On lamenters of black pregnancy

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.]

0 thoughts on “On lamenters of black pregnancy

  1. Thealogian

    I’ve taught English at the Community College level and I have a dear friend who teaches in a High School in a severely impoverished rural county (most populated by white students).

    We have both felt deeply saddened by the accidental pregnancies of our students and by the brain-washing of the religious right (and their media empires) that makes damn sure that every young woman would feel properly shamed by the idea of abortion.

    The teacher profiled brings up some damn useful points and just because HE happens to be a man and white doesn’t make them invalid. We have to invite men INTO these conversations, not shame them away due to their anatomy.

    Although, I think that we should have universal health-care, universal access to reproductive care including contraception and abortion, universal day-care, paid maternity/ paternity leave, public transportation, and a living wage for EVERY JOB–I also think his point that there is something seriously wrong with missing out on part of your childhood when one becomes a parent in one’s teens!

    Even if we did have the infrastructure for a nurturing society as I outlined with my socialized democracy ideal, I still would mourn my students’ (late teens, early twenties) early parenthood. I cherish my young adulthood and the opportunities I had to simply discover my needs, wants, and possibilities. Parenthood involves the fundamental sacrifice of thinking of yourself first. Someday I hope to be a parent, but I’m so glad I (and all my friends) have had the opportunity to have those years of discovery. And guess what? That’s not an income thing (though of course, having the income/class status that allows for college and mobility was vital to my experience). I have known non-traditional students from a more working class background who did not go to college right out of high school (and did not have children then either) speak about those years of self-discovery as well!

    Of course, one the more recent teen pregnancy stories that pops to mind in one of an ELEVEN YEAR OLD whose mother (my student) took her to a crisis pregnancy center to show her how evil abortion is (you know, those places run by the religious right, on our tax dollars, with horrible mutilated pictures of late term fetuses and lots of prayer).

    She wanted to play on the swings at the park nearby the damn place and her mother told her –No, you’re pregnant, you can’t ever play on the swings again!

    Yeah, that’s some seriously social stuff going on–that mother (who I tried to talk to about abortion and adoption compassionately…she was against both.)–But, regardless of our social infrastructure we have the arch of our lives to think about and our lives a precious. So, to lament a child’s loss of childhood is a valid thing to mourn. Also, if you’re not formed (though yes we all change over time) but there is something to a fundamental formation between 16-25, how can you parent another human child as they deserve?

    Peace

    Reply
  2. Cara Post author

    The teacher profiled brings up some damn useful points and just because HE happens to be a man and white doesn’t make them invalid. We have to invite men INTO these conversations, not shame them away due to their anatomy.

    My problem isn’t that I don’t want white men in the conversation. Please, enlightened males, come in! I have several male commenters here, even some that occasionally disagree with me and engage in debate, and we get along fine. It’s about respect. My problem is that I don’t want white men in the conversation who are only going to claim that they know better how to deal with a pregnancy better than women — particularly actually pregnant women — do.

    And personally, I agree that it’s best to wait to have children. But I have also been brought up in a culture that teaches this, so who knows how I would feel if I was raised with different values and views on life. I don’t think that it’s fair or safe to automatically assume that our cultural values are better. And it’s even less fair and less safe to pretend that even if they were better, they would apply to everyone. They wouldn’t. And they don’t apply to most young, poor black mothers.

    If you’re going to mourn anything, you should mourn the cultural conditions that lead to teen pregnancy, and the fact that in very many cases, our society has failed them. But these teen girls did not fail us, and all of the “what have you done???” talk is absolute bullshit and only gives us an excuse to ignore the problem because hey, they chose this.

    As for the case of the 11-year-old girl, I agree that what happened to her was tragic and abusive on several levels. But I also know that it’s not the norm, and the girl in that example is not who Okun is talking about and she was not who I was talking about, either. I was talking about the importance of choice, and if anything that case only proves my point.

    Reply
  3. kissmypineapple

    The part where he said he wanted to shake her in anger and demand “What have you done?!” made me so angry. Like she got pregnant all by herself. And like it’s the most awful thing that could have possibly happened.

    And, honestly, while I appreciate men who understand that bodily integrety is sacred, I generally don’t care about a male opinion regarding abortion. If you are physically incapable of experiencing pregnancy, then you get no say in what women do once pregnancy has occurred. I would certainly take Mr. KMP’s opinions to heart and consider them, but ultimately, those decisions are mine, b/c it’s my body. Luckily, Mr. KMP is one of those enlightened men, and he gets that.

    Reply
  4. Thealogian

    “I have also been brought up in a culture that teaches this, so who knows how I would feel if I was raised with different values and views on life. I don’t think that it’s fair or safe to automatically assume that our cultural values are better.”

    Just to respond to above, I’ve also been able to do aid work in South America and I was an Anthropology major as an undergrad. I remember (now this just an snippet, not based on an extensive feminist ethnography), but I remember once in the Amazon when I was with a group of college women and we got to visit with some indigenous women without any men around (ours/theirs–any men)…it was great. Anyway, we were just sharing aspects of our lives and the day to day. At one point, one of the older women asked me how old I was (by the way, just for full disclosure, we had a translator–also female–because their Spanish was pretty limited and my grasp of their dialect non-existent). Anyway, I told her 22 (then, I’m in my later 20’s now). Then she and many of the other women/girls wanted to know if I had babies (or if any of us had babies); we answered no. They wanted to know if we wanted babies–some said yes, some said someday, some said not at all. They wanted to know how we kept the “men away from us”? Not having babies until they wanted to have babies would be nice! Particularly interested? The younger women.

    Why I’m sharing this story is that life-ways are not always one’s values, but what opportunities one has. Many of these indigenous women would have LOVED to not have babies young, but they did–because in their own words they couldn’t keep the men away from them. Its really important NOT TO PATRONIZE indigenous women and women from other cultures and to put their lifeways on a pedestal as if they represent choices freely made. Cultural conditions dictate all of our lives.

    Also, you mention, “If you’re going to mourn anything, you should mourn the cultural conditions that lead to teen pregnancy, and the fact that in very many cases, our society has failed them.” I get what you mean–of course I mourn the cultural conditions that lead to teen pregnancy, but AS A TEACHER, I have before me and individual human life–a young woman who has shared her writing with me, who has expressed her opinions about a poem or a book with me–someone who is not just a product of the culture before–and I MOURN her loss of young adulthood free of parental responsibilities. I CANNOT ABANDON her emotionally, coldly, as yet another symptom of a system gone wrong because I know her and care for her. I’m not slut shaming; I’m not blaming her more than the boy (though I probably don’t know him–he’s probably 25 or older!) I think that in the bloggersphere–or in any writing endeavor (and I’m also a writer, so I’m faulting myself here too); we can lose individuals in policy–in the big picture. Since I have individuals that I can specifically call to mind, its harder for me to do that and its harder for me to indict the male teacher and his lament–yes it might be awkward and it doesn’t come from a place of informed feminist critique let alone a racially sensitive place (though I would also argue that some people confuse racial sensitivity with reinforcing stereotypes).

    My point: I have to mourn BOTH! Both our cultural conditions and those individuals I come into contact with.

    Reply
  5. Cara Post author

    Why I’m sharing this story is that life-ways are not always one’s values, but what opportunities one has. Many of these indigenous women would have LOVED to not have babies young, but they did–because in their own words they couldn’t keep the men away from them. Its really important NOT TO PATRONIZE indigenous women and women from other cultures and to put their lifeways on a pedestal as if they represent choices freely made. Cultural conditions dictate all of our lives.

    I agree wholeheartedly. And I think that it’s extremely important to not patronize in the opposite direction, either, by assuming that a teenage girl having a baby couldn’t have possibly made that decision on her own. We don’t have to like the decision — in fact, I don’t — but we also can’t assume that it wasn’t a decision.

    And I have to ask you, as a teacher, if you think that this piece is at all appropriate. Because I personally find it rather appalling that he would act supportive for a girl when she’s standing there in front of him and then lament WHAT HAS SHE DONE??? in a national paper once she’s not. Isn’t that patronizing and downright insulting?

    Reply
  6. Gretchen

    Ugh, thank you so much for writing about this, Cara. The NYTimes is my homepage at work, and I always check the top right corner first, for Herbert and Krugman’s columns, and when I saw this today, I got a little hopeful that it would be something actually meaningfully contributing to the issue of teen pregnancy. Instead, I was pissed off beyond all belief. Like kissmypineapple, the “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?” part really fucking irked me. What has SHE done?! More like, what have they done? He devotes a long paragraph to completely decrying teenage girls and has exactly one sentence mentioning the male part of the equation. Sickening and disgusting and I am damn tired of the slut-shaming and the racism and the twofacedness of this country when it comes to women’s sexuality. The person who needs to be shaken is this teacher.

    Reply
  7. John Spragge

    As a literacy tutor, someone yes, privileged, yes, ignorant, but also, unfortunately, needed, I can only say this: unless you belong to the community Mr. Okun serves, you have no standing to tell him not to show up. Criticize what he writes by all means, criticize the appalling insensitivity of whoever illustrated his article with a picture of a pregnant Black woman, absoloutely. But when you tell him to “Keep… at home”, you make a demand that only the students and the community he serves have any right to make. And, no, you can’t speak for them. Sorry.

    Because members of the communities I have served tell me they need people to show up. And if we wait for the perfectly enlightened and flawlessly sensitive to appear, then another generation of kids will go without the support my fellow workers, and my own eyes, tell me they need. By all means, criticize those of us who show up when we make mistakes. But let the communities we serve tell us when they don’t want our involvement any more.

    Reply
  8. Cara Post author

    Hey John,

    You make a good point. I’m not sure that I entirely agree with you, but there is something to be said for it and I’ll except that as a fair criticism.

    Reply

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