I was in eighth grade the first time a close friend of mine got pregnant, and many more of my good friends would become parents before I graduated high school. Though the area of the country in which we grew up held a teen birthrate below that of the national average, in our racially and economically varied communities it was youth of color and from low income backgrounds who tended to have kids at a young age. As a result, I came up seeing all kinds of social stigmas acted out on young brown people–primarily women–by my school system, the state and the community at large, from flagrantly prejudiced language and behavior, to the labeling of the kids of teen parents as inherently backward and incapable. These often undeniably sexist, racist and classist sentiments were shrouded under the guise of concerned authority, and deemed reasonable responses to the “plight” of teen pregnancy.
This past week it was announced by the Centers for Disease Control that, once again, Mississippi is the state with the highest teen birthrate in the country. (That it is the Centers for Disease Control which report these statistics I think is noteworthy.) The Huffington Post article on the report links to a supplemental video which states that teen mothers “…cost taxpayers more than 9 billion dollars annually,” and which goes on to purport the links between teen pregnancy and poverty, single parenthood, health complications and behavioral problems in children. The outpouring of reactions to the report has been predictable, with many responses pointing to teen pregnancy as a root cause of unemployment, financial depression and lack of education, as if to say in chagrin, “Don’t teen parents know that they are dooming themselves and their children?” While these reactions jab at and condescend to the populations in question–sometimes poor people, sometimes southerners, sometimes people of color, sometimes religious conservatives, but almost always women–none of them imagine young pregnancy as a cultural difference existing in communities which are already stigmatized, devalued and ignored by a social order dependent on their subservience.
This type of sexist, classist and racist mother shaming doesn’t only come from national boards, mainstream media and communities of privilege. In the communities I belong to, and in many of the programs for oppressed youth I have been involved in and worked for, these attitudes are just as prevalent, and are sometimes expressed more vocally. I know of multiple youth empowerment projects in low income and brown communities which cite the parenting rates of their young members against those of the larger community, to prove the effectiveness of their programing. This happens even in programs run by oppressed people themselves. These kinds of practices generate the same dynamics which lauding oppressed youth for staying out of prison or going to college also create (statistics which I often see cited by these same programs). They denigrate and demonize teen parents–much like we do incarcerated people and those who are not formally educated–creating rifts and hierarchies within the very communities we claim to be fighting for. By doing this, we are imagining not only that there are certain kinds of acceptable community members, but equally that teen parents (and incarcerated and non-formally-educated people) are not a part of our communities, not still teaching and shaping our views of ourselves, not voices which we need to hear to in order to determine how to move forward collectively. Any movement which seeks to liberate women, to challenge the prison industrial complex, to advocate education, and which does not reach out for the wisdom and experience of these populations as a necessary tool, is making a grave mistake.
I do not mean to pretend that young pregnancy is not problematic, complex, and a real issue to be examined within our communities. Teen parents make up a large part of my family, my friends and the parents of some of the most important people in my life. I know that a chapter of one’s life closes when they become a parent, and that for young parents this can be difficult to come to terms with. I’ve been with friends when a parent didn’t show up to a performance or ceremony because they were going out to party. I’ve heard peers complain about not being able to get help on their homework because their guardian had never reached that level of math in school. Young pregnancy generates real complications for our communities. But we have got to find ways of addressing these which do not bash mothers, shame the children of teen parents, and measure ourselves and our communities by the standards of systems which require our denigration in order to function. For these are the exact tactics which turn us against each other, forcing us to expect individuals to pull themselves out of abjectness, failing to see clearly the systems which maintain us all as abject. They are the workings of power to silence the exact people whom we should be listening to if we are to learn how to challenge sexist, racist and classist orders of inequity.
A radical view of our justice system tells us that the prison industrial complex creates criminals by criminalizing the actions and practices of certain populations of people. A queered view of our education system reveals that school is a structure created to support an inherently inequitable economic order, and just like that order, within it there must inevitably be winners and losers. Young pregnancy seems to be an area in which we still attack and decry young, poor and brown people–especially women–for their ignorance, lack of discipline and self-awareness. Isn’t it time we take a more critical look at the “disease” of young pregnancy and its relationship to oppressed communities, too?