UPDATE Oct. 29, 2105 – Since writing this, it seems that news reports that the student below was an orphan were incorrect and, that while it seems the case she is indeed in foster care, her mother is still alive. That said, my basic points below are still relevant. This is a teen with life issues aplenty to trouble her, and normal teenage social and hormonal issues to deal with, which are bad enough. Her behavior was not the egregious, atrocious thing here; it was the aggressive response of the resource officer that was way out of line.
Earlier this week, I was pondering a new phenomenon that I have encountered recently that had me perplexed until I realized it was part of something much larger than myself. I have had several recent encounters where people, specifically white men, have referred to me as feisty and on one occasion, I was even referred to as a hellion. Now there are many words I would use to describe myself but neither hellion nor feisty are on that list. In all cases, these words were meant to be complimentary…I think (though who knows what unconscious assumptions and biases drove those word choices)…but the truth is as a fortysomething-year-old, mid-career professional who is passionate about her work and very direct in all areas of my life, these words frankly rubbed me the wrong way.
However, it wasn’t until the horrifying story of the student who was assaulted at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C., by the school’s resource officer for not listening to the teacher went viral that I had a connect-the-dots moment and was reminded once again of the price one pays for wearing a skin that is both Black and female.
Historically, there have been several archetypes used when defining Black womanhood and girlhood and while it would be lovely to say that we have moved passed these simplistic notions, the truth is that we haven’t. In fact, Black womanhood and girlhood is still widely defined by these historical archetypes and today’s Black woman and girl is rarely seen as a fully evolved person outside of these narrow humanity-stripping characters.
Mammy, that sexless, strong Black mother who gives of herself fully, much to the exclusion of her own humanity. Sapphire, a dominating, and aggressive Black woman who at times strips men of their masculinity…the modern day Sapphire is often referred to as the Angry Black Woman. Make no mistake, though, the angry Black woman is the grandchild of Sapphire. Lastly we have Jezebel, that sexually promiscuous Black woman who even the slave owners couldn’t resist or at least that’s the lie told in the initial archetype. There are more modern-day archetypes of Black women but for the sake of brevity, I will stop here.
Going back to Spring Valley High School, it seems a young teenager was in class and while the reports are not entirely clear, apparently she either pulled out her phone or was chewing gum (maybe both). Regardless, the teacher asked her to stop, when she didn’t stop, she was asked to leave the class and she didn’t. Now, I haven’t been a teenager in a very long time but the last time I was a teenager, it seems a minor infraction such as this may have merited a zero for the day, a talk after class or detention. Apparently in today’s schools, those options don’t exist or perhaps they don’t exist in certain schools with a predominance of students who aren’t white and/or occupy the lower economic rungs of the social ladder. Instead of the traditional punitive options, the school’s resource officer was called in and, well, the rest is a viral video where (thanks to the bravery of a fellow student) we see the teen girl being physically accosted by the very large white police officer.
These viral videos come at a heavy cost; no longer do we have to rely on the word of the authorities. But they also come with public criticism. Which for many, was to proclaim that this child didn’t do as she was told and that’s why she was assault…Hitler’s people did what they were told too and we don’t forgive them that. Doing what we are told is not always what it appears to be. For far too many, they watched that heinous video and didn’t see a young girl who seemed defeated by life and in shock, they saw an insolent Black female who was disobedient and therefore was deserving of mistreatment at the hands of the authority figure.
However, things aren’t always as what they seem and today we learned that the girl in that video was recently orphaned by the death of her mother and is currently a ward of the state. There have been reports that she lost both her mother and grandmother this past year. I lost my mother at 31 and 18 months later my beloved grandmother passed away. I was emotionally and mentally crushed at losing my two anchors, yet I was a grown woman with a partner and some remaining family. To lose your anchors and support as a child? To end up a ward of the state? That is a burden too great for a child. We speak of the village raising a child, yet this child was utterly alone without an anchor or a village it seems. We don’t know if the teacher was aware of her situation or not but it seems to be that the teacher should have known and more importantly gave this girl the space she needed. Reports from classmates say that she was always quiet and kept to herself, one student did say the girl was all alone in the world. If her classmates knew this and cared enough to speak up for the girl…excuse my French but why the fuck didn’t the teacher care enough to treat her with compassion?
In all too many cases, perhaps most cases, Black girls and women are rarely seen except when people want to harm them, want something from them or feel they are invading their spaces. Our plights often don’t create the level of shock and awe that white women or even Black men garner. Black girls face many of the same challenges that Black boys face including being suspended at six times the rates of white girls (and not, in case you can’t figure it out, because they are six times as bad). But where the plight of Black boys has led to the creation of federal programs to assist Black boys (My Brother’s Keeper anyone?), where are the programs for Black girls? Police brutality affects both Black men and women yet our larger focus stays only on Black boys and men. Black women disappear at horrifically high rates in the United States but you will rarely see our faces splashed on the nightly news. Black women earn less money than almost anyone else yet almost no one talks about our plight. The list of disparate treatment is long and wide yet unless we have a truly heinous situation, we don’t talk about it.
Black women aren’t even allowed the same fruits of femininity that are bestowed upon so many of our white sisters. We are rarely allowed to be fragile, or to be cared for, for example. When we assert ourselves, we are seen unfavorably and that is whether we are straight-shooting professional women or teenage girls. No matter who we are, we rarely are allowed to be seen or to have our full humanity acknowledged. To wear this Black, female skin in a world that worships whiteness and maleness is to be marked with a low-level pain that never fully goes away…yet you strive to find the moments of joy in a world that would be happy if you took your feisty, sassy self and walked off a short pier for good.
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