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Americans Seem To Love Huge Families, But Only If They're White

We love women who pump out litters of babies -- at least, some women.
 
 
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A quick click through evening television reveals America’s obsession with the huge white family. A short list would include oldies like "The Brady Bunch," "The Partridge Family," "7th Heaven" and "The Waltons," as well newer entries in the scripted and reality show genres ("Big Love," "Sister Wives," "19 Kids and Counting," "Kate Plus Eight"). If television programming is a cultural bellwether, we are really into white women having lots of kids.

What about women of color with huge families? How are they represented in our deep interest in fecundity? For the most part -- big shocker -- they’re not in the frame. 

Obviously, a large part of this is general lack of black and Latino faces on the large or small screen. But even taking this imbalance into account, that still shouldn’t yield zero made-for-TV stories of big households with a darker-skinned matriarch. 

The last time we saw a large black family it was named Cosby. "The Cosby Show," revolutionary in many regards, stands out for depicting a family of five African-American children in a well-to-do household. Since then, shows about families of color, like "Family Matters," "George Lopez" or "All of Us," allow the mothers depicted to have two children at most.  

Even in the real real world, figures like Angelina Jolie and Madonna seem intent on doing motherhood wholesale. Apparently, it’s acceptable for a woman to parent many children of color, provided she’s white. 

America has always sent us mixed messages about motherhood. It’s all apple pie and Hallmark holiday till it comes time to provide for maternity leave or prenatal care. Our attitudes about supporting white motherhood may seem convoluted. But these are quaint in comparison to our views of mothers whose skin is a darker shade. 

Fecund white mothers can raise eyebrows. Mother of twins and sextuplets, Kate Gosselin certainly catches heat for not seeming maternal enough. However, when women of color make news for adventures in fertility, volume on the reaction goes many decibels higher. And the tone goes from disapproving to fierce. Nadya Suleman, mother of octuplets, faced death threats and ridicule after making headlines. Much of this is based on the assumption that she would require public assistance and thus support her large family on the public’s dime. 

Suleman is an extreme case of the hatred reserved for black and brown mothers. Caricatures of public assistance like the Cadillac-driving “welfare queen” worked with unstated assumptions that women of color are unfit to properly nurture the children under their care. We persist in believing that women of color have children not out of love, or even lack of access to the means to control their fertility, but because they're calculating schemers intent to make a buck off Uncle Sam.

Undermining motherhood among African-American women in particular continues today in more insidious form. Billboards across our country declare that the most dangerous place for black babies is the womb. These are large-scale declarations that these women are unfit to do the thing our society deems the most important and natural for a female to do: birth and raise children.  

The billboard creators wrap themselves in claims of having women’s interests at heart. Their stated intentions are to stop the purported targeting of African-American women’s wombs. Never mind that they propose to do this by denying them access to what are often the only affordable health services within reach. 

It’s hard to decide what’s more insulting. Their outward declaration that African-American women are so easily duped into acting against their interests or the words they’ve selected to say so, implying that these women simply aren’t fit mothers, that their bodies are a danger to their children. 

As of last week, Latinas counted themselves among the recipients of this same unsolicited assistance. Opponents of women’s self-determination conceal their true intent. They paint control and criticism in the colors of compassion. Bilingual billboards in Los Angeles went up bearing claims that Latinas are harming their children in mass numbers. Thanks to advocates for Latinas' reproductive health, these came down, but more of these public displays of judgment are reportedly on the way. 

This new rebuke comes amidst anti-immigrant fervor over undocumented women giving birth within our borders. To hear opponents tell it, these are calculated efforts to stake claim to America. Just as we have long heard African-American women have their children to get something in exchange.  

The “anchor-baby” notion suggests that immigrant women, most often Latinas, are inverting the natural relationship between mother and child. Popular mythology insists a mother ought to give her child everything. The “anchor-baby,” and its close cousin the “terror-baby,” signals something is very wrong about the women inside whom these potential people grow. 

Legend has it regular mothers have children out of pure maternal instinct. We’re not supposed to realize that any conscious desire to procreate is, by design, an act to please (perhaps by recreating) the self. Immigrant and African-American  mothers apparently have children to get something out of it. Or at least that’s the story they’re selling us.  

Here is the ultimate damned if you do. We don’t like to see women of color having too many babies, yet now they are catching heat for having too few. Women of color just can’t seem to do anything right. 

The consistency here – beyond pure racism – is discomfort with and disdain for the sexuality of women. If black and brown women should neither have lots of kids nor elect to abort, the only conclusion is they shouldn’t have sex. The more logical choice, sex with protection, isn’t an option as the folks behind these seemingly conflicting aims – increasing and decreasing fertility rates, respectively -- generally agree that birth control and sexuality education are not what God wants. 

All this comes as we design our economic policies to throw obstacles to mere survival in these same women’s way. With state and federal cuts to maternal and child needs – food, health, housing and education among them -- we hit the poorest mothers especially hard. 

We’ve made life nearly impossible for mothers of color. And just to be thorough, we’re also giving their children an inequitably rough path to transverse. As a commenter on the new Latina-targeted billboard remarked, “I thought the most dangerous place for a Latino baby is Arizona.”

Anat Shenker-Osorio is a communications consultant based in Oakland, CA.
 
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