In the past month, two horrible incidents involving children and animals have had the internet awash in Monday morning quarterbacking. In the first, a 3-year-old child was attacked by a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo after running from his mother and falling into the gorilla’s enclosure. The gorilla had to be put down to save the child. In the second incident, a 2-year-old child visiting Disney with his parents was horrifically killed by an alligator in Florida while wading in a “no swimming” body of water near their resort.
In both cases, the reaction from the Internet was swift and sometimes cruel. “Where were the parents?” internet commenters (who are, apparently, perfect parents) were quick to ask. It was only later, as the news unfolded and more details were revealed, that people started to ease up on one family (the one in Florida) and double down on the hate of the other (the Cincinnati Zoo family). The main difference between these families? Race. The family that tragically lost their son to an alligator is white. The Cincinnati Zoo family? Black. And what a difference those facts make.
Where were the parents?
The backlash in the gorilla case was swift and cruel since the viral video of the boy in the enclosure clearly showed the family’s race. Within hours, there were 500,000 signatures on a petition calling for child protective services to investigate the parents, Deonne Dickerson and Michelle Gregg. There were editorials calling the mother “irresponsible” at best and downright terrible at worst. The online comments were chilling, delving deep into racial wounds, implying (and sometimes outright saying) that the life of a black child is simply not as important as the life of a gorilla. Worst of all, the boy’s father’s irrelevant criminal record made the rounds thanks to the Daily Mail, which also pointed out the father’s absence that day at the zoo.
Meanwhile, the parents in Florida, Matt and Melissa Graves of Nebraska, have been showered in love and support. A GoFundMe raised $50,000 in just a couple of days. The father has been characterized by his job and career (not by his criminal record) and while they, too, have had their fair share of “where were the parents” inquiries, the general tenor has been one of deep grief and a sense of concern for the family.
The big difference between these two incidents is obviously death. In the former, a gorilla died. In the latter, a child. Many might say that explains it: It is easy to attack parents who haven’t lost their child. And yet, it’s not so clear. In fact, it seems we have two sets of parenting standards. One for white, affluent parents. And another for black parents.
Last year, Toya Graham went viral after video surfaced of her pulling her teenage son out of the Baltimore riots and slapping him about the head. Graham was quickly hailed as “mom of the year” by many on the internet: Some parents heralded Graham as an example to advance their own political agendas and discourage protests against police brutality, while some said she was just trying to keep her child safe. But the overwhelming message? The right way to raise black boys is to hit them or "keep them in line."
Graham told The Washington Post that after the viral video, BET, Under Armour and St. Joseph’s Hospital all offered her jobs: “I’m doing all of this thinking, ‘I was going to get a job and get better out of this.’ ” But none of the job offers came through, and after national attention moved on from the Baltimore protests, Graham faced eviction and desperately needed help paying her bills. No one who called her "mother of the year" offered to help.
A few years ago, the mugshot of a mom arrested for leaving her 6-month-old and 2-year-old in a car while she went into a job interview went viral. Shanesha Taylor said she was homeless and jobless, and had to make an impossible choice between putting food on the table for her children and leaving them in a dangerous situation for a little while. She chose the latter.
Mainstream media has long portrayed black and brown parents in far different ways than they have white ones. Mike Brown’s mother was portrayed more as a loose cannon than a grieving mother after the police shot and killed her son. Meanwhile, Casey Anthony was accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter but headlines included testimonies that she was a "good mom." Is it any wonder that people have trouble seeing Michelle Gregg as the harried mother of four, just trying to do something nice for her children on a beautiful day in May? If we believe everything we read on the internet, we’d think every black child is a thug and every black mother's role is to keep them in control.
The chilling historical irony is that claims have surfaced that during slavery, black children really were used as bait to draw alligators out of hiding for Florida fishermen. No wonder our racist culture is so toxic toward black parents—our very foundation is as shaky as Florida swampland. It’s impossible to move forward without confronting the past. The sharp contrast in media treatment between these two viral stories can help us understand our everyday bias, which needs to be acknowledged and called out. It’s the only way to make it stop.