Free: How Racism is Pushing Some Black Women to Choose Not to Have Children

Providing insight into how child-free Black people are reclaiming their power so that, for once, they can thrive for themselves.
Blog Post
May 17, 2023

I’ve held a particular interest in Black people who can become pregnant choosing not to have children for years. The idea to ask folks about this first came to me in 2016 during the distasteful media coverage of Black people killed by the police. The body camera videos were looped relentlessly, retraumatizing us further and constantly reminding us that should a loved one or we die so viciously, our death may very well become content for a multi-billion dollar industry that has long mistreated us.

The onslaught of Black death—plus my expanding knowledge about how anti-Black racism touches every corner of our society—made me uneasy about bringing a child into this world. I struggled with reconciling my fluctuating desire to have children, and all the love and joy they would bring into my life, with the discrimination and cruelty they would no doubt experience being Black in America. They would be adultified like Tamir Rice and Ralph Yarl, a dangerously racist inflation of their age and stature that could lead to them being physically harmed or killed. The “toxic stress” of facing discrimination and the slights of everyday racism could potentially hinder their brain development.

The ledger persists.

At some point during their childhood, I would have to sit them down and explain what it means to be Black in America. My great-grandmother had The Conversation with me when I was seven years old—which, as my colleague Autumn McDonald, senior fellow and the head of New America CA, explained so powerfully in Slate, refers to the “intense, high-stakes training on the realities of racism” Black elders offer to Black children to better their chances for survival. The complex discussions would deepen as they grew up, and the risks would continually expand. (Don’t get me wrong. There’s much beauty and joy in being Black. Our culture is vibrant and glorious despite the treatment of which we are often on the receiving end.)

I also considered the risks to myself. Childbirth and pregnancy are not an easy go for Black folks. My mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother all dealt with near-death experiences during childbirth—a disturbingly common experience for Black birthing people in the U.S., who are three times more likely to experience maternal mortality than their white counterparts. The statistics, along with my proximity to their reality, haunt me.

The lack of family-supportive public policies and adequate care infrastructure played an equally significant role in my decision-making, as it has in the choices of countless others who are child-free. Washington D.C., where I live, is the most expensive place to raise a child. Infant care carries an annual average cost of $24,240, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute. That economic burden would decrease to a staggering $19,112 once the child is toddler-age. These childcare costs, and any potential job disruptions due to lacking childcare, are a larger burden on Black families, particularly Black mothers.

I’m still unsure about whether or not I’ll have children.

The decision-making landscape I’ve laid out was cultivated exclusively by anti-Black racism. Historically, Black women have been expected to live our lives in the service of others despite the physical, mental, and emotional consequences we might face because of it. During enslavement, a Black woman’s body was considered property, and her reproductive capabilities factored heavily into how the enslaver priced her on the market. Enslaved Black women were not only forced to bear children but then raise those children while serving as wet nurses for white children. Enslavement laid the foundation for the harm Black people experience at the hands of the medical establishment today and the sociopolitical conditions that cause the disparate adverse health outcomes experienced by the same demographic—including maternal mortality.

One facet of anti-Black racism is that it negatively impacts every demographic in its effort to prevent Black folks from obtaining access to necessary resources—such as America’s dearth of adequate family-supportive policies. Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a 1935 grant program enacted to help states give direct cash payments to children with absent parents, was initially endorsed to bolster aid for white widowed mothers. Instantly, the guidelines for delivering the benefits to families were marred by subjective parameters such as recipients living “in a suitable home” and other coded anti-Black language. As more Black women began to qualify for benefits, the image of the “welfare queen” began to emerge.

“This primed the public to understand social support policies through a deeply racialized lens,” wrote Better Life Lab reporting and research fellow and former deputy director Haley Swenson, who herself has just given birth, for WorkLife Everything on LinkedIn. “Thus, despite Black women’s demonstrated higher engagement in paid work, the myth of the Black mother with too many children, no intention of honest work, and a stockpile of luxury items paid for by honest taxpayers espoused during Ronald Reagan’s campaign for president in the 1970s had a significant impact on the electorate. Specifically, it cautioned the white voter against programs to help all families in need, due to the risk that it could be abused by the wrong ones.”

These are a sample of the narratives we’re up against—and they have physical, material, and psychological consequences.

Hard data investigating why Black people who can become pregnant choose not to have children doesn’t appear to exist publicly. I want to look for what data does exist and hear the stories of people who've made the choice I'm considering—and I’m taking readers along for the ride. Storytelling is resonant, and listening to the voices of those who have decided not to have children will provide immense insight into how child-free Black people are reclaiming their power so that, for once, they can thrive for themselves. As we take this investigative journey together, I invite you to share your thoughts and experiences, and to reach out to if you’d like us to publish your story.

Take care,