After Quvenzhane, Michelle and Beyonce: Why Black Girls Need "The Talk"
For the last couple of months, I’ve been helping out a friend by occasionally babysitting her four-year-old daughter, who was adopted from Ethiopia. My friend, who is white, is a single mother and a teacher and has made considerable efforts to make her daughter aware of her ethnicity, but I can’t help but fear for the trials and tribulations this little girl will endure when she gets older. She is a remarkably beautiful and sweet little kid, and I find myself treating her differently from how I treat my our-year-old niece and my nephews.
With Julie ( a pseudonym), I call her “pretty girl” and always let her know how special she is. She has a headful of tightly-coiled curls, and her mother and I talk about how lucky she is to have such a nice Afro. She probably gets away with more stuff with me than she would with her mother, but I can’t help but treat her with kid gloves.
My niece is also a pretty little girl and is smart and remarkably self-assured. She also has a loving family, but I am not compelled to constantly remind her how attractive she is. While I also spoil her, it’s not the same. Most likely strangers will not think they can get away with calling my niece a "c*&t" online, and near strangers will not attempt to re-name her to a name that they think is easier to pronounce. My niece will probably not be compared to an animal or be judged as inferior - not because of anything she has said or done as an individual, but simply because of what she looks like. You see, my niece is white and has white-blond hair and blue eyes.
While every woman will most likely have to face some form of discrimination because of their gender, for Black girls, the addition of racialized sexual stereotypes makes it hurt even more.
Like Julie, I was also adopted, and my mother is White, and my parents did their best to ensure that I kept a cultural connection with my ethnic background. But my mother could not warn me about some of the experiences that I still face to this day. As a White woman, she never experienced racism on top of sexism, or even worse, the complete disregard for her as a human being. I certainly do not fault my mom for that, but because of my own life experiences, I am extremely concerned about how Julie will deal with the racism that she will likely encounter. And if recent events -- such as the lack of response from non-black feminists to The Onion’s tweet about nine-year-old actress Quvenzhané Wallis, and the recent public attacks on the First Lady Michelle Obama and singer Beyonce are any indications -- Julie will probably face racialized criticisms with little outside support.
After Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old boy from a middle-class home, was shot and killed last year while walking home from buying Skittles and iced tea, many black families felt that it was time to talk with their sons about how to modify their behaviour in order to avoid trouble. According to Boston.com, “the talk,” has existed in black communities for generations:
Historians and African-American culture experts say “the talk’’ dates back to 1863, following the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves living in still-rebellious states......The talk,’’ has always ranged from the simple - maintain eye contact, no back talk, and the like - to more complex concerns, such as how to maintain a sense of identity when authority figures are perceived to be intimidating.
I also have an adult nephew who is biracial and has developmental disabilities which render his judgement questionable. I worry about his safety, but as in the case of Julie, I am not in the position to have “the talk” with him. But how do we talk to our Black girls? According to some, Black parents aren’t even having the other talk with their daughters-- about sexuality.
Black girls (and Hispanic girls) have the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country. This is because their parents never talk to them about sex or protection. They just tell their daughters not to have sex, and think that's going to be enough to keep them out of trouble. Usually if a child doesn't know anything about sex, they end up having sex so they can learn more about it. Not talking to them about sex drives them to do it. Black girls aren't able to talk to their parents about boys either. So many black girls are taught to believe that wanting a boyfriend or wanting to know about sex is acting "fast". This is why so many black girls hide their personal life from their mothers. They know that their mother is going to frown down upon them for having feelings for boys-especially sexual feelings.
If parents aren’t talking to their daughters enough about sex, how are Black girls supposed to deal with sexualized racism? During the research phase of this post, I saw no posts specifically directed at parents talking to their daughters about sex and racism until the Quvenzhane Wallis debacle at the Oscars. What does this say? While I can’t throw my support behind the above article and quote, there is a dearth, outside of books like The Bluest Eye ( which is more of a forewarning) and other literary works from black feminist / womanist authors that discuss how Black girls should be talked to about the issues of racialized sexism they will face.
However, someone has been paying attention: the New York City’s Human Resources Administration has created a campagin against teenage pregnancy, which targets young women of color. The highly racialized nature of these ads seems to shame women into being abstinent instead of delving further to address the problem. From My Brown Baby:
....Judging, lecturing, shaming and stereotyping teenagers—pregnant or no—gets them, their babies and us absolutely nowhere. Same for spreading subliminal messages that black fathers don’t ever support the women they impregnate, that the only way anyone can raise a smart, financially-stable, successful human being is to be heterosexual, educated and married, and that black women of childbearing age need to be bullied into planning their pregnancies.
While there has been a substantial amount of outrage against these sexualized stereotypes, a couple of bloggers decided that instead of voicing outrage, they did what I imagine what Black parents privately say to their children: they reinforce positivity, solidarity and self-assurance. If Black girls don’t hear words of encouragement at home, they might not hear them anywhere: From my girl Moya at the Crunk Feminist Collective:
People think it’s funny to make fun of Black girls with names like ours. When I was little people would say my name wrong on purpose. Even now, people hear me say my name and think I’m saying something that’s more familiar to them........You are great! I love your name! And your puppy purses! How do you find them?! I am so excited that you will be in more movies!
While pointing out that Wallis’ treatment at the Oscars and in the tweets by The Onion mirror the sexual stereotypes about Black women, Mia Mackenzie from Black Girl Dangerous mentions how important community support is to young Black girls:
The thing about being a little black girl in the world is that you will be surrounded by other black girls who know. And they will hold your hand and braid your hair and laugh with you. They will tell you that you are a gift. They will let you be perfect and let you be flawed. They will rock you in their arms and protect your heart. They will whisper and shout about all that you are. And in a world that wants you gone from the very moment you are born, they will help you stay alive. Some of them will even help you get free.
Community is the key. While growing up, I was fortunate to always have a few Black female friends, but their parents did not have ‘the talk’ with them, leading them down some unfortunate paths. Because of some of the dysfunctional acts I witnessed, I was able to sidestep many incidences that would have irreparably damaged my spirit. As an adult, I am lucky to have a close group of sista-friends that I can turn to, who keep me in line. Despite my personal fortune I do not hold the key to prepare our daughters or, in my case, the daughters of dear friends.
What do we do? Do ‘forewarnings help or cause paranoia? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
Contributing Editor - Race, Ethnicity & Culture
Blog: Writing is Fighting: www.lainad.typepad.com