When Helena Andrews-Dyer joined a local mom group in her gentrifying Washington, D.C., neighborhood, she found that being one of the only Black mothers in the mix gave her a new outlook on race and motherhood. In her new book, “The Mamas,” she chronicles the socioeconomic and racial tensions lurking beneath the surface of her relationships with white liberal parents.
[Deconstructed theme music.]
Ryan Grim: Helena Andrews-Dyer, welcome to Deconstructed.
Helena Andrews-Dyer: Yes, thank you for having me, Grim.
RG: You got it. So our listeners know, Helena and I go way, way back. We were, what, cubicle neighbors back in 2006-2007 when we were both at Politico? Before she went on to the Washington Post, and then went on to do other things. And then we were also neighbor-neighbors.
RG: In the neighborhood that you write about in your new book, which we’re here to talk about, which is called “The Mamas: What I Learned About Kids, Class, and Race from Moms Not Like Me.”
And so this is not, as people who listen to this show, a parenting show.
RG: But this, to me, isn’t really a parenting book, fundamentally. I think the parents who listen to this show will like it, and they’ll find it useful. But it’s something much bigger than that.
On this show, we talk a lot about the future of the Democratic Party, the Democratic coalition, and it’s often described lately as a coalition of Black voters and college-educated white voters, or people of color and college-educated white voters. But the party is also losing some significant vote share among voters of color without a college degree. And so while all of this is realigning itself, I think your book is really about, you know, what it’s like to live as a middle class Black woman among mostly white, college-educated liberals. And there’s so much in it worth unpacking.
RG: To kind of set the groundwork, tell us a little bit about your own upbringing, which is kind of unique, because you spent it in multiple places that gave you different tastes of American culture. So set people up with where you came from.
HAD: Oh, that’s funny, multiple tastes of American culture.
RG: [Laughs.] Yes.
HAD: That’s very much my life, I think.
So I’m from Los Angeles, originally. If you go way, way back, my great-grandmother came from Texarkana during the Great Migration and moved to San Francisco and then sent for her children, my grandmother and my great uncle, then they moved down to Los Angeles.
And my mother is a hippie, lesbian woman. Very free spirit. So I grew up mostly in South Los Angeles, which they call it now, that’s a rebrand. Back then we called it South Central LA. And I also spent a large portion of my childhood on Catalina Island, which is 26 miles across the sea — for those who know the song — from the coast of Southern California, San Pedro.
And there, in Avalon, which is the biggest town — and by biggest town, I think, when we lived there there were between 2000 and 2500 people who lived there full-time, we were the only Black people. We were literally the only Black people. I was the only little Black girl on an entire island.
And so that, of course, presented an interesting upbringing. It was also very religious. It was just — it was strange, I will say. [Laughs.] Idyllic in many ways, because it was this really small town, everybody knew each other; kids were basically free-range before people called it free-range. I did things that I would never imagine letting my child do at 7, 8, 9, 10 — just like roam the streets at all hours in this pack of kids.
And then we moved from there back to Southern California. And we lived in Compton in the early ’90s right after the LA riots. It was a huge culture shock, to say the least. And then I also went to a fancy private school downtown and from there, I went to Columbia. So it’s like I have existed in a lot of different spheres and seen pretty much like every face you could possibly see of [laughs] American culture. And I think I didn’t realize that or synthesize that until someone in another interview said: You exist in a lot of different groups. And I was like: You’re right!
I have been the only Black girl in many situations. I’ve also been surrounded by Black folks in many situations and Black folks of all types, right, of all socioeconomic backgrounds. And we don’t really talk about that, I think, within our own Black community, the striations of societal class within the community that often. We don’t talk about that in mixed company, but I’ve been in those situations as well.
So I think when we moved to this neighborhood, Bloomingdale, when I first moved as a single woman, I remember you told me — when I told you what streets I lived on — you were like; That used to be the largest open-air drug market in D.C. [Laughs.]
And I was like: Grim, what? And it was! When I lived there, it was still very much a neighborhood in quote-unquote transition when I lived there as a single woman. And the years passed, the neighborhood changed, gentrification ramped up. It is literally that zip code, the zip code that we live in, is one of the most rapidly gentrifying zip codes in the entire country. And it’s different — it looks much, much different than when I first moved here. And all of that came into really sharp focus when I had a kid.
RG: And so when you look back at your, your upbringing, and your own identity, which one do you gravitate towards? Because I think that also influences how then you see the new neighborhood that you’re moving into? Do you think of yourself as the girl from Compton? Do you think of yourself as the girl from that white island? Do you think of yourself as the girl that went to Columbia? And has that changed over the last 15 years of you living there?
RG: That’s interesting.
HAD: I try to explore class pretty often in the book, and I talked about when a census worker came to our door, and it was like running down your life story to this stranger, telling them about your college education, telling them about the range of money you make, and I remember, I was talking about me and my husband, and she was like: Well, uh oh, power couple.
And I was like: What? What are you talking about?
Because I never view myself that way. I think anyone who grew up poor — and I did grow up poor, even though I went to private schools, I was always on scholarship; my mother thought that education was obviously the way you lifted yourself up out of circumstances. But I think if you grow up without much materially — without much love-wise, but without much materially, you always consider yourself that. At least I do, right?
HAD: I write in the book: I will never put more than $10 on a MetroCard because you can’t frickin’ eat MetroCards. I’m not giving money to Metro. I might need that for groceries. I still feel proud of having a refrigerator filled with food. That will never leave me. And so I always consider myself that person, even though throughout most of my adult life — I’m 42 years old — I have moved in different circles that don’t have a connection to that, or an alliance with that.
And I think that when I think about raising our kids. I have two girls. I always want to connect them with that part of me, and what I learned from growing up the way I did. But it doesn’t always align, right? And the kids that they’re surrounded with don’t necessarily have that background either. So it’s a constant push and pull, I think. And I always consider myself just — no. Even saying in the book that I’m like, middle class or upper middle class, like — I still cringe. Like someone’s gonna snatch my card or something. I still do not feel that way.
RG: Let’s talk a little bit about Bloomingdale, the neighborhood. Because, in a lot of ways, it’s a perfect neighborhood to use as the prison for a story about race, class, gentrification, and what it means to be living in these times, but also very specifically, it has some fascinating history.
I learned from your book that Samuel Gompers, the legendary labor leader, lived in that neighborhood and was an active part of driving the first Black homeowner out of the neighborhood. And then later it becomes a place where covenants that barred Black people from buying homes, were taken to the Supreme Court and overturned.
So Samuel Gompers, he’s known as anti-immigrant, a lot of his rhetoric around immigrants —
RG: — was familiar to the other kind of white union leaders of the time, but it wasn’t necessarily, as far as I understand — I guess I haven’t gone too deep into Gompers — but he was not like one of these outwardly racist folks or outwardly anti-Black.
And you write about how all of the white neighbors in that neighborhood would say the same thing: We love Black people.
HAD: Well, not love! Not love!
RG: We just don’t want them — we don’t love them.
HAD: No. No.
RG: We like them. But we don’t want them in the neighborhood.
RG: And we are going to actively drive them out of this neighborhood. So can you talk a little bit about how Bloomingdale developed?
HAD: Yeah. So, I mean, I learned a lot about the neighborhood as well, and I’m going to open up to that chapter just so I get a refresher course. But yeah, it started as this large estate, 50-acre estate on which 15 men, women, and children were enslaved. When the owners of that estate died, their children subdivided it with the hopes of turning it into a suburb of official Washington, right? And this is like in the Victorian era. So in the late 1800s, and specifically, obviously, they wanted white people to move in, right? It was a white neighborhood. There was no thinking that other people would move in.
And the first Black homeowner was this man, Francis Smith, who I believe went to Catholic — my research shows that he was like an engineering student at Catholic, but I couldn’t perfectly connect those dots and I made that clear in the book. But yeah, and then the good neighbors of Bloomingdale, people who consider themselves good folks, got together and pooled their money to kick this man out, right, to get him to leave. And then they started to do this sort of as an organization — as a civic organization, as a neighborhood organization — pool their money in order to sue anyone Black who was moving in to make them leave. And the craziest part of it was that in 1923, 500 white homeowners — 500, OK? — that’s a mob to me, right?
HAD: 500 white homeowners met on 1st & U Street, which now is —
RG: That’s filling up the block.
HAD: Yeah, right? Exactly. Which is now where there’s a corner store, literally, I think there’s the corner store right there. It’s called U First Mart. They met and they marched on the homes of three Black homeowners to tell them to leave. And can I read from this? This is what they said. They handed them a note, and this is what the note said: “These men and women here are property holders of Bloomingdale. And they want you to know, they resent to the limit your purchase of property in this section, and particularly, you’re moving into the property. You may not have known that you were buying property in a white neighborhood. But whether or not you knew this, you did buy, and we want you to know that we expect you to vacate these premises. We will help you find a purchaser for the property and we’ll cooperate with you in any way possible if you will do the wise and courageous thing — move out. We know the leaders of your own race agree with this position.”
This is a note that they handed three homeowners, right? This mob. And that continued. That continued for decades, where people started to write, you know, racial covenants into the deeds of their home where it said you could not sell to someone who was non-white, right? Black folks, Hispanic folks, Jewish folks in some sections of the city.
And — that literally blew my mind, knowing that I’m walking on the same streets, right? That was in 1923. That wasn’t that long [ago] — it was 100 years ago. But that continued into the ’40s. And then early ’50s, when the cases went all the way to the Supreme Court.
RG: Right, so you’ve got this neighborhood busybody, Lena Hodge, that you write about.
HAD: Yeah. Oh, Lord.
RG: She moves in early — I think 1909 or so — ?
HAD: Yeah, she was one of the first homeowners on her row.
RG: And then she just makes it her mission.
RG: She’s going to enforce these codes. And she was racist. She wasn’t trying to say otherwise.
RG: I remember you have a quote in there who says that she’d rather live next to a white criminal than a Black doctor?
RG: And so a man named James Hurd moves in, who it sounds like he was somewhat white-presenting —
HAD: Yes. They were.
RG: — which ends up being part of the court case. She tells him: Look, welcome to the neighborhood, I guess. But I’m gonna kick you out. Just warning you.
RG: So she sues him to enforce the covenant. And then the court case, to me, is itself fascinating. So can you run through the arguments? And the NAACP takes up this case, the fact that Bloomingdale is right next to Howard University, I think probably benefited these families who were getting legal help from Howard, which is becoming a legal powerhouse at that time. So they go — and the courtroom scene where they’re interrogating the idea of race to me was just fascinating.
HAD: Yeah. So Charles Hamilton Houston, who basically made Howard University Law School what it is, turned it from a night school into this prestigious institution, he took on the Hurd’s case, right? And he argued Hurd v. Hodge, right? Lena Hodge and her husband, Frederic, sued the Hurds specifically. They lived on the same block, and they wanted them to leave, because according to them they had purchased this home that had a racial covenant in it — and they did purchase a home and Charles Hamilton Houston, in the case that he first argued, and then it ended up being a companion case to a Supreme Court case that eventually won, but his argument at first was to point out that race is a construct, right? And he says he asked Lena’s husband: What makes the Hurds Black? Like, why are they Black? And what features, right? And Mr. Hodge says: Oh, I would say the nose for one thing, the nostrils. And it’s just like: What?
RG: He’s like, the bottom part of the nose — or something?
HAD: The lower part of his nose, it was like: What are you talking about? So because of his nose, the man should not stay in a home that he paid for, right? It’s ridiculous.
And then he moved on to Lena. And he said: What makes her white? Why are you white?
And she goes: Well, what makes you a negro? How are you a negro?
And his response to that is so great. He says: I know that because you all say I am. Right?
HAD: And so that is just like — goosebumps. It’s like, yes, race is a construct. It’s ridiculous. So I’m just gonna point that out. Right? I’m gonna say this in a court of law. He then argued that the neighborhood wasn’t even white, per se, because it wasn’t. At this point, almost 40 percent of the neighborhood, the homes there, were owned by Black homeowners. It was just creeping up, I think, let’s say eastward towards North Capitol. But those folks, those folks who were in this white chain of homes, were still trying to cling to the identity that it wasn’t a white neighborhood, but it wasn’t. It was changing around them.
And then I think he argued this idea that: What’s so bad about having a Black homeowner, right? What did they do? He had all this evidence that those Black folks were keeping up their homes and being good neighbors and all of these things, right? So he just laid that out. They still lost at trial. But then it went to the Supreme Court, and just him laying out that argument — just showing how ridiculous all of this was, I think was a win, right? Because now that is in the court of law, that’s part of public record, that is part of the first draft of history that these rules were completely ridiculous, and the folks that were upholding them, were doing so completely against what was happening at the time, right? The neighborhood was becoming a Black neighborhood. Then it goes all the way to the Supreme Court. And then the Supreme Court strikes down racial covenants for the entire country.
RG: Right. And the Supreme Court argument was pretty stark. You had Houston saying: Racism in America needs to end.
And you had the other side saying: No, actually discrimination is a public good. It’s not like a necessary evil. It’s like an actual good thing.
And the Supreme Court comes down and says: No, these covenants are banned.
That forces, the private sector to come up with mechanisms to continue to push forward housing discrimination. Redlining.
HAD: Redlining. Exactly. Didn’t end racism! [Laughs.] Did not end racism in real estate.
RG: But it made it become more creative.
HAD: Yes, absolutely.
RG: But it enabled more Black homeowners to move into Bloomingdale. And so, as you write, by 1960 or so it’s almost a universally Black neighborhood.
RG: You then have the riots in 1968, you have white flight and you talk about kind of upper middle class Black flight, as well. And through the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, the neighborhood is falling apart.
HAD: Yeah, it’s unloved.
RG: It’s unloved.
And which brings us to that massive open-air drug market that I mentioned.
RG: And then you have the wave of gentrification that first hits the legendary U Street area of Washington, D.C. and then spreads toward Bloomingdale. And so as you got there in 2008, how different was the neighborhood then what it’s like now?
HAD: I think, even when we moved here in 2008, and I was discussing this with a friend of mine who is Black, and one of the core, I think, unspoken questions I’m asking in that chapter is what makes a gentrifier, right? And I consider myself a gentrifier. I’m not from here originally. What we pay in rent for our home is ridiculous. And nobody would pay that, you know, 15 years ago. So I consider myself a gentrifier.
But I was talking to a friend of mine about it, who owns a home not too far from mine. And she was saying that intent to her is key in the definition, right? Because she’s Black. She purchased her home after, let’s say, 2008, around the time I moved here as well, but she bought it specifically because to her it was still a Black neighborhood. She wanted to live in a Black neighborhood. That’s why she bought here.
Five years later, that’s not what the neighborhood looks like. Right? And she feels like this newer wave that came, let’s say, from 2015 on, came not because the neighborhood had a Black identity, but because it didn’t.
HAD: And because folks who couldn’t buy in Georgetown could now buy here and get the space here. Right?
HAD: Not because it had a specific Black community, Black identity. And that, I thought, was really interesting, because no one had explained it to me like that. But it has changed pretty drastically. I told this story in the book: I was trying to sublet an apartment I was renting at the time for the summer, I think I was going away. And when people would come, they’d be shocked. They were like, oh, where is this place? Because right across the street was a trap house.
Literally within five years, that house is sold for a million dollars.
HAD: So it’s just changed so drastically and so quickly to where we felt more comfortable walking the streets, saw more faces that looked like ours to now I can go to the playground with my daughters, and they’d be the only Black girls there.
RG: And speaking of that playground, I thought one of the most profoundly revealing and layered stories in the book — which is filled with them, is this is a story of this kid, Major, at the playground. It’s the first time you meet Major. And he’s chasing a little white girl around the playground, who was there, with her cool dad. He’s got a t-shirt on with a band that you’ve never heard of, shaggy hair — might have been me.
HAD: [Laughs.] Right. It was Grim. No —
RG: [Laughs.] And so —
HAD: Never, never.
RG: — so tell us about that moment at the playground.
HAD: That, I think, was a really evocative story in the book because it revealed to me so many things about how we conflate race and class in our own minds, whether it’s how I view it as a Black woman, how white people view it, how a Black person in a different socioeconomic status than mine views it, right, because again, I get into that at the very end of the chapter.
So what happened was: We go to this playground, right? Which is funny, because the playground actually used to be an elementary school. But the neighborhood emptied out a couple of decades before and they tore it down. And so now it’s this green space, but it is directly across the street from public housing. But it’s this beautiful, new green space. So it is literally like — that playground can be a microcosm of so many different things, right? People of different classes, different races, nannies, like folks smoking blunts.
HAD: It’s just like, all these things happen at that playground on a regular basis. And on this particular morning, I was there with my husband, my mother and our older daughter at the time. And then another white couple over there, like on a playdate, this woman I had met at baby yoga, OK?
And there was a little boy there who was from across the street, from public housing. And we knew that because we found out later because we found his dad later. And he just like, he was cutting up, OK? He was harassing this little girl. Of course it was a little white girl. Trying to steal her bike. It was more than play. And his parents were nowhere to be found. Right?
And so we’re trying to help out. My husband and I were like: Yo, like, chill out — like we’re just trying to help the dad. Because that’s another weird thing that I think happens — I think all parents feel this way, but definitely white parents don’t feel like they can publicly reprimand a Black child. And that is true: You should not do that. But there was this weird thing going on. And so finally we sort of mitigate the situation. And by we, I mean, my husband mitigates the situation —
RG: And actually, let’s linger on that moment for one second.
HAD: Yeah. Yeah.
RG: Because I also thought that was profound as well. You talk about how so many white parents — and, like you said, mostly all parents — are nervous about kind of disciplining a Black kid, probably any kid but definitely a Black kid on a neighborhood playground.
HAD: Yes, definitely.
RG: And it kind of harkens back to a somewhat real, somewhat mythologized era of — you know, I grew up in a little small town and it was one of those towns where any mom there was, like, allowed to discipline like any kid there — actually white or Black, in that neighborhood.
RG: But it’s true — you just wouldn’t do that. And so part of me was thinking like: We will know kind of the progress, our racial progress, if we start seeing white parents feel comfortable disciplining Black kids on playgrounds, if they’re cutting up in a way that becomes dangerous, like it was with Major.
RG: In some ways that would actually be a sign of progress, but we’re not there.
HAD: Oh, we’re nowhere close.
RG: To be like: OK, I’m just gonna try to defuse or just ignore this. And it sounded like band dad was just trying to ignore it, hoping it would just resolve itself.
RG: But it didn’t, so Rob, your husband, had to step in.
HAD: Yeah, he had to step in, as the six-foot-four, football playing-looking Black man in his slacks and button down — steps in, diffuses the situation. And then my mother was also there. So she’s also sort of trying to get into it. And I’m just like: Oh, I can’t believe this. So finally, as they’re leaving, band dad and his daughter, we’re like: Yeah, sorry, this kid is not going to stop harassing yours, basically.
And as he’s walking out, he turns to Robert and I, and he says: Hey, can I get your number?
And we’re like: What? We don’t know you like that. Like, no.
He’s like: Yeah, because there’s this program in the city, where kids can get free bikes, it seems like he really wants his own bike. There’s all these programs in the city — trying to enlighten us, Robert and I, about this thing. And it took us a minute, but as we’re staring at him, and I know the looks on our faces had to be just slack-jawed. And we’re just like: And I say, because I just have zero filter. I was like: This isn’t our bleeping kid. You think this is our kid? I was like: Look at us, look at him.
And — I didn’t say that. That’s what I’m thinking in my mind. And even as I’m thinking in my mind, I’m like, disgusted by that thought. Because I’m just like: Yeah, of course, he’s my kid. Any Black kid in my freaking arm length is a kid of mine, you know what I mean? But the fact that this white parent could not even see the difference between us all, right? Like, this little boy clearly wasn’t ours. You see what, how we came as this family unit?
RG: Your BPA-free bottles.
HAD: Right, exactly. You see how our little girl is acting as opposed to him. And it’s like, I think, as we were looking at him, so shocked, it sort of dawned on him. And it was clear he was embarrassed by it. But he didn’t say anything. He was just like: Oh, so sorry. See you later. And just ran away. And we just had to sit with that. Like, we’re just sitting with like — oh, they literally don’t see us. The title of that chapter is “The Invisible Mom.”
Like, they do not see a difference, right? Not that I’m even wanting them to, but I asked the question in book: OK, but if after Barack and Michelle, right, the real-life Cosby’s declared themselves as like members of this American society, and yes, there are Black people who look like us, who are out there, should we not demand to be seen like that? Right? Should we not demand to be seen like that? But at the same time, I don’t want to separate myself from this little boy. Of course I don’t. So there’s this weird ickiness there? In terms of class?
RG: That’s what made that section, I thought, so rich, is that you then go into a lot of soul searching. And you had a great line that you said: “Who were we to separate ourselves from this boy?” You begin with this indignity of like, how dare you? And then and then there’s then it’s like, oh, wait, but like, why am I trying to separate myself from this boy.
RG: Which goes back to those questions of identity that you’re constantly being confronted with. Like: Who am I? Which you explored throughout the book?
So how is Major? Have you kept up with Major?
HAD: I have not. I have not seen him in a while. When my mom lived with us, and she lived with us for a year, and I talk about that in the book, too — anyone who’s in an intergenerational, sandwich-generation situation knows how hard that is. But she lived with us for a year and she used to see him at church. She was more in the community in that way. She would see him at the church and in the community garden and they would hang. But I have not seen him since, also because we stopped going to that park for a myriad of reasons. That was one of them, just because the way class and race collided in that place on several occasions was just more than I wanted to have to deal with when I’m playing with my kids. But, two, there had also been like a bunch of shootings, right? Like it became dangerous to be over there because that’s what the neighborhood is still dealing with.
So yeah, all of that. I think it was another incident that happened at the same playground where I was there with my Black mom friends. And one of my Black mom friends is this woman I call Lynn, another little boy was acting up towards her kids, right? And we’re all Black in here now. And she marched him out of the playground to his mother, who was like sitting under the picnic table, in the awning. And she’s like: Oh, he’s done for now. He’s just acting up. This was what my friend Lynn said, who is Black, and sends him to his mom. And then she just comes back and starts playing with her kids.
And I was like, shocked. I was like: Oh, my God, I can’t believe she’d do that. Only because I’m so anti-confrontational. And then the mother of this little boy came up to me. And she was like: Well, what happened? And I wanted to be like: My name is Bennett. I’m not in it. I don’t know what this is about.
But I said to her, I was like: He was being a little rough — he was pushing people down the slide, like in a dangerous way — he was being a little rough on the slide, I think. Maybe he just needs a break.
And she said: Like, OK, but this is a public place.
And I was like: Yep, I’m with you. I agree.
And she was like: I would expect that from them — is what she said to me.
And I’m just thinking, like: Wow.
It was just this moment where I was like: Am I a them? Is it me? Am I the villain? And it just like, again, because class comes up in these ways that I hadn’t really deeply investigated before having kids, and I continue to investigate and do in the book, because how I think about it, and what I say about it, and what I do, right, that’s how my kids are going to think about it. That’s how they’re going to form their own identities and contextualize who they are as people. And yeah — it’s not an easy answer. It’s something I’m constantly wrestling with. But I think it’s something that we assume we all just know. You step into this new identity, or you climb up this ladder, and now you’re here in this new space. And it’s just like: No, it’s not that easy. And it’s not that Black and white, to be literal about it.
RG: How did you see it change, particularly in your mom’s groups, post-George Floyd, because your book runs through this massive social transformation that we’ve gone through in the U.S.?
HAD: It does. Social transformation that we’ve — I don’t know. Have we gone through it? Are we going through it? I don’t know.
RG: We went through a time.
HAD: Yeah, exactly. That we, at least, raised her hands about at one point. But I think what was most interesting to me, as I explained the arc of the mommy groups, which I entered when I had our first daughter and saw that they were so blindingly white, specifically the ones in this neighborhood, and I joined them because I love this neighborhood. And I want to be able to walk the streets and know my neighbors and know people and have my kids know people, all this stuff. It was very white.
But at first, I remember with our first daughter, I felt like: OK, I’m just moonlighting as this woman without cares. I just go to baby yoga, baby music class, happy hours at Boundary Stone, the farmers market — I’m just living this other life.
And then, obviously, the pandemic happens. George Floyd is murdered. The world changes in a way — it doesn’t change — but the world wakes up, at least, in a way, for a time. And I think that what I found most interesting about the women that I knew well, right, because it’s this larger group of like, hundreds of people, but then women that I knew well immediately sort of jumped into action. It was very much D.C., type A, intensive mother thing, but just jumped into action. And were like: OK, what books do we get? Raising an anti-racist child, right, making sure your child isn’t anti-Black, isn’t anti-Asian, all of that suddenly became another piece of like the mothering, parenting duty list, right? Another bullet point, to be literal.
And that was two things — both, it enraged me at first, because I thought, of course, this is what we do, we get the books, right? It’s such a D.C. response. Like, what are the books I need to be reading? What are the TED Talks? What are the BIPOC bookstores I should be buying these things from? And like, literally make an Excel spreadsheet about it, right? Same Excel spreadsheet that the daycare list is on, and the summer camp stuff, and the piano lessons.
And so there was that piece of it, where I felt like: Oh, of course, this is just all of a piece. But then I, when I sat with it, I felt like, well, thank God they’re doing this. Thank God that they consider this also part of raising children, because I think as a Black mother — and I don’t say this explicitly in the book, but it’s something that I’ve kind of ruminated on since — I know I’m raising Black kids, or at least that’s important to me, right? It’s not important to all Black parents. But that’s what is important to me, raising two Black children who have a Black identity in how I define it. But I don’t think white parents think they’re raising white kids.
HAD: And I don’t think they have a true sense of what that means. And
RG: Right. That’s what it means to be privileged. You’re just raising kids.
HAD: Right. Exactly. But you’re raising white kids. You’re raising kids that are going to be the ones who say something racist to mine. And because you don’t realize that, you don’t realize all the things you’re doing that supports this ideology, this white supremacist ideology, even though you don’t believe it, because you live in D.C., and you’re liberal or progressive, you would have voted for Obama five times if you could, you are still supporting a white supremacist ideology in what you do, even if it’s quote-unquote unintentional right? And I don’t think folks recognized that before. And I think they do — or at least some folks do now.
RG: And you write a little bit about what it’s like to be on the other side of that in a really interesting — and I thought eye-opening — way, because racism is so omnipresent in this country, that even things that you, in the book, will say, objectively, you understand that the thing the person said was not actually coming from a racist place, it’s still received kind of in that way.
And one example would be this comment a mother made where she said: You can’t compare these toddlers, you can’t compare these babies. And it’s like: On the one hand, like, that is perfectly good advice. Like any parent who goes around comparing the development of their kid to other kids, at every playground, or at every class, is going to drive themselves completely insane —
RG: — because kids are developing at different rates. And that’s just a thing that a helpful mom would say to another mom. But then just because of the world we live in, it’s received subjectively as: Wait a minute. What are you talking about? Why can’t we? Or do you not —
HAD: Right. Right.
RG: I feel like there’s so much of that? And was it made better or worse post-George Floyd?
HAD: I think it was made better only because — and this is another major theme of the book — interracial friendship, and what it entails, if you truly want to be friends with someone who’s different from you. On all the P.R. materials for the book, they’ll say: Can white moms and Black moms be friends? Obviously I would never say that to someone. But that is like this core issue. And I think that part of it is trust. And trust is built over a really long time. And you have to have the patience — if you want a true connection, right — for that to be built up.
So at the beginning, of course, I’m not going to. I don’t trust the place. I don’t trust the intent. Because I don’t know you, right? And there is a wall that women of color, people of color, build up around themselves when it comes to interacting with other folks. Of course, we do that, right? Why wouldn’t we? It’s protective. And I think that from the white parents’ perspective, it’s just like: I can’t get through. I don’t know how to connect. I think I’m saying the wrong thing, all of that. And it’s like: OK. Yes, it might be uncomfortable for you. I’m uncomfortable all the time! I’m Black person living in America. It might be uncomfortable for you. But if you have the patience, because you actually want a true connection with me, then you will fight through the discomfort.
And I have found that among true friends, when I bring up something, you don’t say: Well, no, that wasn’t what she meant. Or: She didn’t mean that — no, you don’t see me you don’t really validate me. You don’t really see my humanity. And it takes time.
Like Denene Millner, who’s an incredible author and publisher of children’s books that celebrate Black joy, she said to me, she was just like: I know in my 50-some odd years on this earth, you have a big hill to climb to make me trust you.
And I just think some people don’t want to climb that hill. And I found after, in this post-whatever point that we might be in in this country, that there are some people who are willing. And those are the people that I actually have true friendships with, would consider true friends, and honestly who I feel comfortable having my kids around.
RG: Mhmm. And so to finish up, because I know you gotta get running. In most parenting books, the husbands are basically either the punching bag or the punch line, —
RG: Or often both. And Rob, in this book, oftentimes plays kind of a reverse role. He seems to be the one who’s got his head screwed on straight, while you’re losing your mind. You have one line where you say: Being Black didn’t inoculate me from being a maniac.
RG: And Rob can often see through that and kind of settle you, guide you through some of some of these moments that are more anxiety-producing. There was a funny one where you’re like, making fun of — what was it, a stroller-stride?
RG: And he’s like: Look, if you wanna go, just go.
HAD: Just say you don’t wanna go, girl!
RG: Just say you don’t wanna go. So how did you end up deciding to make Rob the wise character in the book? And how has his relationship to the neighborhood changed?
HAD: It’s funny. You know my husband very well. He is the mayor of most places that he enters, whether it is a bar, a basketball court, or the sidewalk, and I think I wanted to — one, it is a motherhood story, right? But I’m not a single mom. And shoutout to single moms, I was raised by a single mom; I am awesome, they’re amazing. But I’m in this with someone. So I knew that he needed to be a major character in the book, because he is in this with me, right? He doesn’t have the same neuroses I do. But he is there. And he is privy to this constant internal conflict I’m having, because I’m telling my partner about it. So I wanted to make sure that you felt him throughout because he is there, he’s not invisible, he’s not this Charlie Brown, womp-womp-womp character. Like, he is there. But my husband’s also very private.
So I didn’t dig into some of the deeper things that he and I would have talked about. But I wanted to make it clear that we were constantly talking about it. And it was a running dialogue between the two of us: how we raise our girls in general, and then how we raise them in this neighborhood, shoulder to shoulder with people who don’t look like us on either side of the ladder. So I wanted him in there. Everyone knows Rob is really funny, he is very much that Midwestern, salt-of-the-earth type person, so I wanted to make that clear and just give him a place in the book that was significant. It’s funny because people, always, will talk about his quote-unquote character in the book. And I’ll say: Well, like, has he read it? You got to ask him. I sent it to him a year ago. Has he read the book?
HAD: I don’t think he has. I do not think he has.
RG: If he does, he’ll find the pimple-popping scene. He’d be like: Oh my god.
HAD: Well, that is one that he does know about. And even that was a stretch. That was pushing the line. That was pushing the line. But I thought it was too funny. It was too funny! I had to put it in there.
RG: Well, the book is called: “The Mamas: What I Learned About Kids, Class, and Race from Moms Not Like Me” by Helena Andrews-Dyer.
Helena, thanks so much for joining me and congratulations on the book.
HAD: Thank you so much. And we are due for a playdate and all of that very soon.
RG: Indeed. Indeed. Our playground or yours?
HAD: [Laughs.] Yours. Yours.
[End credits music.]
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