Relations on the Home Front
So, people in the South loved the blacks as individuals, but not as a group. And people in the North loved them as a group, but would have no part of them as individuals. I would imagine that the blacks in the South felt the same way-that they feared whites as a group but loved them as individuals. I think this is true still, that there are many blacks who have good relations with individual whites but don't with a group.
Idella: Marjorie Rawlings' Perfect Maid, 1992
Among women's interracial relationships, perhaps none is more deeply personal yet emotionally enigmatic than that between a Black domestic and her White employer. Born of inequality, with historical links to slavery, this cross-race relationship has survived well into the twentieth century. Although the number of Black domestics working for White women has declined dramatically in recent decades, there nonetheless remain many women, especially older women living in the South, whose primary connection to a woman of another race is of this kind. Some White women point with pride to the positive relations they have with their Black housekeepers as evidence of their lack of racial prejudice. The attitudes held by Black domestic servants are often more varied and complex. Many are understandably resentful that they have been forced into domestic service because of the lack of job opportunities for Blacks, and feel bitter toward the White families for whom they work or worked. But other Black domestic servants develop warm and lasting relations with their White female employers, and especially the White children, whom they may have once nurtured as their own.
Black Domestics and White Employers
For Black women, the tradition of working in the homes of White women goes back hundreds of years. Initially, Emancipation did little to change the quality of life of most Southern Black women. Those who had been house slaves before the Civil War carried on in that capacity, only now as employees with meager financial compensation. Most of those who previously had slaved in the fields abandoned such work for more appropriately feminine chores in the home, but rarely was the home their own. While a small number of Negro women -- mostly those who had lived free before Emancipation -- did have husbands who made enough to allow them to stay home, most of the Black women in the South were desperately poor. To manage, they turned to the only work they could get: cleaning White women's homes and taking care of White women's children, often at the expense of their own. In the process, the racial-caste system of the South was left solidly intact.
In the North, the situation was slightly different, if only because fewer Black women lived there. Since the formation of the colonies, there had always been some free Negro women who worked in the homes of Whites. Yet there were never enough to meet the demand, so Northern Black women shared this lowly occupation with immigrant White women, especially those of Irish descent. In fact, 1850 census figures show that a full 70 percent of domestics in the Boston area were born in Ireland. In general, White servants were considered less reliable, because as soon they got married, most quit working. Black women, married or not, were usually too poor to afford that luxury, and most remained chained to menial household labor all their lives.
Still, to many newly freed slaves, the North seemed the Promised Land in comparison with the South. From the late nineteenth century to the Great Depression of the 1930s, a steady stream of Black women migrated northward in hope of a better way of life. Most were disappointed. At the turn of the century, as the country became increasingly industrialized, working-class White women were able to abandon domestic chores for better paying factory and office work, but when Black women applied for positions as clerks, stenographers, typists, and bookkeepers, they were usually turned away. Instead, Black women were forced to fill the gap in domestic service left behind by White women. As a result, in both the North and South, Black women cleaned the homes of Whites. Reflecting the changing demographics, in 1890, Black women constituted only 28.8 percent of all domestics in the country, but by 1920, they made up close to 46 percent. Regional differences remained significant: in 1920, only 18 percent of female domestics in the North were Black; in the South, Black female domestics made up a full 82 percent.
The status of White women who had Black domestic servants varied from one part of the country to the next. Because there were relatively fewer Black women in the North, it was considered far more prestigious for a Northern White family to have a Black housekeeper, especially one who was a live-in, than it was in the South. Below the Mason-Dixon Line, even many working-class White women were able to afford someone else to clean their homes. In fact, as recently as the 1950s, the South was referred to as a "White housewives' utopia" because of the abundance of inexpensive Black domestic servants.
As late as 1940, 6o percent -- over two million -- of all employed Black women in this country identified themselves as domestic servants. Even twenty years later, as many as a third of Black women continued to list domestic service as their primary occupation. It was not until after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that employment opportunities for Black women finally opened up. And once they did, Black women left domestic work in droves. By 1970, only 18 percent of employed Black women categorized themselves as "private household workers" in the official census-the first time in history that the category did not head the list of occupations of African American women.
In 1992, only 876,000 persons, nearly all of them women, remained in private household work. In that same year, among the total number of domestic servants, the percentage who identified themselves as Latino (19.6 percent) for the first time surpassed those who identified themselves as Black (18.6 percent). Today, a domestic worker is more likely to be an immigrant from Central or South America or one of the Caribbean islands. But given the history and sheer number of Black women who have worked or continue to work in the homes of Whites, it is not surprising that Black author Alice Childress, in her 1956 book, Like One of the Family, declared, "It's a rare thing for anybody to find a colored family in this land that can't trace a domestic worker somewhere in their history."
Until recently, the personal relationships between Black domestics and White female employers were never considered worthy of serious study. The world of women working in the home was less visible, and was considered less important, than the often more public lives of men. However, since the emergence of feminist scholarship in the late seventies, research has expanded to include the realities of working women's lives. The day-to-day interactions between Black domestics and their White employers have been the subject of two recent books. The first, Between Women: Domestics and Their Employers, published in 1985, was based on the doctoral research of African American sociologist Judith Rollins, who worked as a domestic servant, between September 1982 to mid-May 1982, for ten different White women in the Boston area. She supplemented her personal experiences with interviews of twenty White female employers of domestics and twenty Black housekeepers. Her research brings to light how very differently domestic work is viewed from the perspective of the Black employee and the White employer.
The second book, Telling Memories Among Southern Women: Domestic Workers and their Employers in the Segregated South, published in 1988, was written by a White researcher named Susan Tucker. Tucker, with the help of an African American assistant, Mary Yelling, interviewed over forty Black women and White women about domestic service in the South today. A Southerner herself, Tucker was primarily interested in the insights of other Southern women on the rapidly changing roles of women there.
Taken together, these two books reveal that regional differences still exist regarding the nature and longevity of domestic servitude. In the North, where racial attitudes are considered generally more liberal, White women and Black women traditionally had more opportunity to meet and interact in places other than a White woman's home. Also, most African American women who turned to domestic service did not expect to stay in that occupation very long. But in the South, with its history of Jim Crow laws, many workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods were strictly segregated, and domestic employment was often the only point of connection between Black and White women. Although in recent decades the South has become more integrated, even today it is possible to find Black women who have worked for the same White family for thirty years or more. In some cases, multigenerational connections can be traced back a hundred years between the two families, White employers and Black domestics. The greater longevity of domestic employment in the South also leads more Southern Whites to invoke the phrase "like one of the family" when describing a particularly loyal and much beloved Black servant.
Not surprisingly, few Black domestics, in either the South or North, respond favorably to this quaint expression. As paid employees, and frequent victims of prejudice both within and outside White households, Black women are far more attuned to the many ways in which they are not treated as "one of the family." For example, family members, unlike their domestic servants, eat in the dining room, not in the kitchen. And even though Black domestics often recognize that they are very much loved by their White female employers, privately they do not consider themselves "family members." That is the White employer's fantasy, not theirs.
Susan Tucker reported that nearly every White female employer she interviewed singled out her own Black domestic servant as exceptional. As Tucker noted, if White women truly believe that their servants are somehow exceptional, what must they think of most Blacks in general? Apparently, not much. Nonetheless, in the South many White women do sincerely believe that their Black domestic servants are special women, deserving high quality care and the best medical treatment. Stories abound of those Black maids too old or infirm to work anymore being financially supported by their White employers. If a former maid is in need of surgery that she cannot afford, it is often the White family that covers the expenses. This attitude of personal responsibility is as yet another defining difference between many White employers in the North compared with those in the South, a difference reflected in the chapter epigraph by Elinor Birney a White woman interviewed by Tucker.
Regardless of where in the country the women live, there are many more similarities than differences in the domestic work relationship-similarities that arise because the protagonists are women. The domestic-employer relationship is qualitatively different from any other. Work interactions in the home are less formal than in an office. The division of responsibilities Is less clearly defined. Compared with men, at work in a more structured environment, White housewives may find it difficult to know exactly where their role as the homemaker ends -and the job of the hired servant begins. This issue is compounded by the fact that housework is largely devalued. No matter how good a job a domestic servant may do, her work is rarely praised or viewed as worthy of special recognition.
This widespread devaluing of housework, along with the blurred boundaries of the job, affects how domestic employers handle their managerial responsibilities. While some White women are content to supervise another woman, others find it difficult to exercise their authority-a task made even harder if the servant is perceived of as equal in status to themselves. Perhaps this explains why historically most White women preferred housecleaners who were Black rather than White. With racial differences, there was less confusion about who had the power and status in the relationship-and who did not. These complex, interrelated issues of race, as well as class, are evident in the following story told by a forty-six-year-old White female advertising executive named Mike about her mother:
I grew up during the fifties and sixties outside Detroit. My father was a doctor, and my mother, as a doctor's wife, of course, always had a maid. Actually, we had several different housekeepers while I was growing up, and they were all Black, except this White one who was from Eastern Europe and hardly spoke a word of English. She was also the wife of a new doctor 'n residency at the hospital where my father worked. My mother could hardly handle the guilt -- a White maid who was another doctor's wife! Instead of having this woman work, my mother spent all day teaching her how to speak proper English. My sisters and I hated it because it meant we got stuck with all the housework that the maid wasn't doing. Looking back on it, though, I guess, from my mom's perspective, it was more like "There but for the grace of God go I." It must have been extremely uncomfortable for her.Ironically, some White women today, suffering from White liberal guilt, are more comfortable hiring a White domestic servant than one who is Black. It is easier for them to pretend that the obvious status differences between the employer and the domestic help are less great. Alice, a White college professor, recently described her feelings about hiring an older Black domestic servant:
The worst thing that can happen in domestic work is a poor understanding with your employer. A bad relationship makes the work that much harder. That's it; a bad relationship. Then you've really got a hard job. You dread it.When asked why she likes doing domestic work, Zelda Greene, a Southern Black domestic, told Susan Tucker, "I tell you, it's not so much the work- it's the people you're working for. That's what makes the difference."
Beneath this veneer of sociability, however, lie irrefutable status differences that undermine the development of a real friendship. White and Black women both know this, albeit in slightly different ways. As the employee, a Black woman is well aware that at any time she can be summarily dismissed, both emotionally and occupationally, by her White female employer, regardless of how nicely she acts. As the employer, the White woman, foolishly, may overestimate the extent to which her Black domestic really cares about her. Judith Rollins discovered from her own experiences as a domestic servant that "part of being a domestic was acting like the person the employer wanted her domestic to be." If at times that means acting like a best friend, then that is what a Black domestic will do. And if at other times, that means acting subservient, then that is what she will do.
In addition to being "invisible" at times, the domestic servant is required to listen sympathetically to an employer's problems, even when those problems seem trivial. A housekeeper is never free to say to her employer, "I'm sorry. I don't feel like listening to you right now," or, worse, "You think that's bad; let me tell you about my situation." Between women of equal status, the latter type of exchange would be common; reciprocal disclosures and shared emotions are what signal trust in a developing friendship. A White employer's intimate disclosures to her Black housekeeper are ultimately meaningless because they entail no risk. The social worlds of domestic employers and their servants are too far apart for even the most embarrassing and shameful confidences to have any consequences for the White woman. Nonetheless, Black domestic servants are expected to listen attentively to the problems of their White employers for the sake of the relationship between them.
Servants are required to be deferential in other ways, as well. These may include using only the back door, addressing employers as "Ma'am" but being addressed back more intimately, wearing a "maid's" uniform, and acting grateful when given unwanted gifts.
Not long ago, a Black woman entering the front door of a White family's home would have caused the neighbors to talk. Restricting servants to back entrances was a hypocritical gesture, however, done for appearances' sake only. As Ruby Lee Daniels, a former domestic interviewed by the White author Nicholas Lehmann for his 1991 book The Promised Land.- The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America, angrily noted, "This white woman thinks I'm good enough to nurse her baby and to make the meals that her family eats. Why am I not good enough to go in her house by the front door?"
Asymmetry in the use of names also bothers domestic servants. Addressing their employers as Miss, Mrs., or Ms. while being called by their first names, especially by the children, is insulting. Even the Southern practice of placing "miz" before the first name of an older domestic servant is not a true gesture of respect; her last name is still not being used and, in many cases, is not even known by most White family members.
Requiring a domestic to wear a uniform similarly serves to demarcate her status from that of her White employer. For that reason, many domestic servants today refuse to wear uniforms.
In yet another show of deference, Black domestics are expected to act grateful for gifts given to them by their White employers, even for items that are clearly unwanted or obviously useless. Like most employees, Black domestics would rather have a bonus or a raise than be burdened by such offerings. In recent years, many have begun to inform White employers that they don't "tote"-take food or other material goods home. Others, however, such as Ellen Samuel, continue quietly to accept the often useless gifts...... I didn't want most of that junk. But you have to take it. It's part of the job; makes them feel like they're being so kind to you. And you have to appear grateful. That makes them feel good."
David Katzman, in his 1978 book, Seven Days a Week, termed gift-giving an expression of maternalism, the way a nurturing but controlling mother might take care of her young. The White employer seems to feel that, without her help, the Black domestic servant would be hopelessly lost. As one smug White female employer commented, regarding the benefits Black domestic servants receive when working in White households, "They live with people of higher refinement and education than themselves and feel that influence . . . They are given a chance to learn order, system and economy, patience and forbearance, and thus are better fitted to be themselves thrifty housekeepers." Not surprisingly, domestic servants hold such employers in contempt. As a Black housekeeper, Joan Fox, commented, "I wouldn't want to be in her place . . . I would never want to live like that, sitting around, talking foolishness, and doing nothing."
Nonetheless, Tucker concluded, from her research in the South, that giftgiving by some wealthy White female employers is in many cases a sincere attempt to express care, and even love, for a long-term domestic servant.
Black domestics give to their employers something far more precious than anything material- leisure time, an intangible benefit seldom granted to Black domestics, who are often expected to hold everything together for everyone else. Poet and scholar Adrienne Rich feels that the presence Of Black domestic servants in the homes of White women allows them to regress emotionally. These same White women, however, sometimes turn around and infantilize Blacks, calling them "irresponsible, lazy, intellectually inferior, and childlike."
The cumulative effect of such indignities is that, without warning, the Black domestic may quit. When this happens, the White employer is often stunned. In interview after interview, White women who had had this happen to them said, "But I treated her so well. I thought that we were friends. She was 'like one of the family.' If she was unhappy, why didn't she tell me what was wrong? I can't believe that she would walk out on me at a time when she knows how much I need her." Yet such women never seemed to notice the emotional mask that their housekeepers were forced to wear, or the times that their employees had to censor their true thoughts to maintain the appearance of getting along so well.
Often a last straw for a Black domestic is being accused of stealing. Every family loses things from time to time, but when there is a housecleaner around to blame for the loss, it becomes all too easy to do just that. Not all Black domestics are honest, nor are all White employers suspicious, but thoughts about stealing- whether or not it happens- seem to permeate nearly every domestic arrangement. It is a painful and difficult subject. For some White women, it becomes impossible to ask a Black housecleaner where a lost item is for fear of sounding accusatory. To Black women who have tried very hard to prove themselves honest and hard-working, being suspected of theft is devastating and enraging. In reaction, long-suppressed anger over other indignities may finally erupt, sometimes in dramatic fashion. According to Black activist lawyer Flo Kennedy, her mother, Zella, ‘said it all' when she was falsely accused of theft, as Marcia Cohen relates in her book The Sisterhood.
Black Domestics and Children
Black domestic servants and the White children they are asked to watch often develop strong attachments. African American women's studies scholar Bonnie Thornton Dills investigated the psychological strategies used by Black domestic workers in caring for another woman's children. The exchange of money for maternal love is a strange, if not impossible one to evaluate. How does one shell out X amount of affection to a helpless child in return for X amount of money without becoming emotionally involved? As Dills notes:
Because most young children readily return love that is freely given and are open and accepting of people without regard to status factors that have meaning for their parents, the workers probably felt that they were treated with greater equality and more genuine acceptance by the children of the household.Some Black domestic servants even have to contend with White children mistakenly believing them to be their real mother. Such maternal confusion produces a curious mixture of pride and pain in Black women domestics, as Mattle Washington said of her experience:
Black child care workers express a range of attitudes toward their White charges. Some Black women don't like the White children they watch over, yet others develop strong feelings of maternal love for them. However, they soon learn it is best to keep positive feelings in check, since the relationship between them is always tenuous. At any time, it can be severed by the White mother-employer. Some White mothers become jealous when their daughters start confiding more in the Black housekeeper than in them. And unlike the White employer's ultimately meaningless disclosures, the secrets told to a Black domestic servant by a White daughter display real trust. After all, if the Black domestic were so inclined, she could confide to the child's mother whatever her daughter has said. But what is perhaps most infuriating to White mothers is that most Black domestics do not.
White girls who grew up with a Black servant in the home similarly report a range of feelings for the woman. Most report having been greatly affected by the experience. Some feel that having another woman around made it easier for them to separate emotionally from their mother. Others admit that they patterned their self-image on both their biological mothers and the Black women who helped raise them. A few feel that the love they received from their Black servant seemed more genuine than the love they got from their own mother. After all, one's real mother was obliged to love them, but the Black domestic servant seemed to love them for no reason at all.
A White physician, Tara, who grew up in South Carolina, reveals just how emotionally interdependent the White daughter-Black domestic relationship can be:
And a White woman of Jewish faith named Lynn, who grew up on Chicago's North Shore, credits her Black domestic servant with educating her early on about matters of race. One day, when she was seven or eight, she was innocently dancing around the house singing a little ditty that she had heard at school: "Eenie meenie minie mo. Catch a nigger by the toe." Cora, the family housekeeper, came storming out of the kitchen and shook Lynn by the shoulder, saying, "Don't you ever say that word again!" Lynn was frightened; she had never seen Cora angry, and she didn't know which of the many words she had used was offensive. But once she figured it out, with the help of her mother, she was forever impressed by the power words have to hurt people.
Too often, however, the time and energy that many Black domestics devote to helping to raise White children are in inverse proportion to the time and energy that they have to spend on their own children. A Black domestic servant's absence from home deeply affects her own daughters especially. Resentment at being abandoned by their mothers can leave a deep wound in Black children. Years later, when the daughter is grown with children of her own, the wound may reopen when she sees her mother finally giving the grandchildren all the love and attention earlier denied to her. It's an issue that April Sinclair addressed in her touching coming-of-age novel, Coffee Will Make You Black, published in 1994- Set in the sixties, this story centers on a young Black girl named Stevie. In one scene, she listens as her mother, Evelyn, and her maternal grandmother fight about how the latter is spoiling Stevie. Evelyn reminds her mother how differently she treated her own children when they were all young:
The little girl in pink started to cry. Mrs. Breedlove turned to her. "Hush, baby, hush. Come here. Oh, Lord, look at your dress. Don't cry no more. Polly will change it." She went to the sink and turned tap water on a fresh towel. Over her shoulder she spit out words to us like rotten pieces of apple. "Pick up that wash and get on out of here, so I can get this mess cleaned up."
The daughters of White employers and the daughters of Black domestics do sometimes become friends, at least when both girls are young. Throughout the South, Black domestics still bring their young daughters to work with them to play with the White daughters of their employers. And White mothers, albeit not as often as they used to, still drop their daughters off at the maid's home for baby sitting or simply to play. That a White mother would leave her child at a Black family's home may strike some Whites, particularly Northerners,as incredible, but it does happen. Tara, the White South Carolinian mentioned earlier, vividly recalls visiting Sally's home as a child and playing with her children. April Sinclair mentions the innocent practice, as well as regional differences in race attitudes that contribute to existence, in Coffee Will Make You Black. When Stevie asks her grandmother its if she ever had a White girlfriend, the older woman tells Stevie about Kathy Jo, the White daughter of her mother's domestic employer:
Having been exposed to White middle-class childrearing practices, some Black women raise their own children differently. A Black domestic named Willa Murray claimed that the White family for which she worked taught her the "value of talking with the children, reasoning with them, explaining things and hearing their thoughts and opinions on various matters . . . Telling your children that you trust them places greater emphasis on self direction than giving them orders to follow. Even if it means kids talk back, it can be good."
However, most Black domestics are critical of the way White mothers coddle their children. Aren't kids more likely to misbehave, they wonder, when they know that the only punishment they will receive is a "good talking-to"? Black mothers are more likely to use physical force and issue sharp verbal warnings to discipline their own offspring. For one thing, a good spanking takes less time than a lecture about why something is wrong, and time is the one thing that working Black mothers have precious little of. Such observed differences in the mothering styles of White and Black women may be reflective of class-based differences; economically disadvantaged women, regardless of race, tend to rely more on physical than verbal means of controlling their children. But it is interesting to note that even in fiction, most Black writers portray Black mothers as stern figures. As African American feminist scholar Gloria Wade-Gayles observes, "Mothers in Black women's fiction are strong and devoted . . . but . . . they are rarely affectionate."
Fortunately, Black daughters often have in their lives another woman- perhaps an aunt, a grandmother, or just a neighbor-who spoils them with unconditional love and emotional support. As discussed by Patricia Hill Collins in the article "The Meaning of Motherhood in Black Culture and Black Mother-Daughter Relationships," such women in the Black community are referred to as "othermothers." They assist bloodmothers in mothering responsibilities and play an especially important role in mentoring Black girls.
Othermothers are unique to the Black community, and may reflect the sentiment of the ancient African proverb "It takes a village to raise a child." Rarely do White mothers turn to other family members or friends to help raise their children. Instead, when a White woman needs assistance, she hires outside help, oftentimes a Black woman. Ironically, a Black housekeeper may thus serve for White girls the same function that an othermother serves for Black girls-that of a loving confidante and go-between with the biological mother.
Mothers and Biracial Daughters
A very different kind of cross-race relationship exists between the mother and daughter in a biracial marriage. Statistics derived from the 1990 census indicated that approximately four out of every thousand married couples, or 211,000 marriages in the United States that year, were racially mixed, Black and White. just twenty years earlier, only 1-5 of every thousand marriages were mixed this way. The number of biracial offspring has similarly risen, from an estimated 8700 births in 1968 to nearly 45,000 in 1989. These figures are probably inaccurate, though, as many Black-White biracial babies born to unwed mothers are classified as monoracial. There is no dispute, however, that the number of biracial children born in this country will continue to grow. How do biracial children fare when raised by a White mother rather than a Black one?
Psychologists have begun to explore whether biracial children are more or less well-adjusted than monoracial children. In 1992, Raymond Vagas compared girls who were biracial, Black, and White, and concluded that biracial status is unrelated to overall social functioning. In another study, published in 1993, Psychologists Nishimura and Priest looked at various strategies used by mothers in raising biracial children. The researchers discovered that mothers try to raise their biracial children by (1) denying that race is important, (2) promoting one parent's racial identity over the other's, or (3) acknowledging the child's biracial heritage.
Depending on other factors, either the second or third strategy can be successful. The first, however-denying that race is important-is nearly always disastrous, especially when the mother is White, which is likely to be the case, since 70 percent of all biracial marriages in the United States are between White women and Black men. Fortunately, most of these mothers do discuss the issue of racial identity with their children.
Yet even in the healthiest biracial family, subtle and not-so-subtle psychological challenges may arise, according to Candy Mills, the African American founding editor and publisher of Interrace and Biracial Child. Mills should know. In addition to editing two magazines that address issues of race, she is happily married to a White man and the mother of two biracial children, a boy and a girt. Mills has noticed an important but often overlooked factor in studies of biraciality, and that is the child's physical appearance. Although the appearance of offspring of any White-Black union is a complete genetic toss-up, White and Black mothers are affected differently by a child's racially mixed looks. For many Black women, especially those suffering from a color complex, certain social advantages may be seen in have child, especially a daughter, with light skin and "good" hair. Such an attitude may be reinforced by Black relatives who exclaim what excellent coloring, facial features, and hair the child has. Relatives on the White side of the family hardly ever make such comments. Black mothers also expect that their biracial children will look essentially Black. 'I'here is already so much White-and Native American-blood pumping through the veins of the Black community that even in public, the presence of a dark-skinned mother with a lightskinned child typically does not provoke much speculation. Most strangers simply assume that this Black woman married, or perhaps "dated," a Black man much lighter than herself.
The White mother of a biracial child, however, contends with vastly different issues, since the child's biracial status is more "marked" for others to see. Even in public, strangers will usually be able to tell, by looking at a child's skin color, facial features, or hair texture, that he or she has some Black blood. In addition, because of this country's widespread acceptance of the one-drop rule-in which an ounce of Black blood renders full Black identity-as well its lack of a legal concept of biraciality, racially mixed children are usually designated as Black. A White mother, then, may experience more anxiety than a Black mother about how her biracial child will be identified.
Candy Mills believes that when biracial daughters are very young, they think of themselves as Black or White depending on the race of the mother. But as they enter the critical developmental phase during which individuation takes place, questions about their racial identity come to the fore. Conflict is especially likely to develop when the mother and daughter do not look alike; that is, when the mother is Black but her daughter looks White, or when the mother is White but her daughter looks Black. Such a situation can even trigger an identity crisis of sorts in the mother. This is what Mills confessed happened to her.
My daughter Gabriela is very light-skinned, and in public,. perfect strangers used to come up to us to ask, "Is she your daughter?" Some people even assumed that I was Gabriela's nanny, which was really beginning to upset me. When Gabriela was around four, I started putting her in the sun, hoping that if her skin turned darker, we wouldn't get so many of these type comments. It worked, but then I began covering up . Gabriela so that she wouldn't get too dark-the old color complex thing. Finally, I realized what I was doing, and was able to stop. Good thing, too, because Gabriela was starting to pick up that something funny was going on.
Mills added that when Gabriela turned eight, she asked her mother, "What race should I choose?" Candy replied, "You can only be what you are. You are biracial." But Gabriela persisted: "No, if I had to choose, what race should I be?" Candy this time told her, "Choose what is easier for you, what makes your life easier. Each individual must lead his or her own life."
The process of establishing racial identity when the mother is White may be particularly challenging for a biracial daughter. According to psychologist Nancy Chodorow, in her 1978 book The Reproduction of Mothering, gender differences, traceable to early childhood experiences with the mother, support such a contention. Between the ages of three and five, boys realize that they are different from their mothers, and form much of their masculine identity around these differences. The result is that boys are primed to grow up with a strong sense of self; but because they suffered a break with their first love, the mother, they may be less strong in their ability to connect fully with others. During this same developmental phase, girls are repeatedly told that they are the same as their mother and, in fact, one day will grow up to be just like her. Since she is never challenged to make that psychological break with her primary caregiver, the girl may retain the ability to connect with others, but her sense of self may become weak. In psychological terms: she lacks good ego boundaries between herself and others. What happens, then, to biracial daughters, who are simultaneously told that they are like their mothers but also that they are not?
For many biracial daughters, there are clear psychological advantages. Some have both well-established ego boundaries and a strong sense of connectedness with others. Perhaps this helps explain why so many biracial women are extraordinarily successful. The list of such women includes celebrities like film and television actresses Jasmine Guy, Jennifer Beals, Halle Berry, pop singers Mariah Carey and Paula Abdul, television news reporter Sue Simmons, and Village Voice columnist and author Lisa Jones. Each of these women was raised by a mother who is White, and, in some cases, without the benefit of a Black father around. Halle Berry recalls with pride how her White mother handled the issue of her racial identity:
My mother cleared it up for me when I was very young. She said when you look in the mirror you're going to see a Black woman. You're going to be discriminated against as a Black woman, so ultimately, in this society, that's who you will be. And that's made my life very easy. I think if you're an interracial child and you're strong enough to live "I'm neither Black nor White but in the middle," then more power [to you]. But I needed to make a choice and feel a part of a culture. I feel a lot of pride in being a Black woman.
Lisa Jones, who also identifies herself as Black, once asked her mother why she decided to raise her children to be Black, not biracial. Her mother's response was "I was not about to delude you guys into thinking you could be anything different in this country. And, frankly, I didn't think that being anything other than black would be any more desirable." And Mariah Carey, who actually identifies herself as multiracial, also gives credit for her lack of racial confusion and her success in life to the White woman who bore and raised her:
Some biracial daughters clearly do not have good relations with their mothers. Conflicts and serious adjustment problems are especially likely when a White mother tries to hide the daughter's biracial status from family members, or regrets to the point of denial her relationship with a Black man. Black mothers, too, may be unhappy about having a daughter who is half-White. Some try to force a daughter who would like to acknowledge her biraciality to fully identify herself as Black; others even try to withhold the knowledge that the absent father is White. While it is generally easier for Black mothers to deny the Whiteness of their biracial daughters than it is for White mothers to deny the Blackness of their biracial daughters, in both cases it largely depends on how the child looks. When a girl's physical features are at odds with how she wants to identify herself, she is most vulnerable to low self-esteem and psychological confusion.
Ultimately, the success or failure of the relationship between a mother and her biracial daughter depends on the two individuals. Some mothers and biracial daughters are better equipped than others to handle the stress this situation can produce.
Another way a White woman may mother a Black girl is to adopt her. The National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) believes, however, that this is a bad idea. Since 1972, as pointed out earlier, this organization has officially opposed the adoption of Black children, even biracial ones, by White parents. Largely because of the NABSW's position, many states during the seventies passed laws restricting adoptions across racial lines, and the number of transracial adoptions in this country was cut in half. In 1975, an estimated 2 percent of all adoptions were of White parents with Black children, but by 1987, this figure had dropped to only 1 percent.
Because of the widespread ban on transracial adoptions in this country, and a shortage of available White babies for adoption, thousands of White Americans have been forced to go elsewhere to adopt-in some cases countries where no such restrictions are in effect. Many White Americans would adopt babies here if it were possible. The National Committee for Adoption reported in 1984 that of the approximately two million couples waiting to adopt, about 68,000 would willingly adopt transracially. Meanwhile, American-born Black and biracial children languish in foster care.
The primary reason for NABSW's objection to transracial adoption is that White mothers are presumed incapable of instilling in Black children a positive sense of racial identity. Yet the findings of several recent longitudinal studies indicate that only about a fifth of transracially adopted children suffer any significant psychological problems. The self-esteem level of the majority of transracial adoptees, especially girls, is no different from that of other children.
The comments of both mothers and daughters involved in transracial adoptions would seem to support the positive nature of the experience. Jessica Zang, a fourteen-year-old Chicago Black teenager who was adopted when she was five days old, was asked whether having a White mother had ever caused her problems. She replied, "I get that strange kind of look a lot, you know, is that really your Mom? But I always answer very confidently, 'This is my Mom.' " Jessica's mother, Ellen, added, "I cannot consider that this is the wrong thing. How can I when I look at her? She has enriched my life so much."
Certainly not all members of the Black community endorse the NABSW's strong opposition to transracial adoptions. Many Black leaders are now revisiting this issue in light of growing concerns about the sheer number of Black children in foster care. In I994, Senator Carol Moseley Braun introduced a bill in Congress that would make it illegal for federally funded adoption agencies to deny or delay placing a child solely on the basis of race. Many states also are starting to modify their policies. In Illinois, for example, the adoption code was recently amended to limit the time the state can spend trying to match children racially with adoptive parents. The new code recognizes that, all else being equal, it is probably in the child's best interest to grow up in a family of the same race, but if a same-race family is not found after three months, then a couple of another race may proceed with adoption.
Some family court judges are also starting to hand down more liberal decisions in transracial adoption cases. In one such case, in Washington, D.C., the color line as well as the sexual-orientation line was crossed. In February 1994, a male judge granted custody of a Black child to a White lesbian couple who had been serving as the child's foster parents. The judge based his decision on the previously unstable child's excellent progress while under the care of these two White women.
Despite the movement in recent years to challenge antitransracial laws, and some recent favorable court decisions in the area, the number of transracial adoptions remains small. For every case in which White foster parents finally get custody of a Black child, there are many more in which White parents are denied. Sadly, it is the innocent Black foster children who suffer the most-suddenly removed from the only home they may have ever known for reasons having mote to do with politics than with their welfare.
New Birth Technologies
The development of new birth technologies has added another layer of complexity to transracial mothering. Now, a woman of one race can actually carry in her womb and give birth to a child of another race. The process is called surrogate motherhood, and takes several different forms. In the first and most common form, a woman, known as the surrogate, is hired, for anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000, by a couple with viable sperm but no eggs. At ovulation, the surrogate is artificially inseminated with the man's sperm, and, assuming conception takes place, carries to term this fetus, which is genetically half hers. At birth, the baby is turned over to the waiting infertile couple.
In the second, more complicated case, the woman and the man have viable eggs and sperm, but the woman's womb does not properly function. The couple can still genetically reproduce, however, if the infertile woman's eggs are surgically removed and fertilized outside the womb in a petri dish. Such a procedure is known as in vitro fertilization (IVF). The fertilized egg, or zygote, is placed in the womb of the surrogate, who carries the baby to term. In this case, only the surrogate's womb is needed, and she makes no genetic contribution to the baby.
In the third case, the womb of an infertile woman is fine, but her eggs are not. In this instance a surrogate donor has her eggs surgically removed from her body and fertilized via IVF with the sperm of the infertile woman's partner. The zygote is placed in the womb of the "infertile" woman, and she then carries the fetus to term. Most recently, postmenopausal women in their fifties and even sixties have used this procedure to give birth.
While still relatively rare, there have been nearly four thousand surrogate births in this country since the 1970s. The procedure is considered a godsend for otherwise infertile couples, but enormous legal and ethical complications can develop if the surrogate mother changes her mind and wants to keep the baby at birth. The most widely known case of this sort involved a White woman, Mary Beth Whitehead, and a White couple, Betsy and William Stern. After giving birth to a baby girl from her own egg and the sperm of William Stern, Whitehead realized that she did not want to give up her baby. The Sterns sued to get custody of the child, who, they believed, contractually belonged to them. In a controversial decision, the judge ruled joint custody on the basis of genetic contribution. The little girl would jointly belong to Mary Beth Whitehead and William Stern.
In another, less publicized, case involving the second IVF procedure, a Black surrogate mother, Annie Johnson, changed her mind and sued for custody of the White baby that she carried to term. (Johnson was actually of mixed African American, Irish, and Native American ancestry, and the couple who hired her was interracial; Mark Calvert was White and his wife, Crispina, was a Fillpina.) In this case, the judge ruled that Johnson was a genetic stranger to the child that she bore, so she had no right even to joint custody.
These cases and court decisions have disturbing implications. There is growing concern among Black female activists about the class and race abuses that may spring from this new birth technology. Will well-to-do White women begin hiring poorer women of color to carry their babies for them? In an article for Essence, Lelia McDowell-Head notes the historical bond between poor women like Mary Beth Whitehead and slave women from centuries past whose wombs were considered the property of White masters:
There remains something
unsettling about the various cross-race relationships discussed in this
chapter. While there is nothing inherently wrong with one woman doing the
child care or housekeeping chores of another after all, there will always
be women in need of domestic assistance, just as there will always be women
willing to give it-it is the one-sided racial nature of the relationship
that smacks of prejudice. Why is it a Black woman working in a White woman's
home, and rarely the opposite? And why is it that more White women want
to adopt Black children than Black women adopting White children? The answer
is found in the economics of racial inequality that govern the public sphere.
As long as the distribution of wealth and educational benefits in the larger
society remains unchanged, the many positive instances of White and Black
women finding common ground in the home will remain isolated incidents.
Until White and Black women work with equal frequency inside each other's
homes, and learn to love with equal fervor each other's children, domestic
color barriers will not truly be broken.