Women of Color Break Silences on Caretaking in the Face of Mass Incarceration

Idyllic illustrations show the tasks of a 1950’s housewife. (Image credit: The Mamafesto blog by Avital Norman Nathman.)

My mind has recently been blown open about women’s traditional domestic roles.

But it’s not one issue, really, because Breaking Silence: A Hearing on Girls of Color on this year’s International Day of the Girl, which was held on Saturday, October 11, showed me how gender roles intersect with other injustices facing women of color, and how gender has implications deeper than the talking points mainstream white feminists have been repeating for years.

The event was hosted by Joanne N. Smith – founder of Girls for Gender Equity – and moderated by UCLA and Columbia Law Schools Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. The African American Policy Forum, which was c0-founded by Crenshaw, also sponsored the event alongside GGE.

During one panel, one woman shared her powerful story about the burden of care-taking. She spoke of being emotionally and financially responsible for the needs of her uncle, who was imprisoned. She was the one who called him every other day and sent him care packages, just as her mother had done before her, and her grandmother before that. Three generations of women have looked after this man. They all had their more immediate families to provide for, but the pressure of added care-taking was overlooked because it was expected of them.

The role of mother and housewife is not often seen as an oppressed role in society at large because these tasks are “supposed” to be a woman’s work; she is supposed to enjoy her household chores as “labors of love,” and as extensions of her natural instinct to care for others. As a result, it is assumed within families that women will provide logistical and emotional structure, and they are left with no other choice but to do so if they want to keep their families together. No one else is going to do it.

Mass incarceration affects people of color – of all genders – more than any other group. (Image credit: The New Orleans Tribune.)

This is the legacy of what Angela Davis points out as a “gendered freedom” in her essay, “The Meaning of Freedom,” when she writes: “it was mostly black men who were able to take advantage of the freedom to travel” after they had been freed from slavery in antebellum America.

Women of color were tethered to the traumatic sites of their enslavement by their lack of autonomy and their obligation to their children and families. As Davis argues in this essay, attitudes around race and gender that were formed since the time of slavery still persist today, most notably in racial stereotypes and patterns of imprisonment.

But what is less obvious is how criminalization and gender roles are linked. As black men are incarcerated in staggeringly disproportionate numbers – 1 in 15 black males, age 18 and above, is behind bars  – their female relatives and friends are left behind to look after their families single-handedly, to provide reassurance to the men prison, and to grieve. Today, there are more African-Americans in prison and on parole or probation than there were slaves in 1850, and it is arguable that this phenomenon brings a different kind of social enslavement upon women of color. They are often viewed as minor casualties in a ripple effect of mass incarceration and police brutality – take Ferguson as an example. Black male death and imprisonment is the central issue, while incarcerated women and relatives of the men are left as the silent asides in online articles.

The #whywecantwait campaign will come together with “In Plain Sight,” promoted during Breaking Silence. (Media credit: African American Policy Forum.)

Women of color need to become a central part of the narrative that we tell in the media. In “Becoming the Third Wave,” Rebecca Walker presents strategies for changing women’s position by changing our own attitudes towards men. We must not acquiesce to the burden of automatic care-taking, as Walker states: “do not nurture them [men] if they don’t prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives.”

Surrounding ourselves with men who take on comparable responsibilities and who value us as individuals are the only ways to reach emotional equality, with which we can work towards social, political, and economic equity.

I was not raised in a family of color, nor have I ever faced the trials of having an imprisoned family member. Gender roles in my house defy norms in some ways but express an undercurrent of conservatism in others. My mother and father trade off each night the responsibilities of walking the dog and doing the dishes; both clean the house for equal amounts of time; and everyone is involved in washing, sorting, drying, and folding laundry – my father actually jokes that it’s his hobby.

But there are some lines my parents will not cross: my mother is an excellent cook and we have accepted that my father is simply a terrible one because he has had women cooking his meals all his life. He handles family finances and makes repairs to the house – all socially constructed male roles – while I’m fairly sure my mother is the only one who cleans the bathroom.

And I, a young white woman who is still seen as a child, have only small tasks like putting away the dry dishes and feeding the pets. Equity in family dynamics, however, goes beyond mundane tasks: I am lucky that my family is incredibly supportive emotionally, yet I gravitate towards my mother because she feels more central to the household. My father’s privilege and comfort in his masculine role occasionally find their way into unintentionally insensitive comments around gender, race, and intellectual ability – but he can also be bashful and caring.

In these ways I feel I live in a household negotiating a falsely post-racist, post-sexist society, where my parents let their strong love for me and each other mask their discomfort about their responsibilities. My middle-class, liberal, white parents are still stuck in traditional gender roles, telling themselves they’re not. While it hasn’t harmed me significantly, I now notice it as the beginning of a slippery slope that bottoms out at the cult of domesticity.

But what about single or queer mothers who do not feel the need to associate with men, or who have no choice?

Our society does not recognize mothers who go outside of traditional marriage or heteronormative expectations. Meanwhile, the constant striving of the “superwoman syndrome” can beset anyone who overworks herself to “have it all,” or is forced to do so out of her choices, life events, or economic situation.

Audre Lorde framed the situation memorably when she said, “Only within a patriarchal structure is maternity the only social power open to women,” in her essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”

She was pointing to the fact that women feel a small amount power within our families or communities because we control those little spheres as nurturers; but that does not always benefit us and can even disempower us in the future, as we busy ourselves in the service of men.

Embracing caretaking as a conscious choice, however, and examining our experience in the context of our family and personal histories, can give rise to change. The speaker at Breaking Silence noted that organizers and advocates are born out of intergenerational conversation; Lorde may have taken this as yet another indication of the need for structural overhaul in society. Across age groups, the pains of maternal roles are often understood by all women in all areas of the globe, but by exposing our burdens and determining our own paths, we can work towards a world where that is no longer true.

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