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The Challenges of "Mothering While Black"

Sociologist’s New Book Highlights Complex Issues That Black Middle-Class Families Face

By Liam Farrell

Mother and daughter

Photo by iStock

Dawn Marie Dow, an assistant sociology professor, attempts to broaden the existing body of family and parenting research, which tends to focus on the concerns of white middle-class families, in her new book, "Mothering While Black: Boundaries and Burdens of Middle-Class Parenthood."

Maya, an upper-middle-class black woman, was touring a preschool for her daughter in the San Francisco Bay Area when she ran into a white colleague. While her friend was enthusiastic about the school, Maya had noticed that the student body, except for one, was entirely white.

“For her kid, it is great!” she later told Dawn Marie Dow, an assistant professor in the UMD Department of Sociology, noting she wanted a more diverse setting for her own child. “Because our kids are going to have to wrestle with these (racial challenges), we need much more from a school space.”

Experiences like Maya’s are at the core of Dow’s new book, “Mothering While Black: Boundaries and Burdens of Middle-Class Parenthood.” It’s an attempt to broaden the existing body of family and parenting research that tends to focus on the concerns of white middle-class families.

“We tend to think about parenting as a function of internal resources and characteristics,” Dow said. “Race, class and gender complicate that.”

The book is based on her interviews with 60 middle- and upper -middle-class African-American mothers in the Bay Area, conducted between 2009 and 2011. Joy Misra, professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, called the book “an enormous contribution … demonstrating what it is like to parent in a society in which you are devalued.”

Based on the parenting strategies she found, Dow divided the mothers into three groups:

  • “Border crossers,” who want their children to be exposed to and comfortable with less privileged African-American communities and neighbors;
  • “Border policers,” who want their children to avoid poor and high-crime areas, and instead forge connections with other middle-class African Americans; and
  • “Border transcenders,” who want their children to simultaneously embrace their racial background but also not be constrained by it in terms of friendships or extracurricular pursuits.

The common thread, Dow said, is that each mother is negotiating trade-offs for the racial comfort of their children, be it joining a soccer league across town that has more diversity or going to the same black church that she grew up attending.

“There is some kind of compromise that often has to be made,” she said.

Dow also found the mothers have different concerns for their sons and daughters. For their sons, they are worried about interactions with police in unfamiliar neighborhoods—Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old unarmed black man who was killed in 2009 by a transit police officer in Oakland, was mentioned frequently. For their daughters, they worried more about issues of self-esteem and self-worth, but are heartened by the increasing availability of movies, books and toys that can provide positive black female role models.

Overall, Dow said, the research demonstrates how black families in higher income brackets still share many of the concerns of other African Americans.

“Despite the fact people have resources, it doesn’t shift these things,” she said. “There’s a whole category of additional concerns they have (than white families).”



Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.