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Mothering, Race, Ethnicity and Culture

Ninth Annual Conference of the Association for Research on Mothering

Reported by Judith Stadtman Tucker

York University's Keele Campus, which lies a good forty minutes north of Toronto's vibrant downtown scene, is a sprawling facility surrounded by an uninspiring landscape of commercial shopping strips and generic apartment blocks. But as home to the Centre for Research on Mothering -- the institutional parent of the Association for Research on Mothering, the first international feminist organization devoted specifically to the study of maternal experience -- York U is a priority destination for scholars, activists, health advocates and others who take the topic of mothering and motherhood seriously.

Under the direction of Andrea O'Reilly, a professor of women's studies and prolific writer on the subject of mothering in life and literature, the Association for Research on Mothering (ARM) produces a bi-annual journal and, since 1996, has organized one or more conferences each year. ARM conferences frequently provide a critical forum for feminist research and theory excluded from the dominant academic discourse, and the 2005 Conference on Mothering, Race, Ethnicity and Culture was no exception.

The ninth annual ARM conference (October 20-23 at York University) kicked off with a special full-day program on Aboriginal Mothering: Oppression, Resistance and Recovering. Two panels of Canadian experts discussed the impact of residential schooling on First Nations families and contemporary cultural issues for mothers in Canada's indigenous communities.

The second day of the conference opened with a keynote panel on Mothers and Poverty featuring presentations by Wendy McKeen from the School of Social Work at Dalhousie University, historian Rickie Solinger (Wake Up Little Susie, Beggars and Choosers), and Loretta Ross, founder of SisterSong and co-director of the 2004 National March for Women's Lives in Washington, D.C.

In an examination of changes to the goals and implementation of Canadian social policy, McKeen reported that over the last decade Canada's welfare policy has shifted to a more Americanized model, which she described as a "narrow, targeted and individualistic" approach to family support and poverty relief. In particular, recent social welfare initiatives in Canada prioritize investments in children as an alternative to legislating broader collective responsibility for the well-being of families. McKeen noted that despite a national commitment to providing low-cost quality child care, Canada's provincial governments show more support for allocating resources to health and counseling programs designed to modify behavior and attitudes of parents of at-risk children than funding child care. (Sadly, McKeen's depressing observations about the erosion of the Canadian welfare state were echoed by a number of social researchers who gave presentations at the conference.)

Rickie Solinger (whose new book, Pregnancy and Power: A Short History of Reproductive Politics in America, was released this month) introduced her presentation by clarifying that her objective is to "interrupt" the normal curriculum so that students might gain a greater understanding of how white and male supremacy is instituted and sustained in American society. She then explained how predominant public narratives of motherhood and mothering in the United States invariably obscure the impact of race and class on maternal experience, and reflexive characterizations of motherhood as a uniform experience based on white, middle class norms -- particularly the assumption that all women in today's society have an identical array of "choices" regarding whether, when and under what circumstances they will become mothers -- effectively erase or render illegitimate the material and maternal realities of poor mothers, mothers of color, non-married mothers, young mothers, disabled mothers, queer mothers and many others who don't conform to culturally-defined standards of maternal fitness.

During an energetic discussion of changing representations of poor mothers over the last three generations, Solinger related that from the mid-1930s to mid-1940s, the American press offered a relatively sympathetic portrait of poor mothers, who were typically depicted as white, married (but parted from their children's fathers by death, desertion or misfortune) and non-employed. In the post-Depression era, public assistance to needy families -- from which African American families were systematically barred -- was primarily seen as means of keeping white mothers who were down on their luck out of the labor force. Solinger suggested that social tensions ignited by the civil rights movement contributed to a transformation the public face of poverty in the 1960s, when poor mothers were more often portrayed non-white and less deserving, even though rates of poverty and race were unchanged. In the 1980s, the media recast poor mothers into the caricature of the "welfare queen" -- women who were almost always pictured as Black or brown, unmarried, sexually promiscuous, socially irresponsible and out to exploit the system. Today, Solinger concluded, welfare is used as "a form of degradation" and poverty is commonly understood to be "the wages of bad choice making." While race remains a factor in the cultural image of America's poor, the failure of marginalized women to be "discriminating choosers" -- particularly in the expression of their fertility -- foregrounds the U.S. poverty debate.

Loretta Ross proposed that race and class are always at the center of reproductive politics and, as did Solinger, emphasized the importance of recognizing racism as a dynamic of power inequities rather than a matter of individual orientation. Ross discussed the necessity of acknowledging the complex history and function of white supremacy, which she defined as an "interlocking ideology" that incorporates racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ableism and other systemic biases which exclude or oppress groups of people. "You can't understand women of color's activism without understanding how white supremacy affects women of color's reproductive politics," Ross announced, and she stressed that white supremacy shapes ideology on both left and right ends of the political spectrum. For example, Ross noted that conservative and neo-conservative rhetoric has historically problematized the fertility of poor women and women of color and promoted efforts to regulate it. But she also observed that the pro-choice movement, which remains the centerpiece of the women's rights agenda, has been ill at ease with the position that poor women of color have an equal right to be a mother as well as the right not to be one. "Pro-choice language is alienating" to women of color, Ross explained, because "it's all about her fertility, and not her life." Rather than focusing on a single legal or policy solution to guarantee the reproductive rights of women in marginalized communities, the Reproductive Justice movement led by Ross and other forward-thinking reproductive health activists locates the right of women of color to reproductive freedom and self-determination in a larger framework that marries principles of social justice, reproductive rights and human rights.

Other highlights of the 2005 ARM conference included a presentation by O'Reilly on her analysis of mothering as a site of power and resistance in the work of Toni Morrison, and a Friday evening keynote address by Dorothy Roberts on racial injustice in the child welfare system. Roberts, author of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare and Killing the Black Body, reported that nationwide, children of color are four times more likely to be foster care than white children; in some regions African American and Native American children are dramatically over-represented in the foster care system in proportion to their presence in the population. "This reflects a tremendous dissolution of Black families," Roberts said, and she pointed out that as more Black than white children entered the child welfare system, spending priorities shifted from providing in-home services and support for at-risk families to moving more children into foster care and fast-tracking termination of parental rights to free children for adoption. The level of intervention by the child welfare system in poor African American communities is both racist and punitive, Roberts warned, and requires serious attention from feminist activists. "The voices of mothers of children in foster care are lost," she said, and added that these women and families "need the support of a bigger movement."

Over the course of the conference, break-out sessions covered the topics of transnational mothering; motherhood, race and culture in literature; interdisciplinary perspectives on mothering (including a discussion of racialized images of mothers in Disney films and the language of maternal power in hip hop lyrics); mothering and work/mothering as work; historic and international perspectives on motherhood and poverty; bi-racial mothering; experiences of immigrant mothers; and the complexities of race, ethnicity and culture in infertility, childbirth and postpartum depression. Many presentations and the dialogs that followed offered interesting and original insights into the diversity of maternal experience and the intersections of motherhood, race and class and women's social inequality in historical and contemporary contexts. The weekend also provided an opportunity for conference-goers to connect with like-minded mothers and scholars -- it was my personal pleasure to meet and talk with several MMO readers and contributors who also attended.

ARM has scheduled two conferences for 2006: a Mother's Day symposium on Carework and Caregiving (May 5-7), and the Tenth Annual Conference -- "The Motherlode: A Complete Celebration of Motherhood" -- in October. Rumor has it that the Motherlode conference will be the mother of all motherhood events, and O'Reilly and the ARM staff are planning to invite prominent keynote speakers from each of the nine previous conferences. Calls for submissions for both conferences are currently open -- more information about upcoming ARM events, new and back issues of the ARM journal and membership rates can be found on the York University Centre for Research on Mothering website.

mmo : november 2005

Judith Stadtman Tucker is the editor and founder of the Mothers Movement Online.
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