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On the Toxic Black Family: Boundaries, Self Care, and The Braxton Family Values

After years of feuding and previous attempts at counseling the Braxton sisters and their parents (who have been divorced for decades) sit with self-proclaimed therapy guru Iyanla Vanzant to hash out both fresh and long-standing issues pervasive within their family on the season finale of Braxton Family Values. At the outset, it seems this kind of  healing is not only therapeutic but necessary for familial health. The Black community is often, and rightly so,  chided from within for our unwillingness to attend therapy or to seek out professional counseling for assistance. And Iyanla Vanzant’s particular style of group therapy has been heralded for its adoption of Black communal tropes such as elder reproaching and melded spiritual guidance.

The current that underlies this meeting of the Braxtons is the notion that families must stick together through the ages. The Braxton sisters are all over the age of 40. Thus, the series leads us to believe that it is healthy to continue to hash out issues with our family for decades as opposed to the other option and the elephant in the room: walking away.  Towanda Braxton says that she feels that “the only way that our family can heal is when everyone is present.” But, what does that mean for individual healing?

Throughout the finale episodes, there is a consistent theme of elder Black women yelling at their younger counterparts. When Toni and Tamar are late for the gathering, Iyanla goes on a tirade, yelling at the entire family for wasting her time. When Tamar and Iyanla are engaged in a spat, Evelyn, the family matriarch, admonishes Tamar by cutting her off, pointing at her, raising her voice, threatening physical violence, and barking orders.

This is a normative tenet of the Black community, that even as we age we are to tolerate abusive behavior from our elders. This teaches us that we are not in a position to create boundaries for ourselves, and that even if we impose restrictions on those around us with regard to the way we are treated, our elders are always in a position to cross those boundaries. Not only is this unhealthy, but the underlying logic prevents us from developing healthy relationships with authority figures throughout our lives. Both as children and as adults we absolutely have the right to set boundaries for our interactions with other people, authority figures and elders included, and to demand that those boundaries be respected.

Tamar Braxton is the focal point for much of the family’s irascibility. Whether it is a matter of the production crew honing in on her antics or the overwhelming accrual of her behavior throughout the episodes, it is not difficult to see why the Braxton family has grown weary of Tamar’s conduct. Still, there exists a theory amongst the family that tolerance for Tamar’s behavior is a requirement of membership in the family. To put a finer point on it, walking away from one family member’s toxic behavior means walking away from the family writ large.




This is the same logic that forces the victims of abuse to endure Sunday dinner with their abuser in order to maintain the perception of a unified family. Families often attempt to force relatives to withstand relationships with relatives who are emotionally, psychologically, or even physically abusive in order to prevent outsiders from perceiving the family as fragmented. This is not only vituperative, it is painful and reliant upon continued mistreatment of relatives as a means of maintenance. By forcing the family to tolerate Tamar’s behavior — her consistent over talking, eye rolling, finger wagging, and disruptions — the Braxtons are prioritizing collective perception over their collective mental health.

At the close of the episode, Toni Braxton reveals that she does not like her family and that while she loves them, if they were not family they would not be friends. The camera zooms in and cued music indicates to the audience that this is a shocking revelation. While family can be both vital and pivotal to some folks’ personal development, we must keep in mind that we have the right to chose our family, to decide who we will engage with in love.

It is alarming that Toni’s statement that she does not like her family is presented as a shock to her family, as if they are owed her adoration and as if Toni is not deserving of the right to distance herself from relationships she does not deem healthy or beneficial. We are all deserving of the opportunity to spend our time with family selectively or not at all, especially when the relationship with family is not mutually beneficial. We deserve to seek out peace and love in every relationship we develop and if that means that relationships with family must come to an end because they do not possess those qualities, that is a healthy and often the best choice.

While it is true that professional counseling and therapy can be useful for families in general, including Black families, it is important to note that self care and healing do not always include your relatives. Sometimes self care means walking away from toxic relationships with relatives and friends alike, especially when the effort you are putting into those relationships is not being reciprocated. Boundaries are vital for our personal development and a family that does not respect your boundaries may not be your family after all.

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