Christopher Columbus syndrome strikes again: No, white women did not "discover" single motherhood

Current debates about women "going it alone" erase the experiences of generations of black single mothers

By Alyxaundria Sanford
Published April 25, 2014 4:30PM (EDT)
    (<a href=''>michaeljung</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(michaeljung via Shutterstock)

It turns out that white working-class women are better off being single mothers, according to the conclusion of a recent Slate piece on how current cultural and economic changes "have brought white working-class women ... to the point where going it alone can be the wiser choice."

It opens with the story of Lily from Kansas City, Missouri. She’s four months pregnant, but recently broke up with her boyfriend Carl. “I can support myself,” Lily explains. “I always have. I can support myself and our kid. I just can’t support myself, the kid, and him.”

Due to the unfortunate circumstances faced by working-class men, we’re told, Carl either can’t get a job, keep a job or get a promotion. Therefore, Lily is better off without him.

“A generation ago her decision would have seemed narrow, misguided, and difficult to understand,” authors Naomi Cahn and June Carbone explain. “But now we have to conclude that it makes a lot of sense. Although it defies logic, socioeconomic, cultural, and economic changes have brought white working-class women like Lily to the point where going it alone can be the wiser choice.”

“Christopher Columbus syndrome” is a term I became familiar with after Spike Lee used it back in February while talking about gentrification. It refers to the notion of people (commonly, white) suddenly learning about trends, foods or places that already existed -- and trumpeting their “discovery.”

When Lee invokes this syndrome in terms of gentrification in Brooklyn, New York, he says, “You can't discover this! We been here. You just can't come and bogart.”

This sudden “discovery” of single motherhood is yet another example. The idea that this decision now makes sense is bewildering in 2014 -- because it's not new. It's certainly not new for black women and other women of color. We been here.

Black women have been going it alone for generations. Not one generation -- generations, plural. But when we did, it was -- we were told -- because "our men" were deadbeats, in jail, or because “no one wanted us.” Single motherhood among black women was never discussed as simply making the best decision for our families. And these ugly misconceptions about black men never discussed structural racism -- the poverty it creates, the lives, families and communities it tears apart through rampant and unjust incarceration.

Fast-forward to today, and the idea that white working-class women are opting for single motherhood as the best decision for their families is suddenly a great idea.

So is government assistance, apparently. The article is rightly sympathetic and supportive regarding Lily’s use of social programs to provide for her family, saying policymakers who are promoting marriage are actually taking away her “independence”:

“[Policymakers] would cut programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, early childhood education and child care, mandatory family leave, and other policies that make it easier for women like Lily to raise a child on their own.”

Of course it’s a good thing to support women like Lily. But two points are worth adding if we want to engage honestly with the issue. First, the phenomenon of white people relying on government support, historically and now, is not a new one. Despite Reagan’s invention of the myth of the black “Welfare Queen,” these programs have never been the exclusive province of people of color.

The second, more obvious, point is that women of color have been utilizing government programs for decades to help support themselves and their families. Was the common assumption that these women were laudably claiming their independence from men, too?

The Columbus syndrome can be seen in many areas, from Jen Selter’s “glorious glutes” to Kendall Jenner’s epic cornrows and Miley Cyrus’ 2013 twerking craze that she apparently created all by herself. (Curvy figures, braids and butt shaking have been around before these mainstream white women “found” them, but why let that pesky fact get in the way?)

But now that single motherhood and government assistance are part of the trend, it’s more painful. The difference (and, frankly, the most insulting part) is that mainstream white America actually did know about the struggles of black single mothers. And many white women were experiencing these struggles, too. But black women were made the face of a deeply stigmatized lifestyle.

It’s nice to see that some of the stigma around single motherhood (and single parenting in general) is fading. But erasing black women from this story is an affront to the generations of women who worked their behinds off to manage families on their own. There were no trend pieces celebrating their choices.

The thanks black women received? Political attack ads and a whole lot of stigma.

Alyxaundria Sanford

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