Why Black Families Feel Intensely the Stigma of Estrangement

6 min read

When I conducted a survey to research sibling estrangement for my book Brothers, Sisters, Strangers, I was surprised to see how many people responded not by participating but by explaining why they felt they couldn’t.

Many messaged me privately, saying that they wished they could help, but were uncomfortable recording their thoughts. Often, a fear of stirring up negative emotions lay behind their refusal. Some said they felt ashamed that they had failed at a primary relationship; others didn’t want to see the words on the page, making the abstract too concrete. Several worried about having their private thoughts read by the public.

I was particularly struck by the fact that few people of color filled out the survey. I’ve wondered about estrangement in these communities. Recently, Chimére L. Sweeney, an advocate for Black women and founder of The Black Long Covid Experience, reached out to clarify why many people of color are reluctant to discuss their estrangement experiences.

 Chimére L. Sweeney archive

Chimére L. Sweeney

Source: Chimére L. Sweeney archive

“Estrangement transcends race and gender.” Sweeney explains, “but we don’t talk about it. In Black families, we are warned by our parents not to share our family business, especially with white people. We fear it would look like another way we are failing, another thing that needs to be ‘fixed’ in our families. And there’s always something to be ‘fixed,’ stemming from white supremacy.

“We don’t have enough money, jobs, education,” she says. “We are raised by single mothers. We fear that if we admit to estrangement, we would be opening ourselves up to more discrimination and more ostracism.”

Sweeney says that in the context of the Black historical experience—from the trauma of families ripped apart by the hideous Middle Passage and subsequent slavery, through the relentless pressures of racism, to the contemporary civil rights and Black Lives Matter struggles—parents and children are less likely to want to acknowledge the shame of failed family relationships.

Sweeney adds that many Blacks don’t like to talk about boundaries, which are restrictions and feel like another form of oppression. “We don’t want to look like oppressors with our families,” she says.

While it’s difficult to quantify estrangement, some surveys indicate that one in four people are cut off from family members. One study examining the racial breakdown of estrangement found that Black respondents were 27 percent less likely than white respondents to report estrangement from their mothers. Black respondents were also less likely to report maternal estrangement than Latine respondents. For fathers, the picture is far bleaker: Black adult children had more than three times higher odds of being estranged from their fathers than white adults.

“The Black experience of estrangement is more stigmatized than in the white world,” Sweeney explains. “Everyone has an estrangement, but they won’t tell you about it.”

Sweeney’s Personal Experience

Sweeney is willing to tell her story because, she says, she’s tired of carrying the shame and guilt. For six years, Sweeney, 41, has had no relationship with her brother, who is seven years younger than she.

“It’s difficult to have someone you love and care for live in your heart and mind every day,” she says, “but I also understand that for my own sanity and his, it’s best that we don’t connect.”

Sweeney explains that she and her brother were raised by a single mother in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. Their story is typical of a Black family living in poverty—never enough money to pay bills; the children often went hungry, and the family moved from apartment to apartment.

In childhood, the two lacked a strong parental figure they could trust, so they each stepped into those roles. “I was his mom because I took the most care of my brother,” she says. “And because my biological father wasn’t around, he became like my dad.” Though her brother was loving, he also could be controlling, she says.

Another circumstance specific to Black families can contribute to difficult sibling relationships. “In Black families,” Sweeney explains, “we never know, when our boys and men walk out the door, if they’ll return home. Consequently, we cherish and worship them. We enable them and excuse their behavior. We did that to my brother. He’s funny, charming, bright, hardworking, and he became the family’s prince.”

Family Dynamics Essential Reads

Black Families and the Risk Factors for Estrangement

Sweeney’s description of her family reveals multiple risk factors for intense sibling rivalry, maltreatment, and estrangement:

  • Parent-child attachment difficulties
  • Low level of paternal involvement or acceptance
  • Parents who are not emotionally involved in their children’s lives
  • Parents who play favorites or compare children
  • High levels of conflict
  • Sibling bullying
  • Children who don’t learn how to handle conflict

Intergenerational trauma in families—recreated through complex biological and social mechanisms—defines an individual’s emotional reactivity, stress, and withdrawal responses, and also contributes to estrangement. “Unresolved issues in one relationship will be transposed to other relationships and create similar relational patterns,” explains Kylie Agllias, author of Family Estrangement: A Matter of Perspective.

Sweeney says that there’s a “cover-up” about estrangement in the Black community, and that may deepen the damage. “Whole families can take on a contradictory narrative,” explains Agllias, “that, once established, requires considerable attention and maintenance to avoid public exposure. ‘Keeping up appearances’ can place enormous stress and tension on the entire family system.”

Sweeney further blames the way we live now—with social media, cell phones, ubiquitous music, and readily available drugs—for exacerbating the problem. “It’s easy to walk into a room with siblings and not even have a conversation,” she notes.

Not only outspoken about estrangement, Sweeney also has advocated for The Black Long Covid Experience, a project that highlights the effect of the condition on Black women and families. COVID-19, she points out, contributes to deeper estrangements.

“Covid illuminated a crack in the foundation of our house,” she says. “We don’t talk as much, and Covid is a convenient excuse. The cracks get bigger and bigger, and, eventually, the house falls down.”

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