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Student Corner: Riché Barnes examines how black women’s ‘strategic mothering’ has redefined work, family, and community in the 21st century

May 9 2018

For many years, married life for Nancy* and her husband hardly resembled what the two educated black professionals envisioned for themselves in their younger days. For Nancy, twelve-hour work days at a community health center were taking a serious toll on her health and her family’s stability, but the pressure to be a married working mom who “had it all”— amplified by the “Strong Black Woman” myth— kept her anchored to this lifestyle. When she lost a second child due to pregnancy complications, she realized she could no longer sustain being both a full-time physician and a full-time mother. With two small children already at home, and her husband’s business struggling to take off, Nancy stepped back from her career as a physician. Although the decision had tremendous benefits for both her marriage and the well-being of her children, Nancy’s mother and grandmother continuously pressured her to return to work, causing her to feel shame about leaving her career. 

Nancy is one of nearly two dozen black women that Riché Barnes interviewed for her book, Raising the Race: Black Career Women Redefine Marriage, Motherhood, and Community.Barnes, assistant professor of anthropology and dean of Pierson College at Yale University, called upon her original research at her book lecture sponsored by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. What began as a much-needed examination of the differences between black and white women’s relationship to work evolved into a comprehensive and provocative reassessment of what labor means for black women and the black family.

In many ways, in fact, Raising the Race offers itself as an intervention. “Some people have picked up [my book] as an intervention on work and family conflict because black women’s work and family conflict is very different from white women’s,” Barnes remarked in our interview. “But I think it’s also an intervention on how we think about black family life, how we think about the ‘Strong Black Woman.’” She continued, “it’s an intervention on how we think about race and class within the black community, and it’s an intervention on how much work black women have to do to raise healthy, sane children.” 

In her book, Barnes introduces the concept of “Black Strategic Mothering” to refer to the way that the individual decisions black women make regarding marriage, children, and careers are made with a significant consideration of the survival of the entire black community. In particular, Riche finds that black women center children—the future of the black community—in their decision-making processes. Barnes located black strategic mothering historically, pointing to the way enslaved black women often adopted the role of “othermother” by caring for any and all children, regardless of blood relation, in response to the violent instability slavery wrought on black families.

In her lecture, Barnes traced this theme throughout American history, highlighting the ways in which black women and other women of color have always worked outside of the home, often as caretakers of white families and children. Although many black women today have unprecedented access to higher education and advanced degrees, the impetus to secure a future for the entire black community remains a strong factor in their individual lives. 

In an age when discussions of “opting-out” and “leaning-in” are commonplace, Barnes delved into a largely ignored aspect of black women’s careers through an intersectional gender lens, informed by critical race theory. Barnes intervenes by demonstrating how the social pressures black women face privilege the importance of both motherhood and working, completely de-historicized from the oppressive conditions experienced by black women and black families in America. 

With racism in the United States restricting career opportunities for black men, black women have long been expected to “raise the race”—to advance professionally in order to serve both as breadwinner and as primary caretaker for black children. However, Barnes observed, an increase in the number of black women with advanced degrees has not led to an increase in black women holding positions of power in the workplace. Additionally, with many black daughters moving away from their families for school and work, coupled with inflexible workplaces that constrain the choices of professional women, Barnes has found that the professional-personal landscape for married black professional women has radically added another barrier to their lives.

The black women of Barnes’s study, furthermore, frequently experienced feelings of guilt and shame from older generations of women when they chose to modify their relationships to work. As with the example of Nancy, above, older black women were fearful for younger black women who stepped away from their careers for family reasons. Black women, therefore, are situated within a double-bind of having to make choices between their careers and families that not only affect their lives but the lives of their black families as well as the social perceptions of black people in America. 

At the end of her lecture, Barnes said the time has come to reevaluate black women’s labor, and called upon the audience to help foster a more inclusive women’s movement.


*a pseudonym

A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.