Photo: Courtesy of Tanya Hayles
It all started with a trip to the splash pad. I’d stopped at the drugstore along the way to pick up some sunscreen—I was concerned about the effects that the blazingly hot sun would have on my two-year-old’s skin. (Sure, we’re Black, but our melanated skin isn’t 100 percent foolproof against UVA rays.) So, there I stood, facing a sea of sunscreen bottles, wondering which one to choose. Spray versus lotion? High SPF versus waterproof? As I looked around the store, I wondered who I could ask to find out which one wouldn’t turn my son’s beautiful brown skin a weird shade of grey.
Like many women, I’d joined a few mom groups on Facebook after giving birth. I wanted to celebrate wins like sleeping through the night, decipher what that rash might be, ask if breastfeeding should be this hard and cry over spilled milk—literally. Motherhood united us across cultural, geographical and religious lines, but the sunscreen question made me realize that there are key differences. There were going to be some questions that I wouldn’t be able to ask in general mommy spaces without crickets at best or vitriol at worst.
I needed a place where I could ask questions that were relevant to my life. Hair products and sunscreens were just the beginning of Black-specific parenting questions I would have. I needed to be able to talk to moms that looked like me and would get it. I needed a space where I could ask where to find Black dolls, discuss how to explain the N-word and talk about the prejudices our kids might have to face. Ideally, I wanted that space to be local—a community that wasn’t just virtual.
My early experiences in moms’ groups were all over the place, and nothing quite fit the bill. The single-mom group was heavily skewed toward anger. Other groups, full of perfect presenting mommies, were just out of my league. My biggest worry wasn’t about finding a nanny or taking a trip for March break; it was just trying to survive as a Black single mother. The conversations never touched on things that were unique to Black moms, and I was leery to mention these topics myself because I’d heard horror stories from friends who were shut down or kicked out for bringing up issues of race.
I decided to be the change I wished to see: I built my own space.
I reached out to some friends—Black women at various stages of parenthood—and asked them if they would join if I created a group for Black mothers. They all said yes, so the Black Moms Network, later renamed Black Moms Connection (BMC), was born. The main objective was to create a safe place for Black women to share, network and connect with one another—a place where women could find their tribe within their village.
Why was it necessary? Why segregate myself from the community and create a smaller niche one? I’ve gotten a lot of questions about our closed membership, and I’ve been accused of reverse racism. But to really understand, you have to know the state of being a Black woman.
In the social hierarchy of North American society, there are clear notches on the totem pole. Make no mistake that white men are at the top and women of colour are at the bottom. This plays out in positions of power, the financial wage gap and how our voices are viewed. Black women experience a “double jeopardy”: We have to deal with the sexism that women face and the racism that black people face. Many Canadians believe that, because we don’t have Ku Klux Klan rallies, we don’t have racism, but that’s simply not true.
Racism happens in all sorts of ways. It’s the carding policy of police forces. It’s landlords in affluent areas not renting to people of colour. It’s school boards expelling and suspending Black kids at a dramatically increased rate. It’s micro-aggressions, like touching my hair like I’m an animal at the petting zoo and being told at work about being too aggressive and intimidating and risk getting the label of the “angry Black woman.”
These are the heavy weights we carry as Black women. Add to that the current social and racial tensions, both online and off, and the idea of a safe space becomes that much more important. To be able to freely express how we’re faring and feeling as parents in a world that hasn’t changed that much since our parents were born or immigrated here without being accused of “playing the race card” is crucial.
Black Moms Connection, or anything else Black-related (whether it’s the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Black Entertainment Television or Afrocentric schools), isn’t about exclusion in the way that Black people continue to be excluded; it’s about education and pride. It’s a pride that doesn’t have to come at the cost of other cultures. Black pride isn’t about hating white people; it’s about embracing the skin I was born into and making sure that, even if the world will see my son as one thing without getting to know him, he won’t limit himself in the same way. When we surveyed the moms in our group a year ago, a safe space was the number one reason why they added their friends, cousins and sisters. BMC’s membership went from 400 to 4,000 in one year; today, it includes almost 9,000 women.
Every day, we educate, empower and encourage one another. We talk about the usual “mom” topics (vaccinations, ear piercings, what to pack for school lunches), but we also talk about the things that are unique to us as Black women. We can freely express outrage at issues that affect us. We offer support after a mom has miscarried. We rally behind the mom who needs to battle a son who is being racially profiled at school.
As the group started to grow, we knew we needed to take the conversations offline—to break bread and connect in real life. This summer, BMC hosted its inaugural conference. We talked about everything from education and financial literacy to emotional wellness and sexuality. Don’t all parents grapple with these topics? Absolutely. But the conversation is different when you know you can speak freely.
One of the most poignant moments came from the keynote chat with Member of Parliament Celina Caesar-Chavannes. She talked about how she was still asked by security if she belonged there, even when she was the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister. She talked about rising above such incidents and working twice as hard—not because we want to but because, as Black women, we have to. We have to pick our battles, and it’s exhausting.
Hearing that, we all felt a mix of anger and hurt. We felt anger, in particular, because it seems like, no matter how far society progresses or how high we climb the social ladder, we are still treated as less than. In that moment, we were connected through that shared experience of being invisible. There were tears but also relief at finally being able to speak our truths out loud.
From the Facebook group to the conference, seeing motherhood and sisterhood in action brings me immense joy. I am in awe, humbled and proud of what my little experiment has become.
I never did find a proper sunscreen for my son, but with the creation of a village where I can at least ask the question, I’ve found so much more.
This article was originally published in October 2017.