I was e-chatting ( some of my best relationships are maintained via e-chat—brief but warm and informative electronic messages traded with friends) with Feminist Law Professors' Bridget Crawford earlier today about her recent blog post "White People's "Baby Daddy." Bridget invited me to weigh in via blog. Never one to pass up a chance to ruminate in the blogosphere (especially since of late I have been consumed with several other projects), I thought I'd give it a whirl. Her post begins:
<<When speakers use the phrases "baby daddy" and "baby mama" in non-colloquial contexts, do they mock African-Americans or do they embrace one way that the American vocabulary has been enriched by the contributions of African-Americans? Both? Neither?>>
This is a topic that I've toyed with off and on ever since I saw Amy Poehler of "Saturday Night Live" fame in the film Baby Mama a few months ago via cable (most of the time I'm too cheap to ante up for the movie theater, what can I say?). "Baby mama" (or the male variant, Baby daddy) is, as the blog post explains, an African-American (or African Caribbean) term denoting the mother or father of one's child who is not one's wife or husband (or even necessarily one's girlfriend or boyfriend.) It usually indicates a clear bifurcation of the biological functions of parenting from the social functions of parenting or intimate partnering. Increasingly bandied about in popular culture, these phrases are sometimes used to symbolize an immense social emancipation from the norms of domesticity: why keep the man (or the woman) when all you really want is the baby (and sometimes you don't want that, but that's another story) ? Baby mama and baby daddy are also, however, widely perceived as being emblematic of the eroding family in black communities.
Bridget Crawford ponders whether the use of these phrases by white people "crosses into twenty-first century blackface minstrelsy." My answer? Maybe. There is, all too often, a thin line between cultural appropriation (incorporation of "outsider" cultural artifacts without acknowledgement of the source) and cultural broadening (incorporation of "outsider" norms without acknowledgement because the "outsiders" come with the artifacts, that is, they are perceived as part of the polity and thus are able to continually participate in shaping the nature of the cultural capital that is incorporated.) We are not yet to the point where mainstream white society can assume that any adoption of black cultural norms is more exemplary of broadening than of appropriation. Some words and phrases stand as much as they ever did for white-racist inspired black oppression. These words still pack a punch for black people no matter how often repeated in white mainstream settings. "Ghetto," for example, is the new and the old black. The blog Bourgie, Interrupted seems to agree on this point. Nonetheless, while we still have a ways to go in sorting out black-white relations, we are, if not post-racial, certainly post-racist. By this I mean that it is definitely uncool to intentionally employ racist cant, and when it is employed unintentionally, right-thinking white people usually clean that …stuff… up pretty quickly. Or, if not clean it up, wrap it up, sometimes sending racism so far under wraps that it becomes both profoundly obscure and obscurely profound.
But more intriguing for me is not just the racial implications of the terms but the gendered implications, especially in the case of "baby mama". This is what hit me when I saw the film Baby Mama. As those of you who saw it know, the film uses the term with an ironic, postmodern, post-heteronormative spin—Amy Poehler's character is the gestational surrogate for another character played by Tina "bitch is the new black" Fey, another SNL alum. Amy is Tina's "baby mama." There is plenty of "baby mama drama" in the film, but not the usual kind. (For the uninitiated, a man has "baby mama drama" when, for example, his baby mama shows up at his new girlfriend's house and asks the new girlfriend for diaper and formula money since she has a job and is taking up time with the baby daddy. Another example is where, true story that happened at my cousin Tata's wedding, the limousine carrying the baby daddy and his new wife intentionally drives by the baby mama's house right after the wedding and blares the horn, and the baby mama comes out holding the baby and curses out the whole wedding party…oh, sorry, I digress…) The film explores the clash of class and cultural norms between the two women, painting them both in high relief in order to tell the tale. Tina Fey is the wealthy, cultured career woman who has put off childbearing in her early years only to find that she is having difficulty conceiving. Amy Poehler play the low life "white trash" woman with a trashy boyfriend to match who wants to make money from surrogating. Brilliant, I thought. What better way to explore the outer limits of divorcing the social and biological aspects of parenting than by mocking gestational surrogacy? Since the seminal Baby M case in 1986 that brought surrogacy to public light, surrogacy has become a much used, mostly legally sanctioned activity (it's still forbidden in some places, and is stringently limited in others) that has made the joy of childbirth a reality for persons who in the past had little hope of creating families in this way. But at the end of the day, surrogacy remains very much a contractual, marketplace arrangement that is all too often (but certainly not always) entered into by less privileged women in our society. Commercial surrogacy, or "reproductive outsourcing" is a growth industry in some parts of the world. Poor women in India, for example enjoy surrogacy fees that equal two or three years' salary.
But what's all this got to do with the price of diapers in Detroit? Plenty, I'd say. "Baby mama," whether used in the black cultural context or to signify women as gestational surrogates, for me signifies an unquiet anomie that bubbles under society's surface. It is a weird, circular wheel on which personal and relational autonomy, here, the right to separate parentage from other social relationships, runs head first into the oppression wrought when the bonds of kinship are not only broken but treated in some cases as if they never existed.