For the last three months my middle schooler has come home with wild stories about individuals at her school, mostly boys- white and NBPOCs (non black people of color), wanting to touch her hair, touching her hair without permission, or calling her names. It’s been frustrating and out of respect for my child I had refrained from writing about it. But it had finally come to a frustrating pass when she felt that self advocacy was no longer successful that I intervened.
Raising a black girl to love herself is still hard work in this early part of the 21st century. Continued messages of you are beautiful and you deserve to exist “as is” and unaltered are messages on repeat in our home. I know for a fact that though I experienced my own teasing as a child, it was my rebellious nature, my own devil could care attitude, and the understanding of the power of my blackness from a very small age, that shielded me from self esteem issues. I would say that some of the same is true for my daughter.
Upon hearing my complaint, school leadership jumped in right away addressing my concerns and empowering my daughter. But this post isn’t about that... this post is about black women existing as they are in a world that isn’t quite ready for that. And though we’ve made tons of progress, we still face many set backs when it comes to allowing black women the freedom to be themselves, unapologetically.
It’s seems timely that just a few days after my daughter’s hair incident, Gabrielle Union was fired from America’s Got Talent because she was “too black” for their audience. Yep, they fired her. But the beautiful thing was no one was silent about it, after all its 2019 and many black and nonblack women flooded Twitter with their own support of Union with the #BlackHairChallenge. Beautiful and exhausting.
Why should we have to continue proving that black beauty can exist alongside white standards of beauty? Especially when they're not mutually exclusive. If black people continue to experience resistance within the construct of Americanism, then we have not evolved as a country. Racialized aggression can come in the form of microaggressions; race-based physical, sexual, verbal, or psychological violence; the economic dismantling of communities; and segregation. We must continue to work on the racialized aggression toward blackness and most specifically blacks femaleness, cis presenting and otherwise. In raising black girls, it’s important to empower them to self advocate and seek allies. But we need to ensure that white and nonblack parents are also raising allies and advocates.
There are many ways that white and nonblack parents can counter the various forms of racialized aggression and anti-blackness. The first step- acknowledge that racialized aggression and anti-black attitudes exist. The second step - educate yourselves and your families on cultural and ethnic differences. The third step - call it out when you see it; even if it make you uncomfortable, step up and say something. Again, I'm super happy with how the school leadership handled the entire situation, my daughter felt completely empowered and supported, but I was still left to ponder two questions that could possibly help black girls in white environments that may not have allies at the school like my daughter does:
1. Are mothers and fathers (specifically white and non black parents, forget it... all boy-parents) teaching their sons that a black woman’s body is off limits?
Every part of her, including her hair is off limits. The stories of boys asking if her hair was real (not in a genuinely curious fashion), or sticking their hands in her hair without asking, or the random teasing names; in the past, that would be considered flirting or “boys will be boys” behavior... but let’s call it what it is- it’s entitlement. To claim that these white boys were doing this “for fun” is preposterous. My daughter was seen as “different” and therefore it creates a very different type of experience than when engaging in such teasing toward white girls. It’s engaging in a race-sex hierarchy of dominance that parallels how society expects individuals to interact. White male = empowered, black female = at the mercy of the system created by white males. For a black woman, experiencing aggression from men of all types is dangerous and when you add the complications of race on top, it creates even more convoluted social challenges for her.
2. Are we failing our students by not having enough diversity in our staff?
We give a lot of lip-service to the need for black educators in schools, but what are we actually doing to support a pipeline of diverse educators that can serve as allies to all students, but specifically students of color in predominantly white settings? I'm not sure what the answer is but I would hope that more parents (of all cultural backgrounds) would fight for this as all student benefit from learning from a diverse teaching force.
3. Are school administrators aware that when a variety of elementary schools feed into a middle school, the various school cultures clash?
This was my biggest concern. Our elementary was the most international and culturally diverse of all 7 schools feeding into our middle school. By default and by design, our elementary school community worked hard at elevating diversity and engaging in opportunities that were inclusive. This wasn’t the case at the other elementary schools where, as I looked at the data, some schools only had one black child in the ENTIRE SCHOOL. So if these students arrived from a school where 1 out of 200-400 students was black, well you can figure out where I’m going with this. My daughter was comfortable existing as is from kindergarten through 5th grade and was quite alarmed at how "novel" or "alien" she was treated, by students that looked like her classmates from elementary school.
During middle school, children are learning about their identity as it relates to others. Identity building includes race, sex, sexuality, class. All of these are linked to self-esteem. It seems like middle school is the perfect time to build equity work, empathy work, and social justice work into the curriculum as part of the social emotional learning.
I don't think I am overreacting in my statement on racialized aggression. Even if the boys were not consciously attacking my daughter because she was black, her difference somehow made her a target of teasing, name calling, and touching without consent. The disrespect of her boundaries and the nature of who was doing the teasing and what they were making fun of - her naturally puffy/curly black hair - made my daughter feel it was about her ethnicity. These facts cannot be ignored.
Natural curiosity about others is ok. It's ok to ask questions. It's ok to ponder or wonder about people that look or live differently than you do. It's ok to think "what's that all about" or "what's goin on over there". It's not ok to accost people or make them feel uncomfortable that they do not conform to your/the social norms. Black girls face many challenges which require their parents to remain vigilant and creative. We must balance our inner turmoil and our own personal experience with race with the desired outcomes we want for our children. My biggest concerns are how we can cultivate allies; how we can better support the growth and development of girls, especially black girls in all white environments; how we can cultivate school environments that elevate the humanity of everyone.
Read more about our struggles with personal space and identity here:
I'm a former teacher and former college athlete, currently working in edtech. My mission is to get parents to partner with their child's teacher.