Is Baltimore mom Toya Graham really #MomOfTheYear?

Jackie Gillard explores the complexities of hailing Toya Graham #MomOfTheYear. In a viral video, Graham slapped her teen son as she pulled him out of a violent Baltimore protest.

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Photo: YouTube

Attachment, helicopter, free-range. They’re trendy parenting labels we hear often and whose pros and cons are fiercely debated. But what about beatdown parenting? Seems like single mom Toya Graham of Baltimore, Maryland, has revived an old-school style of parenting, and it’s gone viral.

If you haven’t seen the video yet, it shows Graham’s reaction after spotting her 16-year-old son in a group throwing bricks at police. A violent protest began after the April 27 funeral of Freddie Gray, a young Baltimore man who died while in police custody, prompting strong suspicions that his death was caused by police brutality.

In the video, Graham slaps her son in the head repeatedly and shouts at him with numerous profanities. Yet, the majority of viewers are heralding the woman as #MomOfTheYear.

I’m the mother of a black child. This doesn’t make me an expert on anything, nor am I speaking on behalf of anyone but myself. But because I am white and have the privilege of not experiencing racism in my daily life, I do whatever I can to learn about life for people of colour and the racial issues they confront regularly. This is part of the commitment I made to my daughter when we adopted her, so I can teach and support her to live as authentically as she can within her race.

In my eyes, it was clearly love and fear for her son’s life that provoked Graham, not anger at his participation in the last-resort uprising of a group of people. She admitted this herself in two separate CBS interviews, stating that her intention was “to get my son and have him be safe.” He is her only son of six children, and she has also poignantly stated that she “didn’t want him to be the next Freddie Gray,” voicing her very real belief in racially motivated police brutality. She has been careful on television to also state that she does not agree with violence, riots or disrespecting police—arguably because she has no choice. In her interview with CBS’s This Morning, she explained, “What if I need police protection one day?”

I find social media’s Roman Colosseum response to this video troubling as well. Why are people cheering her on to lay some “proper” parenting on her son? Why is this OK for a black parent of a black child yet not a white parent of a white child? The implied message is that black kids deserve a smackdown to keep them in line and that if black parents did a better job of that, those kids wouldn’t be part of violent melees with police. From my perspective, Graham is being used to perpetuate the stereotype that black youth in trouble is a result of poor parenting instead of acknowledging the reality of the many complicated socioeconomic factors that create these problems.

So where does all this leave me, as the white mother of a black child?

It leaves me scared. Like every other parent of a black child.

It hasn’t only been black men who have died at the hands of police; there have been women and even children killed as well. And just to acknowledge those who still insist this isn’t about race, yes, white men, women and children have also died at their hands.

My daughter is seven years old. Do I now begin to have the conversation with her that so many parents of black children have? Should I coach her? Don’t run, don’t hide, don’t move suddenly, don’t put your hands where they can’t be seen at all times, don’t raise your voice, don’t lie, don’t argue. Should I impart this list of instructions she needs to know for dealing with police as a person of colour?

I don’t want to have these discussions, but I know I must. I don’t want to explain to her that black skin might be perceived as a reason to hurt her in a knee-jerk response to any violation of the above set of rules while knowing that, even when they are adhered to, it isn’t always enough to keep a person of colour safe.

The saddest part of why the Graham video has been so celebrated might very well be the naive desire of parents to believe they have some control over keeping their children safe at all times. Graham swooped in and rescued her son from the very real and present danger he was in at that demonstration. Some will say the danger was the protest itself, while others believe it was the police force present. Either way, she saved him.

Is Toya Graham really mother of the year? Yes, and so are all the other mothers who do whatever it takes to keep their children alive and safe.

Jackie Gillard is a Toronto-area freelance writer with plenty to write about as the second wife to her second husband, mother to the daughter they adopted in South Africa and stepmother to a teenage boy. Check out her other Today’s Parent articles or tweet her at @PapayaJambalaya.

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