Even before I became a mother, I was fiercely protective over little Black girls. Often forgotten and minimized, it was my goal since I was a young girl myself to uplift and encourage our precious babies. I worked with middle school girls for years, pushing them beyond their self and society imposed boundaries, and loving them with all of my heart. Even with my great expectations and high standards, because I knew what they were going through, because I had been through what they were going through, I maintained a safe place for them, always, where they were allowed to be chidren.
Now, please understand, there were times that my girls were sassy, had attitudes, and tried to push the limits with me. These girls were pre-teens. They were hormonal, and basically losing their minds. That’s what kids do. As an Educator, I expected that, and part of my work was to teach them how to channel that sassiness into confidence and becoming a leader. Oh, and there were times when these girls worked my last nerve, but the next day, we started from scratch again. When you’re teaching children how to be, patience and repetition are the name of the game.
For many of the little Black girls that I mentored, their childhood ended at age 7 or 8. They often had responsibilities that teenagers and even college age students don’t have. By the time they got to me at age 12, small things like walking to school nearly a mile away by themselves had turned to more substantial responsibilities like taking care of siblings, cooking dinner, or caring for elderly grandparents. These girls could recognize that they were poor, and were already starting to identify and internalize their low position on society’s totem pole.
So, where do they get this from? As the mother of a little Black girl, I have wondered if I was guilty of perpetuating this problem. I had a conversation with my aunt last week, and just yesterday with another friend about whether they felt like we pushed our girls too hard too soon. My concern was that, compared to many other children, the expectations that I have for Ayva’s behavior (i.e. we don’t do tantrums, you don’t run away from Mommy) are high. She is articulate and can say what she wants, so we don’t allow whining. She can talk as much as she wants, but when people are talking, she knows that she is not to interrupt without saying “Excuse me”. I was really worried that I might be rushing her through childhood. Then I came to my senses.
As a parent, giving my child boundaries and teaching her how to be respectful isn’t the problem. Society, and it’s dehumanization of Black children is the problem. Our children have very little value in society unless they’re doing something extraordinary, and even then we can’t shield them from hate. For example, Dakota Fanning, brilliant young actress, has always been babied and handled with kid gloves in the media…even after performing a provocative role. She’s often photographed in her Girl Scouts uniform, and is pretty much off limits to adult-like scrutiny. When Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift at an awards show, folks were outraged that the young girl’s big night was ruined. People were really concerned since she was so young, and it made Kanye seem particularly heinous. Last night, however, The Onion called Oscar nominated 9 year-old Black girl Quvenzhané Wallis a c*nt, and some people wrote it off because The Onion is satire. But…she’s 9…she’s just a little girl.
To be fair, there were a lot of people on Twitter who were outraged at the use of the disgusting slur being directed towards a child. What they didn’t understand was that Black folks were so angry because we’re exhausted from having to justify our children’s rights to be treated with respect and love…you know, like other kids. My friend Stephanie asked a great question last night. She asked what we could do to ensure all children get a chance at being children. I couldn’t sleep last night thinking about that question. I finally came up with two ways that we can all start:
1. Acknowledge when race is an issue.
It doesn’t help the cause when we say things like, “that word shouldn’t be directed towards anyone” when it’s directed towards a little Black girl. Don’t be naive. It’s not your fault that white privilege is a real thing, but…white privilege is a real thing. Let’s stop sugarcoating the issues and really address the problem. Black children get treated much differently than white children, and until White people really accept that and start holding the media and the rest of society responsible for treating all children the same, it’s never going to happen.
2. Get in touch with your own perceptions about Black children.
Are you scared of Black boys over the age of 7? When you quote one of the little Black girls that you know, do you automatically get a “Sassy Black Girl” accent, or start rolling your neck? Can you even picture a Black child that isn’t a baby, a toddler, or a preschooler? Of course you care about all kids, but make sure you understand that even a 17 year-old Black boy with a hoodie on is still a child.
That’s it. If we could get every person in the world to start with those two actions, we might actually be able to give our Black children a fighting chance at childhood passed the age of 7. Until then, I guess the Black mothers and fathers are going to have to stay on our toes and keep battling for our kids who deserve much more than the hate that they’re often subjected to.
What are your tips on protecting childhood for Black children?