We Need To Stop Making Black Women the Mammies of Our Movements (And Our Friend Groups) Right Now

by Kat Riascos

 

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photo by Naomi Ishisaka

“I don’t know, something about you just seems so maternal!”

 

“You are always so prepared! You’re like the mom!”

 

“You remind me of my mom!”

 

We have heard it a thousand times, a sentence that invokes a distinct mixture of bashful pride and subtle angst. We are the ones you call when you’re feeling downtrodden about being single, when your dog runs away, when you can’t get home because you’re too drunk to remember where it is, or when you’re sick and need someone to help you feed yourself. We are the Mom. No, we didn’t raise you and we don’t keep pictures of you at two years old grinning in the bathtub with our late family pet, Max. We are your emotional rock who keeps you steady, your emergency contact. That’s us.

 

At first it’s a compliment, we are just so warm and inviting that people gravitate to us. People trust us and know that they can depend on us. We begin to bask in that title. We start carrying tissues and snacks and pain killers with us at all times, just in case someone needs it. The second someone calls for our assistance we are right on it no matter what time it is or where we are or what else we may have going on in our own lives.

 

But after years of being the designated “mom” you start to realize that being your peers’ mom is not the apex of platonic love you once thought it to be. You don’t get to go out and party like they do because they expect you to be the one driving, keeping them out of jail, and cleaning up the vomit from the bathroom tile. You do not get to express any feelings deeper than, “I’m so sorry, how can I help you?” because while we are the first ones they call when they need someone to lighten their emotional baggage, we are the same ones they send to voicemail when our lives get shaky.

 

And when you’re a Black, queer, and often fat woman, all of this is intensified because no longer are you the “mom” of the group, now you are the Mammy.

 


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To quote a friend of mine, Shamaka Shumake “[Designating a friend as being the Mom] perpetuates the myth of Mammy who is here to love you, but needs no love in return. Who is your rock, so never has room to be weak or broken and therefore can never heal. Then you wonder why she literally starts to fall apart physically“. The mammy, a term coined in slavery, was a fat, black, ‘sexless’ woman who cared for her white masters’ children with love and reverence while abandoning her own. Although slavery is no longer the lens we view the Mammy through, just as most of our white supremacist ideas on black womanhood, the Mammy stereotype remains prevalent in modern society but has morphed and grown to accommodate changing times. Instead of the Mammy solely caring for white children she is now meant love, protect, and fight for everyone—except for herself and other black women like her.

 

Activist circles are especially guilty of this abuse. I personally have observed how Black Trans and Queer women are at the forefront of a lot of movements. As if it’s our job, we are meant to bring awareness to everyone’s struggle but our own. That, we are to be quiet about. And when we do speak up, there is usually backlash from those who we consider ourselves aligned with in terms of oppression. This is especially highlighted in the wake of #BlackLivesMatter, taking the internet by storm and uniting Black people all over the world to end police brutality. It’s a movement started by three queer black women, but while hundreds of thousands of people have marched for cis black male victims of police violence, only about thirty people showed up to a march for Rekia Boyd, a black unarmed woman murdered by police in Chicago. While Freddie Grey’s murder shutting down Baltimore for days, there was little to no media coverage about a black trans woman murdered by the NSA in Baltimore named Mya Hall, besides that which was meant to discredit her existence. And while the entire gay rights movement is actively advertised as a white gay cis men’s movement, a main leader of the movement, Marsha P. Johnson, was a Black Trans woman.

 

Everyone wants our labor and the fruits of our labor but no one wants our pain.

 

So why do we continue to work for little to no compensation, respect or even acknowledgement?

 

First, we live at the apex of so many oppressions that we have, in turn, developed vast amounts of empathy. We understand others anguish because oftentimes (in the case of white queers, black men, other non-Black POC) it is quite similar to our own anguish. We grow to love people who we feel will return our care and understanding of them, and when we finally do realize their abuse of our compassion, we’ve already invested so much energy in them that it feels nearly impossible to disassociate from them. Then we feel guilty about wanting to end these friendships, because now even we have begun to buy into the myth that our existence on this earth is to serve all those aside from ourselves.

 

We have internalized that the worst thing we can do is think about ourselves, care about our own, and love ourselves. But I implore us to do just that. We have been conditioned to think that self-love and self-care equal selfishness, when they simply allow us to see ourselves as fully human. We are whole people with ambitions and pitfalls just like anyone else and we deserve to have our voices heard. And anyone who does not show us respect and reciprocity in both their actions and words does not deserve the benefits of our existence in their lives.

 

Mothers, in the traditional sense of the term, are seen as martyrs for our entire existence. From the physical pain of pregnancy and labor (for some) and the emotional aerobics mothers endure every day, mothers are seen as people who give everything they are for nothing in return. By designating your friend (and hell, your actual mother) to be this person for you, you allow yourself to be unburdened by empathy for them.

 

We are powerful people—we are compassionate nearly to a fault, and we change social, political, and cultural landscapes daily—and we are also your friends. Solidarity is a requirement, not an option.


kat riascosKat Riascos is a Queer Afro-Latina studying Human Services and Social Justice at George Washington University. Kat is also the Co-Owner of Succumb Body Products and work with BR Organizing. Kat plans on teaching comprehensive Sexual Education in Baltimore and DC.

 

 

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