Mothers of Intention
Several months ago, Bitch published a piece on the vexing economy of mom blogs and the contentious personalities that have come to define their corner of the Internet, for better or worse. The discussion it sparked wasn't about whether mom blogs were, on balance, good or bad—it was about why they were so...white.
After all, there are all kinds of mothers, and that there would also be all kinds of blogs written by them only makes sense. So we called on five bloggers for whom writing on, responding to, and pushing back against the mainstream mommy-blog narrative is a top priority for a dialogue about race and motherhood in the blogosphere. Veronica Arreola is the force behind Viva La Feminista, as well as a member of Bitch Media's National Advisory Board. Arwyn Daemyir writes the blog Raising My Boychick and is currently editing a collaborative zine called AP Our Way, about disability and attachment parenting. Renee Martin blogs at Womanist Musings and writes for the U.K.'s Guardian on topics including human rights and reproductive justice. Deesha Philyaw is a writer who blogs at Mamalicious! and whose first book, Co-Parenting 101: Advice from a Formerly Married Couple on Parenting Across Two Households, comes out in 2013. And Shay Stewart-Bouley is the astute voice of Black Girl in Maine, where she blogs about parenthood, politics, frugal living, and being a black woman in the nation's whitest state. Let's listen in, shall we?
Let's start with a consideration of the phrase "mommy blog" or "mom blog." Do you identify your blogs as such? Given that it's become an advertising-friendly, frequently patronizing shorthand that seems to mainly benefit white, straight, middle-class mothers, is the phrase something you want to align your blogs with?
Shay Stewart-Bouley: Not really. I started my blog back in 2008, and originally I thought it might be a mommy blog, but it became quickly apparent that it really was not. As a black woman in America, even when I tried to focus strictly on parenting, the reality is my work had a certain level of intersectionality involved. Race and class are an integral part of my identity, something that is rarely discussed in most so-called mommy blogs.
Renee Martin: I created my blog to keep a promise to my children that I would do my best to make the world a little better for them. Having said that, no matter how many times I declare that my blog is a mommy blog, it is steadfastly denied. I firmly believe that it is in part due to my race, and in part due to that fact that my idea of parenting is far more involved than writing about diapers, sleepless nights, and recipes. I believe that raising well-rounded children means dealing directly with any issue that they might potentially face—including but not limited to race, gender, sexuality, ageism, disability, etc. The idea that mommy blogs should be safe, fluffy spaces is absurd, and comes directly from the fact that those assigned the label are white, middle class, cisgender, and largely straight.
Veronica Arreola: I used to embrace the term "mommy blog" since it is such a ubiquitous term and I had hoped that I could help change how people saw mom blogs, from outside the mom blogosphere and inside. As primarily a feminist blogger, I really wanted (and still do) to bridge the mom-blog and feminist-blog communities. The fact that I am not only a feminist but a Latina was also a consideration in trying to push the definition of mommy blogger to a new or broader place. I still identify as a mom who blogs.
Deesha Philyaw: I have two blogs—my personal blog and the coparenting blog I run with my ex-husband. Neither is a "mommy/mom blog." That's not a label that I've ever or would ever aspire to, because mom-centrism feels limiting to me. But I don't disparage anyone else for identifying as such or viewing the label more broadly. Years ago, I was a columnist for LiteraryMama.com, and I suppose my column there could have been considered a mom blog.
Arwyn Daemyir: I would say that Raising My Boychick could be classified as a mom blog because it's largely (if often tangentially) about parenting, and I am white, male-partnered (and thus read as "straight," no matter how inaccurately), and more or less middle class—thus nominally fitting the mom blog stereotype. It's not a label I choose for myself, but for all that, when mom blogs are attacked (or dismissed entirely as narcissistic and capitalistic), I get pissed off. So while I don't embrace the term, I don't reject it, either, because I think it's a part of a misogynistic effort to belittle women's work and women's thoughts.
VA: I was invited to a meeting of Chicago journalists who work online. When I introduced myself and described my blog, I got a "just a mommy blogger" comment later in the meeting. The dude who said it was more precisely commenting that I don't blog just about Chicago or my neighborhood. But he threw in "mom blogger" to try to shut me down.
According to research by the 2006 Pew Internet & American Life Project, almost 40 percent of bloggers are people of color, and we can assume that that percentage is even higher now. What are some things you think are behind the whitewashed mainstream narrative of mom blogs?
AD: Mostly the same forces that are behind the whitewashing of pretty much everything else. Mainstream media, primarily responsible for creating the narrative, focuses on the stories that reinforce cultural biases (and we saw this even in Bitch, Issue #50 in the article "Mother Huckster").
But there is more: Think of how few (none?) of us in this roundtable identify as a mommy blogger. The media constructs "mom blogs" as white, middle class, capitalistic—so those of us who aren't don't identify as such, and thus are nowhere to be found when journalists go looking for "mom blogs," thus perpetuating the whitewashing.
VA: The media likes to frame their issues and find the people who fit them. Every woman of color who parents could embrace the term "mommy blog" and the media would still find only white hetero middle-class women to interview for their pieces.
AD: Absolutely. I made that point not to excuse the segregation, nor to place the burden of its change on mothers of color, but to explicate one factor in its creation. Bloggers, like all large groups, form cliques and microcommunities, and one of the ways we separate is, unfortunately, along racial lines.
DP: I believe the whitewashing of mom blogs and the whitewashing of the "momoir" genre are related. Black American women's motherhood experiences have never been culturally idealized. From forced separation on auction blocks to how we are regarded today by brands, media, and mainstream culture, ours is not the "face" of American motherhood. Our real motherhood experiences aren't considered universal the way white women's motherhood experiences are. And folks wonder why for some black and brown women, race really does trump gender; we aren't seen as women and mothers first. Therefore, we aren't at the center of the cultural narrative about motherhood.
Do you believe that blogging can play a role in changing that cultural narrative?
SS-B: I would like to think so. But to be frank, I still feel like motherhood, despite the increase in brown and black mom bloggers, is still viewed through a white lens. I feel the only time white moms are willing to listen to our narratives is when [they are] whitewashed and therefore made acceptable. Too many time in blogs and especially on places like Twitter, white moms will say they are allies, they want to hear our stories. Yet when we (okay, me) share, it is never looked at from my cultural perspective. Too many black and brown mom bloggers leave the blogging world because our stories are not heard. Those of us who have stuck it out are being heard by the larger group, but we need more voices.
VA: I am still hopeful that this can happen. Blogging is so decentralized and has been a radical means of media making, of framing issues, of presenting life itself. But just as radical books, music, and other forms of media get lost in the overwhelming mountain of mainstream media, perhaps it will be the same with blogging.
AD: As Shay said, "diversity" in blogging and motherhood will be accepted only as it conforms to the preexisting, consumeristic, middle-class standard. Those of us who don't fit the norms (racially, culturally, sexually, abilitywise) are accepted only inasmuch as we leave behind the "otherness" of those identities and pretend "we're just like you." In my work, I try to shatter that idea and, if nothing else, show that even those who, like me, superficially appear to fit that mold often don't.
How does the mom blogosphere reflect racism in other areas of the Internet? (For instance, in the feminist blogosphere, on Twitter and other social networks, etc.)
SS-B: It drowns out diverse voices and experiences at times. This past weekend on Twitter, I witnessed a young black mom being taken to task for suggesting that spanking is cultural. She was not a spanker herself, but historically blacks have spanked their kids, though that mindset is changing. Many white mom bloggers/Twitter folks just gang-piled and were unwilling to look at the issues that confront people of color or low income on the day to day that might lead a parent to spank.
DP: Like other areas of the Internet, the mom blogosphere is segregated. Rarely, if ever, do I see collaborations across racial lines. And when I do, it's the same "big name" mom-of-color bloggers involved. Outside of BlogHer, I don't know of other spaces where cross-racial online collaborations exist. Of course, segregation doesn't automatically equal racism, but racism has a better chance of being acknowledged and confronted when people are used to having constructive, honest dialogue across racial lines, and are regularly occupying the same spaces and listening to each other, in general.
In 2009, when the writer Lisa Solod Warren lumped Obama and Tiger Woods together in a Huffington Post article lamenting the "fall" of two black role models as a result of their "hubris," I wondered aloud on Twitter if any of Warren's white friends had attempted to get her to see the error of her ways, since she'd been completely dismissive of critiques from blacks. A white friend responded; she knew Lisa and was horrified at the HuffPo article, but hadn't reached out to her.
RM: A few years ago I wrote a post about my then-4-year-old boy playing with a white child and how this reflected a brief color-blind moment in his life, because as he ages, race will directly influence all of his relationships. Not two minutes after it was published, I was publicly shamed for interjecting race and called a racist. There is an absolute desire to deny our lived experiences.
AD: My blog has a strangely mixed following of apparently stereotypical mom bloggers/mom blog readers and social justice types—and sometimes they're the same person, but sometimes not. The reactions I get to various posts can be telling. Definitely, any posts on race (even on race and parenting and on trying to raise my white child to be antiracist) get circulated more among the social-justice crowd (some of whom themselves are parents), whereas posts on parenting more generally get circulated more among my mostly white, more-likely-to-identify-as-a-mommy-blogger readership. There's very much a feeling of "that's not my concern" among the typical white mom-blog readership when it comes to topics of race or class or cissexism. (And I am very much generalizing here, because there are also a lot of really amazing, race-conscious white bloggers out there.)
Have there been times when you felt marginalized or tokenized within mom-blog culture? How have you responded?
RM: A popular mommy blog did a post on the top Twitter moms and [included] only one mom of color. When I wrote a post about this, I was told that [the list] was based on the number of Twitter followers each person had. Ironically, not only were my followers larger than many on the list, so were [those of] many other people of color. I always directly confront racist erasure, but each time I do so it comes at a cost to me. Normally it is not until women of color start pointing out racism that others join in—no one wants to acknowledge the personal stress involved and the pain that comes from having people deny their racist actions.
VA: I feel like I've created marginalization by dubbing myself a Latina feminist mom blogger. There are times when I roll with it and times when I use it to point out that I'm the token and I need some company. I've been trying to do far more of the latter lately.
AD: As a white blogger, I'm not marginalized or tokenized racially, but the opposite happens anytime I am "elevated" in the media (such as recently, when I've been contacted to opine about gender-neutral parenting), where the marginalized parts of my identity—that I am fat, and queer, and crazy/disabled—are erased or ignored. It's very much as though those parts of my identity have to be suspended in order for me to be "acceptable" to mainstream audiences. I've yet to be "the crazy one" or "the bi one" on a panel, but rather am made to feel like I'm expected to leave my disability and my nonheterosexuality at the door in order to enter. Which, actually, brings an interesting angle to the first question: How much of the appearance of "mom bloggers" as pinnacle-y privileged have to do with the aspects of their identities that are left out? Are they white because nonwhiteness cannot be so "easily" covered up?
Veronica wrote several years ago in Bitch about the lack of diversity in the burgeoning "mainstream" mom-blog culture ("Mommy & Me", Genesis #40) represented by Offsprung, Babble, BlogHer, etc. Have those group blogs become more diverse? Do you think they have a responsibility to be?
SS-B: I can only speak for BlogHer, as I recently became a part of their new affiliate program, so I think they are actively looking to become more diverse. Overall, though, there is a lack of diversity. I have noticed this a lot at Babble, where it is an echo chamber of straight, white, middle-class voices.
VA: Outside of BlogHer, I don't visit those sites anymore. I just got tired of their whitewashing of parenthood. BlogHer does a much better job at being diverse. As they expand, they seem to keep diversity in mind.
AD: I make it a point not to follow most large group blogs. The only one I'm familiar with in this list is Babble, which has been an absolute nightmare of race fail—though to be fair, I tend to only hear about them when they're failing. As I've written before, yes, [these blogs] absolutely have a responsibility to be more diverse and inclusive—or to be explicit about not wanting to be, so the rest of us can make informed decisions about whether or not to support or align with them.
RM: I think it should be the responsibility of these [outlets] to diversify their spaces. The idea that marginalized people have to force their way through glass ceilings does not take into account the stress and the pain involved.
DP: I'm not familiar enough with these sites to say whether or not they've become more diverse than they were previously. I've read Babble twice, and vaguely remember complaints about a lily-white (or nearly lily-white) "top blogger" list they created. I've participated on BlogHer, and I discovered several women-of-color bloggers whom I might not have encountered otherwise. I believe that any site that purports to showcase the voices of women or mothers does have an obligation to present a collection of voices that is as diverse as we really are as women and mothers. If not, they need to be honest in their taglines, banners, and PR about who they are really showcasing.
Do you think that these blogs' concern about appearing "political"—and possibly alienating advertisers—is the reason they don't have a more diverse slate of bloggers? Is there a sense that anyone blogging about the intersections of race, parenting, and blog culture is necessarily going to be political?
SS-B: Could be. The irony, of course, [is that] within the black community there is a ton of spending that happens. But for the most part I doubt the advertisers who are involved in these networks are actually aware of that.
DP: I'm not familiar enough with [these blogs] to speculate about their concerns. But on some level, the "political" excuse may be giving them too much credit. If you believe that you and
others who look and live like you represent "mothers" universally, then it may not even occur to you to have a more diverse slate.
AD: Culturally, we assign any discussion of "race" to the broad category of "politics." In some ways, this makes sense, because "the personal is political." But in other ways, this further marginalizes and silences discussions of race, because of the social rule "never talk politics in mixed company."
VA: Well, BlogHer has a political arena, so they aren't scared to be political. They just try to be even-handed in their politicalness. Perhaps that is why they are more diverse? They've shown that you can be political and still bring in the advertising money.
With Internet culture still relatively new—and mom- and parent-blog culture even more so—I'm interested to hear what changes or shifts you've noticed since you began reading and writing online. Have changes been, on balance, for the better or for the worse, and why?
SS-B: I feel that the writing and voices have taken a backseat to the fact that many now view blogging as a way to earn some money. I remember reading some amazing blogs back four or five years ago and now it seems posts on average tend to be shorter and there is a lot less heart and soul involved; it's all about the hits and the advertisers. I don't see this as necessarily a
VA: Well, the marriage between mom bloggers and advertisers/marketers really took off faster than I think people anticipated. It also gave further evidence that mom = white woman with kids. The first wave of marketing hit the white mom bloggers first, so much that in 2009, it was a point of contention at BlogHer. It was strange to see a woman, the blogger MochaMom, stand up and ask, "Aren't I worthy of freebies?" She knew she wasn't getting offers just because she wasn't white.
DP: I haven't read enough to say how the culture has changed overall. I'm no more interested in the culture as a whole now than I was when I first began reading and writing online. Outside of individual bloggers who write about single parenting/coparenting/divorce, as I do, I tend to become aware of mom and parent blogs only when there's controversy related to race. So of course this skews my perception of them.
I wonder if there are topics that nonwhite and/or nonhetero mom bloggers feel more/less encouraged to discuss in the mom blogosphere? For example, are you considered "experts" when it's time to talk about racism and parenting or interracial relationships, but not when it comes to, say, discipline or lactivism or noncustodial parenting? Are nonwhite, nonhetero mom bloggers expected to speak only to issues that fall outside of the traditional mom-blogosphere purview?
SS-B: Oh, absolutely! Even not being a mommy blogger per se, I do talk about parenting, yet people ask me questions on race issues. Lactivism is one I have rarely had anyone ask me about despite the fact I nursed my 5-year-old until she was three and a half! I think it's hard for others to think outside the box and realize nonwhite bloggers can be active in discussions aside from race.
VA: I really think that [many people] believe firmly that if you ignore race, racism will go away. Too many of us have bought into the color-blind myth. I've heard people of all colors debate whether you prepare your child for the racist world or keep them in their bubble until it bursts. Thus I believe that the ignoring of race is the only way some people know how to battle racism. It is also ignorance. We just haven't had many large conversations about race. Yes, there are times when I feel like I'm being "the Latina mom" blogger. But I also feel that way about being "the feminist mom blogger." Sometimes I'm both!
RM: That's a tough question for me because generally speaking, I am not considered a mommy blogger. I write a lot about the experiences of my children and the times I feel that I have failed, but I don't think I have actually been given expert status on anything. Perhaps this has to do with the kind of issues I talk about. Within my own space, many [people] are very surprised by my approach to parenting, and respect it, but outside of it, I am largely ignored.
DP: I've been fortunate in this regard. I've written about race, gender, discipline, and noncustodial parenting, and to my knowledge, I'm "known" primarily as a coparenting resource. That said, I have been asked to lend a "black" perspective on various issues.
This question made me think of Elita Kalma, who blogs at Blacktating. I reached out to her, and this is what she said:
I get emails all the time asking me to speak to the black experience when it comes to breastfeeding, when of course there is no one, universal black experience, period. But when anyone in the blogosphere wants to talk about black folks and breastfeeding, they typically only have a few people to go to and, yes, I am one of them. Do they consider me an expert on general topics related to breastfeeding? I'd say no. They want to hear me talk about the black experience or how I "overcame obstacles to breastfeed" and would consider me an expert on black breastfeeding but not on breastfeeding overall. I think it's great that they recognize race and culture play a role in breastfeeding rates and want to correct that, but it would be nice if I were invited to the table to talk about breastfeeding period, not just black breastfeeding.
AD: I've definitely seen this happen to other bloggers when it comes to race, but my subjective experience, again, has been that I am "allowed" to talk about these "general" subjects and have it be widely read and disseminated when the marginalized aspects of my identity aren't at the forefront. I can be the queer mom, but only when I'm talking about issues of sexuality; if I write about, say, discipline, then I'm read as the default—that is, straight.
None of these experiences of mine are exactly analogous to what bloggers of color go through, but it seems that they all come from the underlying belief that if you're not the "default" (which is to say, privileged), then your experiences don't matter, or only matter to those "like you." We're not allowed to be women of color and breastfeeding experts, so Shay never gets asked about lactivism, and we're not allowed to be disabled and have opinions about gender-neutral parenting, so my being bipolar is never mentioned when I'm contacted for a quote. (Sure, it could be argued that it's not relevant, but in very real ways it is, because when that part of me is consistently hidden, it perpetuates the privilege-washing of the "mommy blogger" in the public eye. My nonprivileged identities are primarily nonvisible, and then when not explicitly mentioned, are functionally invisible.)
Does the echo-chamber effect of mom blogs (like widely disseminated posts about breastfeeding, vaccines, "opting out," gender-neutral parenting, etc.) influence how you think about your own blog content? What are some key issues you try to bring into mainstream discussions of parenting that reflect your parenting experiences?
SS-B: I write about what is of interest to me. I also am a rare blogger in that I have a small child and an adult child, so at a certain point certain discussions are just not of interest to me because, as I joke, I have been in the parenting business now almost 20 years.
VA: As mentioned earlier, I try to bring more politics into the mom blogosphere. Thankfully, things are different since when I first started mom blogging in 2003. I really do think we can thank the Bush administration for that one: So many people were so excited to get him out of the White House and elect a Democrat, that I started to see posts on mom blogs that began, "I'm usually not political, but...." They were urging readers to register to vote, and in some cases asking people to vote for their chosen candidate. It was awesome to watch. Sites like MOMocrats helped spur that shift.
DP: The echo chamber doesn't influence how I think about my own blog content. I'd be interested in seeing white parent bloggers raising awareness among their readers and speaking out about police brutality—or even simply pondering the fact that children of color, especially boys, face risks that their own children do not, by and large; about bias in media; about raising children to be social justice–minded; about race and rape culture; about books, film, art by and about people who don't look like them; and about stepping outside of their comfort zones, not as cultural tourists but as parents of conscience who are raising children to be concerned, informed, and justice-minded in a diverse society.
AD: I rarely post on topics of the day unless I feel I can bring an alternate perspective, and then I try to point out the -isms and biases and privilege in the ways those topics are being discussed. I don't know how successful I am, and I know I miss opportunities all the time. In general, what I want from my fellow white, middle-class bloggers is to remember that not everyone is exactly like us, and our experiences are not universalizable. Not only are there always exceptions (and yes, the experiences of the few matter, possibly more than the experiences of the many), but we are just one niche, and it's only racism and classism that makes it seem like we are the default and the norm.
RM: The main issue that I attempt to discuss is teaching my children to think critically and to challenge their various privileges. I really want them to understand that "different" does not mean "less than," and that is a message I work hard to instill every day, that I believe should be a part of wider discussions. If we do not actively teach children that oppression is wrong, they will only continue the hierarchy of bodies that we have socially constructed.
In many ways I consider what I do to be radical parenting. I think too many [people] hide behind the fact that childhood is supposedly a time of sweet innocence and by doing so ignore that each day their children are being indoctrinated by society into belief patterns that are harmful. We talk openly about many subjects that many believe are beyond a child's understanding, and yet I have seen in my personal experience that talking to kids about the "big issues"—sexuality, gender, sexism, etc.—is not only possible but absolutely necessary to develop well-rounded individuals.
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