefits. This is despite the fact that the majority of single mothers are in employment. They have also been publicly stigmatised in articles and comment such as Liddle’s. Few voices have been raised in defence of black single mother families (work by Professor Tracey Reynolds is a rare example ).
Anxiety, judgement and mother-blame continue to surround black single parent households headed by women. The proportion of single parent households in Black populations has been used, misleadingly, as a partial explanation for the overrepresentation of Black boys and men among students excluded from school, the unemployed and underemployed, the prison population and those within mental health institutions. This is due to the assumption that in single parent households young men do not receive sufficient socialisation, discipline or care.
“Moral panics about Black single mother households have eclipsed attention to lived experiences within these family units. As a group we have long been used as poster women of the urban ‘poor’, struggling in expensive and uncompassionate cities, when in reality our experiences vary widely”
I write as a London-based single mother to a teen son myself, as well as a PhD researcher investigating Black Londoner’s experiences of single mothering. The significant gap between our lived experiences and the dominant representations of people like us – the caricatures, the ugly racialised stereotypes – is surprising and beyond frustrating. Among the sons of single mothers I met during my study were diligent university students, ambitious graduates, and talented men pursuing creative vocations. The single parent women I met had often worked extremely hard to achieve degrees as student parents and attain a profession in order to improve prospects for their families.
I am not trying to argue our respectability here, our social acceptability, but demonstrate that dominant representations do not reflect the diversity among single mothers. Despite challenges, family lives were stable and relationships between mothers and sons often strong. We do not hear about these families, their triumphs, their various experiences and their happy relationships. Perhaps because salacious stories are more ‘interesting’ and supportive of traditional family norms.
Moral panics about Black single mother households have eclipsed attention to lived experiences within these family units. As a group we have long been used as poster women of the urban ‘poor’, struggling in expensive and uncompassionate cities, when in reality our experiences vary widely. In truth little is known about the private space of domestic life among Black single parent families. It is an under-researched academic area and less documented in our culture. One exception of this is a study of committed African-American fathers by photographer and researcher Zun Lee, discussed on this site and in his book Father Figure.
“Myths about our households are harmful. Research evidence shows that single mothers do internalise the idea that they are not enough for their sons. Such attitudes risk encouraging defeatism and creating a sense of inevitability of failure”
The role and impact of the social conditions upon families frequently goes unexplored. Two-parent families face challenges navigating London’s uneven housing and schooling markets; single mothers rarely have the ability to be as strategic in negotiating these, our families funded by one income. A study by Cheron Byfield, documented in her book Black Boys Can Make It, shows how young African-American and Black British men who made it to university had to be resilient and determined in the midst of challenging neighbourhoods and poor schooling. Scholar Suzanne M. Randolph suggests that there is a lack of political will to ameliorate the challenging contexts in which black single mothers might raise their children, “due largely to sexism and elitism” .
Ultimately, it could be said that the demonisation of Black single parent families is arguably the product of mutually reinforcing prejudices: the stigma around single mothering for transgressing the patriarchal, heterosexual two-parent norm; the underlying sexism in the assumed inability of women to raise well-adjusted men; xenophobic fears about blackness and mythical, homogeneous ‘Black culture’. Myths about our households are harmful. Research evidence shows that single mothers do internalise the idea that they are not enough for their sons . Such attitudes risk encouraging defeatism and creating a sense of inevitability of failure, not to mention influencing how our children—depicted as feckless, feral and violent—are misunderstood and mishandled by those in authority.
Rather than blaming families, there are more urgent questions we should be asking: How can single parent families and their children be better understood and supported? And, on a completely different note, what are the root causes of violent crime? As long as society keeps looking in the wrong direction, avoidable tragedies will persist.
- Reynolds, Tracey (2005) Caribbean Mothers: Identity and experience in the U.K., London: Tufnell Press.
- Randolph, Suzanne M. (1995) ‘African American Children in Single Mother Families.’ In Dickerson, Bette J., African American Single Mothers: Understanding their lives and Families, Thousand Oaks: Sage, pages 117-145.
- Lawson Bush, Nana (2004) ‘How black mothers participate in the development of manhood and masculinity: What do we know about black mothers and their sons?’, The Journal of Negro Education, Volume 73, Issue 4, pages 381-391.
Miranda Armstrong is a PhD researcher and Associate Lecturer in the Sociology Department of Goldsmiths College, University of London. She studied Sociology at the University of Surrey and Social Research Methods at the London School of Economics. Her research interests are in the life course, family lives and personal relationships, and how these are impacted by ‘race’, gender and class. Miranda lives in London with her son, and occasionally blogs here.