So some asshole named Will Okun — the male kind of asshole, meaning the kind of asshole who never has to worry about being pregnant unless he co-stars in a bad movie alongside Danny Devito — has written some opinion piece in the NY Times lamenting pregnant black teenagers. He never does specify race, but it’s heavily implied that he is talking about black teens from his extended bio and work with black teens, the photographs accompanying the article, the mention of poverty and dropping out of school and the fact that black women have the highest teen pregnancy rates.
It happens too often. A female student approaches my desk, says “Mr. Okun?”, and and whispers the two words no adult wants to hear from a teenager: “I’m pregnant.” I want to scream, I want to cry, I want to shake her with anger. What have you done? Life is not hard enough already? Is it over, have you given up? What about finishing high school? What about college? What about your own dreams? What about enjoying the last of your own childhood? How can you parent a child when you are just a child yourself? How will you support your baby, how will you support yourself? Where is the man, will he be here next year? Will I see you and your baby coldly waiting alone for a city bus that will not come? Please look me in the eye and tell me you know what you have done.
Shorter Okun: Oh you silly, promiscuous black girl. If only you had listened to SMART WHITE MEN LIKE ME, your life wouldn’t suck and we could end the cycle of racism and poverty. NOW EXPLAIN YOURSELF TO ME.
These kinds of statements not only put the educated white man on a pedestal and he is not only passing judgment on people whose lives he cannot even begin to understand. He’s also saying black women, the fact that you keep having babies is what’s keeping you poor.
The problem, of course, isn’t the childbearing. The problem is the lack of quality education, quality employment and a living wage, racism (which is closely related to the other two), the belief that being a teenage mother is their only option and the welfare system that actively punishes black women for having children. Okun laments the fact that so many teen mothers drop out of high school without considering that maybe, just maybe, that’s the fault of the system that makes going to school and raising a child next to impossible. Or that these girls may not have been likely to complete school, anyway.
He ends his self-righteous, probably well-meaning but still ultimately racist and sexist diatribe with this:
Although her news disappoints me, I try to react without emotion or judgment. “What are you going to do?” I ask. But if she has already told me she is pregnant, we both already know. “I am going to have it,” she replies. I used to argue for abortion, which only enraged us both. At this point, what is done is done. All I can do now is offer her my unconditional support. I will give her a referral to counseling and pre-natal care and keep my personal frustrations and opinions to myself.
Inevitably, a few months later I will be invited to take photographs at the baby shower. I go because I like the student and I want to show that I support her and her family on this joyous occasion. But, in some cases, are we celebrating tragedy?
Ah well, it’s awful nice of him to not judge his pregnant black students, except for when he’s writing in an internationally recognized newspaper. What a nice guy.
And, you know, I’m not going to lie. Teen pregnancy saddens me, because I know both how easy and how very difficult preventing it can be. It makes me sad because I know that for many women, the decision to have children early just might be the best decision they could have made in a life devoid of other opportunities. But you know what, white dude? You don’t get to judge black teenagers for getting pregnant and having babies. And neither do I. Neither do any of us. Trying to talk someone into an abortion is just as horrid as trying to talk someone into carrying to term. And talking about your students behind their back on a national platform isn’t right, either. I think that I speak for most people when I say: Don’t go to the baby shower to show your sad, judgmental “support.” Keep your fucking ass at home.
Reading the comments, things get worse. There is, of course, the slut-shaming. Then there’s the people promoting adoption as though that’s somehow going to fix the teenager’s life instead of making it worse. And lastly, there are those who actively promote abortion, when you better bet your sweet ass they wouldn’t if we were talking about pretty white babies.
This comment, the first on the article, was the most upsetting to me, though:
This happens to black girl teenagers everywhere and abortion is not used often enough.
When I was 15, I got pregnant and had an abortion. Looking back now, it would have been disaster to have had a baby then. I would have ruined my life and my kid’s life.
I grew up in Oakland and moved away after getting my college degree. Looking back on my hometown now, I’m angered how black girls arn’t given access to abortion with the same urgency as anyone else. It was almost a given that if a girl on the block got pregnant, she would drop out of school, have the kid, and struggle with 8 dollar an hour jobs for the rest of her life.
I said no thanks because chances are, my kid would turn into what my friends’ kids turned out to be: men and women who would also drop out of school and turn to crime and drugs.
Girls need abortion access, especially teenagers. There’s no justification – any pro-life argument- that makes it okay for a young girl to think that if she chose abortion, she’s a monster and selfish. That’s what everyone called me – a selfish monster.
Well, my childhood friends turned out to be obese women with multiple kids. Let me tell you, a teenager doesn’t stop with one kid. She goes on to have three or four before she’s 21. Now I run a small shop and I look forward to having a family that I can raise responsibly. Black girls need to know it’s NOT okay to become teenage mothers – it’s obscene. We need to urge abortion and show them clearly how a baby will worsen your chances for success in life.
Join me in funding abortions for black teenagers.
You know, there’s promise here. I support public funding for abortions. I’m thrilled when women come out and say that they have had an abortion and don’t regret it. But the rest . . .
Again, it’s the idea that the fertility, the kids and the women themselves are the problems. It’s the idea that if these black women just kept their legs shut, they too could run successful businesses. Notice how no one ever says these things about white women. No, white pregnancies are valued and women whose only jobs are to raise children are put on a pedestal (and manipulated for political purposes). But black (and brown) motherhood is not valued.
As an example, look at the pictures that the Times decided to include. There are four pictures. Two pregnant black bellies. A cake decorated with an ultrasound photograph of a fetus. A black hand holding a photograph of a black baby. Where, exactly, are the women? Black mothers are not just their uteruses, are not just the children that they’ve brought into the world. Black mothers are people, too, but our media can’t even recognize that enough to show their faces.
And while I support public funding for abortions, I don’t support that the implication in this comment, the idea that black women don’t deserve the right to have an abortion if she wants one, but that black women who are pregnant need abortions. I don’t support the idea that poor black mothers are to blame for their own poverty or that being a young black mother has to mean that your life and all other prospects are over. I don’t support the idea that not getting pregnant would necessarily make these women’s lives better. I don’t support trying to talk black teenagers into abortions anymore than I support trying to talk white women into abortions. And I don’t support the idea that being a mother while poor and/or black is “irresponsible.”
Everyone has the right to reproduce. Everyone has the right to raise their own children. Everyone has the right to make their own reproductive choices, no matter what they are, without judgment or impediment. Even black women.
It seems like Okun (and pretty much the rest of America) didn’t get the memo.
[Hat tip, zuzu.]