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No Wedding No Womb: Does Focusing on Individual Change Distract from Fighting Structural Racism?

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I'm horribly late to the whole "No Wedding No Womb" thing, but I figured it's about time to give it a few words. If you've missed it, "No Wedding No Womb" (#NWNW on Twitter) is essentially a "don't have kids out of wedlock" movement started September 22 by Christelyn Karazin (picture below) and targeted at Black women.

If this sounds to you like an idea unlikely to garner either strong opposition or passionate support, then you're in for a surprise. NWNW has inspired controversy from the very start, with seemingly every Black woman in social media weighing in with either support or disdain. Even NPR has covered this story.

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To listen to Karazin and (some of) her followers (it's complicated because even the NWNW camp has plenty of different opinions), the No Wedding No Womb movement is all about the children. The NWNW website clearly states that it is not an abstinence program but a movement "directed to the black community to take action against the rampant births of children who are born without physical, financial and emotional protection. It is a call for accountability for both MEN and WOMEN to be mindful of the huge responsibility and privilege they have when bringing a child into the world." Karazin argues that the movement is sorely needed because of the 72% out of wedlock birthrate in the black community. This is especially problematic, argues Karazin, because it means that a lot of Black kids will grow up without fathers, which is troubling because growing up without a father is a risk factor for violent crime. Karazin cites David Popenoe, who, in "Life Without Father" (written in 1996), cited research showing that

  • 60 percent of America's rapists came from fatherless homes
  • 72 percent of adolescent murderers grew up without a father
  • 70 percent of long-term prison inmates are fatherless.

These and other data are persuasive. Though many single Black moms are adequately and capably supported by extended family and friend networks, it is also true that many single, Black moms (like many single White moms) struggle financially and in other ways. Kids from these families struggle too, and not just in terms of violent crime. From a purely empirical perspective, there is little doubt that two-parent families are better for children.

And yet, the NWNW movement troubles me in a variety of ways.

Before anyone gets a different impression, I am not against No Wedding No Womb (NWNW). I want everyone to have as much choice in their life as possible (as long as it does not interfere with safety or other people's choice), so if Black women, or women in general, or white men for that matter, want to rally around abstinence or safe sex or interracial relationships (all of which have been used to describe NWNW) or just plain marriage, then I generally try to either be supportive or get out of the way.

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And yet, I can't.

One problem is that because Karazin runs a site about interracial relationships (Beyond Black and White), NWNW seemed to initially mostly target Black women interested in interracial relationships. Karazin and others have worked hard to clear up this "misunderstanding". The movement targets all Black women, they explain, and it is not against Black men. This is in the FAQ. And I believe it. And yet, there's still a lingering sense of paternalism about a movement in which some (often more educated) women (and some men) tell other (usually less educated) women how to live their lives, as though women who have children out of wedlock did so because they were not smart enough to figure out that it wasn't a good idea, as though being told (by the media) that it isn't a good idea is now going to persuade them to change their ways.

But my main concern isn't that NWNW isn't going to work, it's that it will work, not much but just enough for more money to be spent and an entire PR campaign to be developed for the purpose of persuading Black women to not have children out of marriage. I'm concerned because I'd really much rather that all the energy that went into creating and publicizing the NWNW movement would have been spent on social change.

Real solutions -- the ones that make a substantial and lasting impact-- must address systems change, not individual change. First we have to identify systemic (rather than intrapersonal) causes of racial inequity. Then we have to figure out how to change the relevant system so that it promotes rather than detracts from racial equity. People will change to accommodate a different social system. If you change the system, individual change will follow. Take, for example, the education system, which is also yielding significant racial inequity. We could tell Black kids to study harder (and it wouldn't be bad advice), but that wouldn't really solve the problem because the property-tax based system is racially biased at the core (Black neighborhoods generally have fewer wealth, which translates to a lower tax-base and, therefore, less money for the schools). Rather than trying to inspire Black families to work harder, we could devote our resources to reforming the education system so that it is not funded by property tax. This is systems change. The civil rights movement was a big systems change. It opened up career and lifestyle opportunities that did not exist. We need another one.

My point is that Civil Rights movement focused on systems change, not on helping black folks make the best of Jim Crow. State-supported segregation is gone but many systems, including the education system, continue to be racially biased. There's nothing about the value of education that black youth haven't heard 100 times. They just don't trust the education system to deliver on its promise. And their distrust is not irrational, because the odds are stacked against them. Sure, some are making it. Some always have. W.E.B. Dubois made it in the late 1800s. Frederick Douglass made it before him. There are always exceptions. And we always love them. They allow those who are exceptional to celebrate their own success, in part by seeing themselves as superior to those who weren't able to get as far. And for the power brokers, the exceptions are incontrovertible proof that the system is not biased, that anyone can succeed, that there is no reason to change anything.

But there IS a reason to change the system, and we need to work to make it happen, because the history of social change is that it doesn't happen by itself. And for all its good intentions, No Wedding No Womb not only doesn't aim at systems change; it distracts from it. Whatever good may come of it, that's a very serious problem.


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Copyright Mikhail Lyubansky 2010


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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a teaching associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level courses on restorative justice. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been studying and working with conflict, particularly via Restorative Circles (a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates) and other restorative responses to conflict. Together with Elaine Shpungin, he now supports schools, organizations, and workplaces in developing restorative strategies for engaging conflict, building conflict facilitation skills and evaluating the (more...)

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