Sacrificing Our Daughters: Male Privilege in the African-American Family

My Dear Readers,

The majority of children, regardless of culture or ethnicity, are taught and reinforced several classic rules that move with us from generation to generation.  These include:

  • Honor thy father and mother (obedience)
  • Family always comes first (survival)
  • Do for others before you do for self (selflessness)

As children grow and develop, these “rules” are reinforced within the structure of larger groups, such as family, community and society.  Children are given positive reinforcement and rewards when they follow these rules.  They are also given negative messages when they do not.

These rules have a common theme: that doing for others is valued whereas doing for one’s self is not.  There are times in which the individual, in the course of pursuing their own objectives, comes into conflict with these rules.  In reality, however, the individual is actually in conflict with the “psychological self,” an entity that exists within each of us as individuals.

Below is such a story……


Dear Visible Man,

I am the oldest of three children.  I am an African-American woman and have recently completed graduate school while working a fulltime job. I live on my own, where my two brothers, grown ass adults in their early thirties, continue to reside with my parents.

One of my brothers is a college graduate who has never held a real job or been involved in a meaningful relationship and has resided with our parents for his entire life.  My youngest brother never finished high school, has been in and out of jail for selling drugs and has lived on and off between girlfriends and our parents.

Unlike his elder sibling, my youngest brother has no problem starting relationships; he is just unable to maintain them.  He is lazy, spoiled and once his girlfriends realize he isn’t about anything and the relationship is purely sexual for him, they toss him out and as usual, he returns home until he can find someone else who is willing to put up with him.

My parents are getting older and both have retired from their jobs working for the local school district where she taught and he was a supervisor.  As they were both vested in the school retirement system, they have good pensions and stable income.

However, even though I don’t live at home, my parents depend upon me to do their errands, take them to their medical appointments and prepare their meals.  My siblings don’t do anything but live off them and drain their financial resources.

Needless to say, I am exhausted.  I don’t have much of a social life and I am unable to find the time to seek a meaningful relationship.  I am in my late 30’s and would like to have a family, but given what is going on, I don’t see that as a possibility.

I have spoken to my parents about developing strategies to encourage and assist my siblings to move out and be self-sufficient. My parents say that they are afraid that my brothers won’t be able to survive on their own.  However they are tired of my brothers doing nothing with their lives and want them to be responsible, get married and start having grandchildren.

My parents are from the South (Georgia). They refuse to talk about their past.  All I know is that that they are fearful of the police, particularly since both of my brothers were constantly stopped and questioned in our neighborhood when we lived there. My parents relocated to the Pacific Northwest in order to protect us from what was going on at that time, to keep the family together, and to get a fresh start, and they don’t want to make my brothers vulnerable by kicking them out.

I feel that my parents are stuck in the past, and since they are stuck, so am I.  I was raised in the church and taught to honor and obey my parents, but I’m really unhappy.  What do I do?

Stuck & With No Life, Seattle, WA


Dear Young Woman,

I would like to congratulate you on completing graduate school.  Doing so while working fulltime is indeed a great accomplishment.  Your actions speak loudly and say a lot about your character.

The actions of your siblings and parents speak loudly as well.  What is unclear is whether you are listening to what they are saying.  I was also raised in the South.  My mother used to say “a show horse may look good, but if he ain’t willing to plow, what good is he?’

I would like to focus on the choices your parents have made and how you allow those actions and choices to impact you.  It would be a distraction to focus too much on your brothers as their behaviors and actions appear to be a result of the choices your parents have made.

As the oldest child and only female, you too play a significant role in the dysfunctional behavior within the family unit.

Your parents may not push your brothers out for many reasons, but one that stands out from your letter is the possibility that your parents fear that your brothers (especially the one with the criminal record) may be injured or killed by the police if they do force them out.

Another issue may be perception—your parents may be living with embarrassment or shame that their youngest son is involved in drug sales.  In addition to the fear of the police, they may also be responding to anticipated guilt, grief and loss should the worst outcome become real.

As retirees from the school system, your parents have strong work ethics, but the fear of loss in this case is in conflict with these values.  As they now live in fear, they have surrendered their power to empower and motivate their sons to transform their behaviors.

There is a saying within the African-American community that goes:

We love our sons and raise our daughters.” 

This is clearly indicated in the actions being observed within your family.  As the daughter, your parents have taught you the concepts of responsibility, accountability, consequences and empowerment.

These teachings have resulted in your ability to maintain employment while obtaining a graduate level education.   Furthermore, you are independent, able to live on your own, and you are capable of entering a marital relationship, raising children and preparing them to enter the adult world.

The same cannot be said of your brothers. Your siblings were not “raised,” instead they were pampered.  Consequently, they have not matured, and are incapable of handling the reins of adulthood.

Specifically, regarding the brother who has a college education, instead of moving into gaining more life and work experiences following graduation, he returns to his parents’ home.  As long as they continue to make the home welcoming to him, and they continue to meet his basic needs, there will be no reason for him to seek adult experiences such as working in the professional world or creating intimate relationships.

Your youngest brother has the least to offer.  He has no education, no viable work experience and is a manipulator of women, using them for his sexual pleasure and giving nothing in return.  His behavior is that of a spoiled adolescent, content to roam the streets at will, seeking others to play with and enjoy sexual pleasure.

Your parents hold a major portion of responsibility for what is lacking in their sons.  As they grow older, their fear will intensify.  Your siblings clearly lack the ability to care for themselves, and therefore would be ineffective in providing care for their parents or handling their legal and/or financial affairs.

So who is left to pick up the pieces? Prepare meals?  Take parents to their medical appointment?  Handle their legal and financial affairs?  Hmm.  Let me see…. You.

Be aware, there is a trap a is being prepared for you, “the trapdoor of responsibility.” Following the trap there is the “bottomless pit”.   It may be that since you were born, your parents have been planning and preparing for the day you take over the reins of their physical care and their other affairs.

This is typical regardless of race; major responsibility is often on the oldest child as the de facto leader when the parent(s) are either unavailable to the family or incapable of caring for themselves.  It is also typical that females will take the lead in household chores whereas males may play more of a supportive role.

This behavior is clearly an example of “male privilege” Male privilege can be defined as a set of privileges that are to men as a class due to their institutional power in relation to women as a class.  While every man experiences privilege differently due to his own individual position in the social hierarchy, every man, by virtue of being male benefits from male privilege.

One way that male privilege presents itself in the African-American community is communal protectiveness of black men.  As a result, black women are not only expected to protect males, but to not expose the community to shame, disrepute, embarrassment or humiliation by speaking out against them.

The African-American community is a “strong spiritual and faith based communal unit. In cases such as this, the community utilizes religion to pressure women to obey men; thereby reinforcing male privilege.

The issue of obedience is a key factor in your frustration—the conflict between the selflessness that you have been trained for in the church, versus the self-love and care that you need to continue to function.

The intensity of your feelings may be an indicator of how religion is used as a tool within the African-American family to reinforce male privilege and pressure daughters to submit and provide the level of care desired whereas such is not expected of sons.

Concluding Words

Your parents are no doubt warm and loving, but the reality is that they continue to live in fear and are unable to provide direction to your siblings. The bottomless pit comes into focus when upon their deaths, you become the caretaker of your siblings, who are becoming more dependent as time moves on.  The pit is bottomless, as like your parents, your siblings will drain you of your energy and resources.

It is up to you to decide whether to remain in this situation or seek a way in which you can live your life.  Taking on the additional task of providing care of your siblings will not only alleviate your parents of the mess they created, it will also alleviate the responsibility of your siblings to provide care for themselves.

It is one thing to want to figure out a way to enjoy life and at the same time provide a quality of life for your parents.  Have the willingness to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I prepared to take on the task of raising my grown siblings?
  • Am I willing to provide for them at the expense of my own happiness?
  • Am I willing to sacrifice my desires of marriage and having children?
  • Can I rely upon and trust my siblings to look after me should I need care or assistance?

Remember, “a show horse may look good, but if he ain’t willing to plow, what good is he?”

 When a person exposes the true self to you, embrace the action and treat it as a gift.

-Ten Flashes of the Journey of Life

The Visible Man

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