Last week, voters in Virginia offered a sharp rebuke to the state’s Democratic administration by electing Republican Greg Youngkin for governor, a position held by Democrats since 2013. Post-election digests commented on one electoral faction that handed Youngkin the win: so-called “suburban moms.”
“Suburban moms” are concerned about their child’s welfare, and troubled by what they think is a push to incorporate a theoretical framework known as critical race theory into public school education, several news outlets breathlessly reported. The term “suburban mom” has caught on, morphing into a dogmatic catch-all for the kind of voters who are both unthreatening to systemic power and coveted for their votes: white women.
Despite the concerns of white suburban mothers, critical race theory is not taught in elementary, middle, and high schools in Virginia or anywhere else in the U.S., and the current curriculum in Virginia is a far cry from deeply examining constructions of race and racialized experiences in America.
Suja Amir, a mother of two living in Henrico County, Virginia, said that the idea of the suburban mom was “funny, because it’s [not used] when it comes to someone that looks like me.” And that’s by design, Amir explained. In order for the panic around what antagonists have called “critical race theory” to bloom, the fear needs to come from a white woman’s mouth in order to incite a political response. This is about sowing fear and racial division in service of enacting white supremacist policies, Amir said.
She said anti-critical race theory activists “went to the richest area and they went to the whitest area, [but] they didn’t talk to me—because I live here, too.” While Amir is a suburban mom, she’s not white. “And that is a problem, especially when you’re calling [them] the suburban mom. I mean, if you were in my neighborhood right now with the 30 homes here, I would have to say 28 of the moms look like me,” continued Amir, who is Muslim and South Asian.
While Henrico County, which borders the state capital of Richmond, has become more ethnically and racially diverse in her lifetime, Amir said life has gotten harder in some ways and often worries about her two children. She said the culture of intolerance was catalyzed by the Trump administration but the foundation has always been there.
“I feel like there’s just been so much toxic stuff in the water for such a long time,” Amir said. “I personally believe that 9/11 allowed fear to be used as a policy maker. If we can scare people, we can create policies very quickly. We can elect officials very quickly.”
Latent fear also allows for parents to react to changes that are seen as threats to whiteness. Amir sees much of the critical race theory backlash and panic as related to a school calendar change the county made this year, when it added Diwali, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Eid al-Fitr as student holidays.
“In my opinion, that in and of itself is scary,” Amir said. “Because what we’re saying is, we are so intolerant that we can’t handle somebody else’s holiday. We can handle a Valentine’s Day card. We can handle all these other things, but [they’re saying] I can’t handle a day off if it’s for my Jewish friends, if it’s for my Muslim friends [or] if it’s for my Hindu friends.” Even though she’s a suburban mom, Amir’s concerns don’t get talked about in school board meetings or on the political stage.
It’s clear that the panic over critical race theory isn’t about child welfare. Rather, it’s about elections and mobilizing white women. In fact, Youngkin targeted “Peloton dads and soccer moms” living in the suburbs. “I want to make sure people are not supporting critical race theory,” the governor-elect said over the summer, deriding the field of study as akin to “anti-white racism.” At one point in a speech he even quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his plea against it, saying, “[he] implored us to be better than ourselves, to judge one another based on the content of our character and not the color of our skin … So, friends, on day one, I will ban critical race theory.”
Youngkin’s strategy worked.
“It was very clever messaging,” said Alsúin Creighton-Preis, acting chair of Henrico Democrats. “They knew exactly who they were talking to. Creighton-Preis, who is white, said that the swaths of white suburban women who cast ballots for Biden in 2020 did so for Youngkin this year. “They could come out for Youngkin because he wasn’t scary to them. Because he makes them feel safe again, because, you know, he looks like the dude that their husband has a drink with at the country club after a game of golf,” she said. “They felt safe again.”
But what makes white women feel safe can actually endanger the lives of non-white women, as outlined thoroughly by scholars and activists like Ruby Hamad, author of White Tears/Brown Scars. The debates over critical race theory under the gloss of suburban motherhood erases the existences of Black moms and moms of color who live in the suburbs, serving both to silence their concerns and reinforce the racist trope that all people of color live in urban city areas.
For Amir, it comes back to fear.
“Fear is incredibly emotional and powerful, and we’re not using our senses and our best thought processes when we’re basing everything off of fear,” she said. “And if we can fear each other, then we’re not doing right by each other.”