Reactions To Baltimore "Hero Mom" Warrant A Deeper Look At Why She's So Popular

When I first came across the #momoftheyear hashtag on Twitter, I was initially confused. So many hashtags have some sarcastic or ironic meaning behind them, and considering the pure praise implied in this particular phrase, I expected the trend to be about a mom whose image had gone viral for doing something terrible, or a hashtag for people to share funny things their mothers had done to them. While this is not what the hashtag was intended to do, I wasn't entirely wrong. The "hero mom" of Baltimore is a viral sensation, not just online but also in the real live news media, for beating her son when she found him rioting on the streets of Baltimore. People have all kinds of opinions about Toya Graham's actions, but the question remains: Why is the "hero mom" commanding so much attention?

The hashtag #momoftheyear has been used about 5,000 times in the last day, according to Twitter analysis service Topsy. But though the topic has no doubt been trending, people's ideas about what it means are far from uniform. While many people, including self-proclaimed mothers, said they were glad to see a mother taking care of her child and stopping him from participating in violence, others saw more problems with the trend. Some were most concerned with Graham's actions themselves and their violent nature — they could be construed as child abuse. Others were more disturbed by another level of the #momoftheyear trend: It seems like those who are praising Graham's actions might be doing so for reasons that are, deep down, racist.

Many critics on Twitter were angered at how hypocritical white commentators can be when it comes to physical violence. While the sight of a black mother hitting her child in public — a supermarket, for example — would likely cause a white spectator to call the police on her as an abusive parent, witnessing this event in a different context made white spectators have a completely different reaction. Instead of condemning the beating, many white Americans felt that it represented an effective use of discipline — not just on the part of the parent to a child, but on the part of a disciplinary force against young black men in the street. A problem arises when white people praise violence against young black men when it fits their own priorities.

Therefore, people who call Graham #momoftheyear need to examine their reasons for doing so before they proclaim in publicly. If you, as a white person watching the news from the comfort of your own home, watch a black woman hitting her son and think, "That's good discipline because that boy is a thug" — well, that merits some attention. Rev. Jamal Bryant, a Baltimore pastor involved in the protests and delivered the eulogy at Gray's funeral, said Wednesday morning:

You don't call six police officers who kill a man without probable cause "thugs," but children who are frustrated and don't have an outlet, you call them "thugs."

The characterization of the rioters in Baltimore as "thugs" has angered lots of people, and for good reason. The term has been thrown around a lot lately, especially since it was used so frequently to describe Michael Brown in rationalizing his death, and it is definitely a racialized word. Even if rioters are engaging in criminal activity, the use of the word "thug" is becoming less and less acceptable. The appearance of Graham and her son on the scene has brought this problem to light in an interesting way: She may have been punishing her son, but she does not see him as a thug, and neither should we. One LA Times columnist wrote:

She was a reminder, a huge and crucial reminder, that those mobs are not made of up of thugs, they're made up of people, many of whom feel perfectly justified in their anger.

In an Elle article, Chaedra Labouvier quoted a Facebook post by her friend, Ashley Satterfield, on the situation:

That woman was going after her son not because she was fundamentally opposed to him protesting police brutality, but because as a black mom she knows oh too well that black bodies aren't valued and she was DEATHLY afraid of police shooting her black son dead in the street. When I look at that video, I don't see anything to celebrate. I see the pain, suffering, fear and desperation.

There are more than two sides to this issue. First, there are the non-black Americans who are praising Graham for reasons that are debatable.

Then there are the black Americans, especially black parents, who see Graham's actions as a normal, if desperate, method of discipline.

And then there is a mass of people who see the trend as a glorification of child abuse, violence, and/or racism.