Older siblings pay an unfair cost in poor Black families
I see you and I love you and I am sorry we did not have the support we needed when we were younger.
by Cosima Smith
Mobility is the ability to move, both physically over land (and territorial lines) and metaphorically through social and political classes and rankings. But mobility is also so much more than that: it is the chance to explore and live and interact across dividing lines, it in itself can be a lifeline when speaking of environmental hazards or community interactions, and lack of mobility can be a sentence of adherence to the status quo and deprivation of occupational and academic opportunity.
But the systemic oppressions ingrained in our society—wage gaps and general low wages for the working class, (absence of) anti-discrimination laws, criminalization of poverty, incarceration, etc.—reinforce the barring from mobility faced by poor, BIPOC, and queer people. These manifestations reinforce and necessitate the proverb, “it takes a village [to raise a child].”
I heard this proverb repeatedly growing up in a low-income household, and it has always been especially true for marginalized families. Black and Latinx people in particular make less money than any other racial demographic in the United States, with women earning less than men. The difference is compounded when other social cues—e.g. disability, body size, aesthetics, sexuality—are accounted for.
Families that are already struggling often can’t afford to pay for consistent childcare, and this is where the village must step in. Aunts, grandmas, cousins, older siblings, neighbors: the community around a family often becomes an extension of childhood homes.
Sadly, this expansion of the family is difficult to maintain in times of change. Moving is then too difficult for the household, because to move means to lose babysitters and caretakers in addition to the family one finds surrounding themselves. This may not necessarily always be true for families with multiple children over a range of ages, because older siblings are able—and oft forced—to fill this caregiving role.
This substitution serves to increase physical mobility for a family, but in turn diminishes the opportunity for social and (later) physical mobility of the caretaking child. The expectation of maturity, responsibility, and work (unpaid and involuntary) from older siblings creates an inability to explore and fully live into the experiences of childhood.
The effects of these expectations range from a lack of time for finding passions and expressions of self that could become useful tools of reflection to juggling and even sacrificing school work and extracurricular activities that can provide scholarships and opportunities for personal mobility. Even more baseline, this caretaker role manifests itself in every day chores and habits.
My school day started hours earlier than my classmates. I had an hour-and-a-half morning bus ride and I also had to braid my sisters’ hair before I could get myself ready for school. After school, there was no time or money for camps or extracurriculars, I was too busy “taking care of the kids” while my grandparents worked or my grandfather slept for his night job, and being emotional support for my sisters and the grown ups around us while finding very little support given to the “mature” kid I was expected to be. I grew up knowing that there was a magical and wonderful place called childhood that wasn’t meant for or allotted to me. Family comes first, and my family depended on my ability to take on these responsibilities in stride.
I have thought and thought (and thought) about what would change this childhood for the better, but it always seems like a waste of my time. I had the childhood I had. Of course there are things I wish were different, but assigning fault or anger toward my family has never felt, to me, the right option. The people that raised me were doing the best they could, working long shifts and breaking their bodies to keep me and my sisters fed and clothed and happy. I am angry, I am hurt, I need therapy and lots of it, but not because my family put me in these situations. I was simply a child of Amerikkka.
A child who was never supposed to make it, nor be afforded many or any of the opportunities that have gotten me to where I am now. So, I don’t know exactly what to do to give these manchildren and sistermothers the childhood they deserve, except to continue fighting for a world outside of assigning worth to personhood through capitalism.
Because families are spread so thin, often utilizing every connection to survive and find livability, there is no time for expansion. There is no room for mobility, physical or social, because there is hardly room to even breathe. Parents and providers often must sacrifice attendance at scholastic and extracurricular milestones to pay this month’s rent, put groceries on the table, live until the next paycheck is deposited.
So how do we improve mobility? How do we open the door of opportunity, change, upward mobility to marginalized families? So many of the obstacles are basic tenets of (American) capitalism: lack of funding for universities and the prevalence of predatory college loans, the absence of access to safe and affordable housing, the “invisible” racism inherent in hiring practices, the label of “felon” and jailing record that follows real people in literally every facet of life. I say, we must vote, organize, have our stories heard and told, and listen to each other.
For all of the children taking care of children and adults, and all those that did what they had to do for their families, I see you and I love you and I am sorry we did not have the support we needed when we were younger, but we can care for our inner child and we can let go of all the responsibility and hurt that had no business finding its home on our shoulders. Our responsibility lies with ourselves and our own well-being.
Cosima Smith is a freelance writer, yoga teacher, and photographer (and polyglot!) from Keysville, Virginia. The degree they received in Gender and Sexuality Studies from the University of Virginia has pushed them to further explore notions of intimacy, the body, sex and sex work, and cultural/religious/linguistic representations of the gender and sexual spectrums.
Find them on twitter @CosimaCreates/@Cosimatyke and Instagram @a.misoc