The Real Problem with White Ladies and Black Sperm

By now, you’ve all heard of the story of the “wrongful birth” suit filed by a Jennifer Cramblett and Amanda Zinkon, a lesbian couple from the small town of Uniontown, Ohio, 97% of whose population of 3,300 is white. The uproar about this story in my communities in person and on the internet has been vociferous, but I have yet to hear much from my liberal and radical feminist friends about the underlying issues of systemic ableism, racism, and systemic white supremacy that is at the heart of a story like this, more than just on the part of the plaintiffs in the case.

In the Feminist Theories class that I am teaching this term, we read Angela Davis’ “Black Women’s Role in the Community of Slaves” in order to begin discussing the importance of black feminism as central to the discussion on women’s and racial liberation. This piece discusses the epithet of the “black matriarch” as an implausible moniker that in fact presents a obstacle in the guise of a “deformed equality” to black women’s liberation. The term originated at a time when black women socially and politically could not be the strong, aggressive matriarchs they were later characterised as being because that label derived from slavery, in which the very conditions of possibility for having a family, nay, from being considered amongst the category of person was fundamentally denied. Without personhood, maternity was yet another extent to which black women’s bodies were subjected to the totalising labour required to propel capitalism in both the domestic sphere and in the field. The manifestation par excellence of this kind of capitalism is slavery.

Davis continues with a crucial discussion on the dialectics of oppression. The black matriarch does not, cannot exist, she argues, particularly against such pseudo-scientific artifacts as The Moynihan Report, which decried single-mother households as the cause for increased incarceration, emasculation, and poverty of black men and children. The figure stemming from American of “the black matriarch,” which seems to uphold the powerful status of the black woman and therefore appear to be anti-racistor, at the very least, admit to black women’s agencyat the same time imbues her with the status of leader of the (failing) black family and articulates a complicity in her own enslavement (because if were the matriarch, she would have enough of her own autonomy to prevent the removal of her freedom if she wanted it). Professor Davis’ reflections don’t just get at the fact that the term “black matriarch” is “problematic,” as we so often like to decry in liberal and feminist circles. She also seeks to get at the underhanded senselessness with which the term itself undoes the subject it seeks to identify because it is linked to such structural conditions of impossibility.

I digress. But not really! The arguments that Angela Davis makes in “Black Women’s Role…” is also taken up by legal scholars and critical race theorists like Cheryl Harris in “Whiteness as Property.” She, too, would advocate getting at the dialectics of oppression in a case like Cramblett v. Midwest Sperm Bank, LLC. Yes, it is ridiculous that sperm banks, which are grossly under-regulated, made an egregious error that have affected this couple’s right to intentional family planning. Yes, it’s fucked up to hear two women lament about how difficult it already is to live in a small town as (white) lesbians, but that it is immeasurably worse now that they have a daughter who is mixed-race (by the way, I am insisting on calling her “mixed-race,” which she is, until she identifies herself as something else because the discourse on this “black child” (e.g., that it’s difficult to cut her “typically black hair” or media reports that the Ohio community will be racially insensitive towards a “black child”)as though her mother(s) matter genetically less than an anonymous/surprise sperm donoris yet more anti-blackness in which I refuse to be complicit). Yes, we all scoff and tut at the ignorance of a mother who says, “I want [my daughter] to feel accepted, and I want her to feel that she has a place anywhere she wants,” knowing as we do that children of colour across America, who ostensibly have a place, a family and a community who love them, still get gunned down in the streets with alacrity by police, vigilantes, and other violent circumstances. Yes, we all fear for the emotional health and security of this particular child, now only 2 years old, who will grow up to find that her parents held her very existence as the grounds to file both a “wrongful birth” and “breach of contract” civil suits in her name, particularly when wrongful birth suits were “traditionally brought if you had a child that had a congenital birth defect or some kind of congenital abnormality that a doctor should have warned the parents about.”

That impending knowledge is itself heartbreaking. But this is one case, and the moral judgements and incredulous hysteria around it is telling. The fetishistic concern displayed in mainstream media belies not only a panic of the “not one of us” variety that has been plaguing humanity since the “ogbanje,” or its Western European adaption of the “changeling,” but also this primal question: What is it about the invocation of this particular form of anti-blackness that makes it so easy to hold on to? How can the Cramblett-Zinkon household even file such a demonstrably racist lawsuit and have it even be cognizable (that is, legally have any value whatsoever) in a court of law? The answer is not innovation or some parent’s new get-rich scheme, or even some anomalous sort of small-town racism that we can use against these women, lobbying their gay or white identities against blackness or black identity in America. The more pernicious fact is that, as Cheryl Harris stated in her groundbreaking essay, “the law has established and protected an actual property interest in whiteness itself.” The dialectics of oppression here are not such that a white family have sued for having a child who is half black, but that they can, thereby continuing the inextricable link that blackness shares with that which must be protected against on social, political, affective, legal, and especially economic grounds. (If you still have doubts, I challenge you to read any article on this story in mainstream media that doesn’t highlight how hard the couple tried to “control their family’s lineage,” “poring [read: “labouring”] over hundreds of donors’ files until they found the right one.”) And until this becomes the story, we as a society are forever doomed to repeating the cycle of mass outrage and cynicism when such stories appear and re-appear, which they most certainly will, given the position of black embodiment in the West.

tl;dr: Racial/gender/disability and other forms of justice should not be about fighting for inclusion or adding to the “melting pot” of differences in the name of a equality. It should be about asking, “How the hell did we decide to put soup on the menu in the first place? And do we really need to have it every day?”

4 Responses to “The Real Problem with White Ladies and Black Sperm”

  1. SA Smythe

    Let the record show that I am not categorically against soup. Unless that soup is a metaphor for systemic oppression.

  2. Margaret

    I recognize that this legal case is a convenient jumping off point for an important conversation, but legal cases, while powerful symbols, are also made up of real people trying to navigate their way through a system imperfectly set up to handle real problems.

    I think the mothers in this case are getting some unfair flak. If you listen to them interviewed, they are suing to hold the sperm bank accountable (they bought sperm from donor 380 and were carelessly sent sperm from donor 330. Don’t we agree from a patient-provider standpoint there should be sanctions for this level of negligence?) and for the money to move to a more diverse community that will be more accepting of their family, and their daughter (who they seem to adore). It is the legal system that requires parents in such lawsuits to quantify the “loss” of malpractice like the sperm bank’s in terms like the costs of traveling to salons in other communities because you are legally not permitted to sue for the malpractice itself. Yes, this the same legal framework as applies in “wrongful birth” cases, as when a doctor fails to properly sterilize a patient and a pregnancy results. In American jurisprudence we cannot sue for the birth itself but rather must add up a lifetime of unexpected costs. Sure, it should make us uncomfortable to apply this to race, but the mother doesn’t invent the legal framework. And she has said in interviews that the hair cut cost is just something her lawyer had to put in the pleadings, she is aware it is a silly legal fiction to get to her goal, accountability for the sperm bank’s lax handling of her case.

    They are also only suing for like $50k, so I believe that the function of the suit is primarily a patient’s rights case that the media has seized on for its racial symbolism.

    I don’t disagree with the points you raise, I only want to note our legal system forces these parents to plead the case this way if they want to pursue the sperm bank for handing out random sperm to its patients.

  3. Katie

    I don’t understand how these women could not see both the micro and macro ramifications of this suit. Their daughter will need therapy, and the whole damn country needs a lesson in overt racism.
    The fact that t the suit was only for 50k and was STILL filed is worse, in my opinion. The media SHOULD be seizing on it for racial symbolism , as it’s not so much a symbol but a glaring piece of evidence that the commodification of whiteness is alive and well. Which can only mean that the refusal of blackness must be there as well.
    I agree with you, SA. When you framed it as you have, it does seem unbelievable that this can be brought before a court of law.
    Great post, thanks.

    • SA Smythe

      Thanks for reading, Katie! It was pointed out to me not long after this piece that the $50K amount was but a “threshold” number, meaning that the couple could actually get much, much more than this. I’m still not sure which is more egregious..


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