Over 24 million children in the U.S. live without their biological fathers. These children are, on average, two to three times more likely to experience education, behavioral, health and emotional problems, use drugs, be poor, engage in criminal activity or be victims of child abuse than their peers residing with two (married) parents.
With nearly 2 in 3 black children growing up without their biological fathers and the exaggerated association between black males and criminality, black men have become the ultimate symbol of personal failure – their abandoned children, the ultimate statistics. The issue of black fatherhood has become paramount to the larger conversation on parenting and socio-economic outcomes for children. If you’re not talking about black men, you’re not talking about absentee fathers.
Even President Obama has opined on this national conversation, creating the Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative and making responsible fatherhood one of the key priorities of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. While his speeches on fatherhood have been widely criticized (and criticized) in liberal circles for their conservative and retrograde content, the President’s rhetoric remains quite indicative of public opinion on the state of [black] fatherhood.
Perhaps more than his words though, President Obama’s presence in and of itself remains a significant contribution to and reminder of the topic of black fathers. During public appearances he often invokes his childhood to relay a story of challenge and triumph, one characterized by single motherhood and extended familial support: another black boy without a black father.
But what if President Obama’s father were white? How many of those upwards of 50% of black children that reside in single parent households have white fathers? And, more importantly, what happens to black children whose white fathers abandon them?
The impact of my father’s absence on my development and outlook strays from the quintessential list of “daddy issues” that often come to mind when we hear a woman grew up without her dad; I don’t care for older men and I wasn’t a teen mother or stripper. Instead, my issues have been inextricably linked to racial politics and personal identity. At an early age I unconsciously internalized the “white savior” complex, often daydreaming about how life would be with not just any dad, but a white dad. How great my life would be if I were brought up with my white family! I’d live like all the happy white children on television! I fantasized about the day my father would come and save me from my atypical existence. It never happened.
Through the missed holidays and countless uncelebrated birthdays and graduations, I never actually came to hate by biological father, until one day in 2013 when I had the chance to meet someone from my white family for the first time – my uncle, *Scott. Scott informed me that my father had not had any contact with me for two main reasons, (1) he experienced racism by my (black) family immediately after my birth and still carried the pain and resentment from that experience, and (2) he was now married to a German woman, with whom he has a son, and so his pride (and wife) would not allow him to acknowledge his past. Scott repeatedly mentioned that the wife was “very German” and explicitly forbid my father to have any contact with me. Within the context, I read “very German” to mean domineering and racist, but I guess that can be left to interpretation.
And so, at 24 years old, I learned a lot about my father, Kenneth J. Miller; I learned he is a writer and English professor that studied Creative Writing in Massachusetts. I now know he lives a quite comfortable lifestyle in Dubai with his German wife and teenaged son. I know his reputation and status are more important to him than I will ever be. I know that his absence has deeply impacted my views on race and staunch belief in intersectional activism. But I also know that my white family will never understand what it means to be a black woman in America and, looking back, I am completely satisfied having been raised black rather than biracial. I still do not know what he looks like.
Despite having been the fastest growing U.S. demographic group, there has been limited research into the unique effects of fatherlessness on biracial children. Existing studies have been largely confined to examining white mothers with black ex-lovers, particularly in the UK. These few studies, however, do support the notion that biracial children experience challenges beyond what the average statistics suggest. For fatherless biracial children, issues of cultural affiliation and racialized familial identification are heavily impacted by absenteeism.
The challenges of growing up fatherless become especially complicated for children like myself born to black mothers and white fathers, a wholly invisible configuration that is buried in the national conversation on fatherhood and the plight of black families. Yes, I am black and fatherless, but I do not identify with the “missing black father” framing we have firmly secured to the responsible parenting narrative. We must acknowledge that because women have been shown to serve as the primary transmitters of ideology and acculturation for their children, the racial/ethnic identification of the absentee father matter when determining exactly how absenteeism affects the personal identity of the child.
This connection between gender and race may also mean that some of those fatherless biracial children in fact identify as black, thus complicating assumptions associated with the demise of black American families and the failures of black men. Furthermore, statistics focused solely on the rate of single black mothers as a primary indicator of the state of black fatherhood may miss a growing population of biracial black children born to white, single mothers.
So what happens when the checkboxes don’t encapsulate the reality of the lived experience? Given the rise in interracial marriages, which more often end in divorce than same-race unions, do we need to reevaluate our definition of a black American family? What does happen to biracial black children who are abandoned by their white fathers? Sometimes they become singers, or actresses, or bankers. And sometimes, they grow up to be, well, me.
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