The Border of Legitimate Motherhood

I don’t have a lot of time to write something super theologically insightful about what’s happening at the border.  But make no mistake, what’s happening has theological implications. I’m going to need a lot of time to think this through and write something pretty but right now I feel like I just need to respond.

What’s happening on the border is a reproductive justice issue. It is about who is considered a legitimate mother (or parent) and who is not. It is about the intersection of race and parenthood, class and parenthood, citizenship and parenthood. It is about the power of the state to interfere in the most basic relationship there is for absolutely no reason but that you held your own child’s hand while crossing an imaginary line dreamed up by white men.

Ricki Solinger and Loretta Ross talk about “legitimate motherhood” in their work. It’s the idea that deep down we believe that certain groups of people are more fit as parents than others. This legitimacy is often based on race or class or, in this case, immigration status. Think of all the times you got pissed when you saw a poor woman with a lot of kids. Or a poor woman with any kids at all? We truly believe, if you really think about it, that a woman’s unique ability to perpetuate the species should be curtailed if she doesn’t meet certain criteria (though, God forbid she have an abortion…more on that another time). America is not unique in this thinking. My adoptive country, Canada, played this game when it set up residential schools, tearing indigenous children away from their parents and their culture so that they could be raised to be acceptably Canadian.

The state has a much easier time wresting kids away from black and brown mothers because we have told ourselves that these women are less able to parent responsibly than white, middle class citizen women. And we value middle class white kids because we expect that their mothers are teaching them “citizenship values”, unlike those brown kids from “shithole” countries that don’t speak “American” at home with their parents. Of course we’re going to take those brown kids away. Removing children is a great punishment tool for noncompliant women.

I’m so fucking angry right now.

So, let’s talk about quarantine. Because that’s what it means to stick people in cages. We quarantine prisoners because we don’t want to infect society. In this case, we don’t want to infect them with all the things we imagine immigrants and refugees to be. We don’t want to be infected with their brownness, their poverty, or their fear. We don’t want to infect America with new languages or cultural practices (we’ll totes take your food though). We add an extra layer of bravado to the security to ensure we don’t become infected with guilt.

I’m with you all in this. I sat at my kitchen table and cried until 4AM Tuesday morning.  I have no goddamn clue what to do. We can donate to legal organizations for refugees, we can protest, we can pray, we can do many things that just don’t feel like enough. And they’re not enough. Nothing is enough until it is enough.

What is happening on the border is a theological issue, make no doubt. It is about imago dei (the image of God), about hospitality and radical welcome. It is about the way we think about women and race and how this all intersects with the Commonwealth of God, a Commonwealth with no imaginary lines and which suffers the little children to come to them. I don’t have the emotional energy to tackle it all now in detail but I will be back. Whatever the cost, we have to keep coming back.


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