Black Girl Lessons

Illustration by Minna By Jamia A. Wilson The first time it happened to me, it cut up my insides so much that my stomach still churns every time I think about it. I was in first grade. My family had just moved, so I was the new kid in school. I was also one of a … Continued

Illustration by Minna

By Jamia A. Wilson

The first time it happened to me, it cut up my insides so much that my stomach still churns every time I think about it. I was in first grade. My family had just moved, so I was the new kid in school. I was also one of a small handful of African-Americans among a sea of white students, which made me even more conspicuous. But it didn’t bother me much: I made friends, got good grades, had fun, all that stuff. One day at school I heard a couple of kids talking about an upcoming birthday party for one of our classmates, Mandy.* They said that she had invited the whole class, but it was the first I’d heard about it, so I figured she must have forgotten to put my name on the list because I was new. (I was so naïve that no other possibility occurred to me.) I made a mental note to ask for a new one the next time I saw her.

I ran into her later that day on the playground, when we were both in line for the tire swing. I still remember the rainbow-colored striped shirt she was wearing, slightly discolored and stained from the sandbox, and her Velcro KangaROOS. I asked her if she’d forgotten to tell her mom to send me an invitation, and she just stood there and looked at the ground for a long time. Then she narrowed her blue eyes, tossed her dirty-blonde curls, and said, “Mom just doesn’t like blacks. She just doesn’t like them in her home, because she says you guys are bad.”

I had an instant physical reaction to her words, which grasped at my throat, making it hard to breathe and impossible to speak. I felt confused, hurt, humiliated, outraged. Even though I’ve experienced several other painful incidents since then, my heart has memorized the intricacies of that initial ache; many years later, trying to describe to an inquisitive white friend what it feels like when I witness or directly experience prejudice, I found myself going right back to that playground. “I feel hurt, and then angry, and then sad to the point where it is hard to breathe,” I told my friend. “And then the energy from my toes rises up as it twists my tummy, squeezes my heart with its imaginary fists, and then pushes up through my throat with a burning sensation that surrounds my face.” In those moments I am stricken with a paradox: total paralysis and asphyxiation coupled with a frenetic vigor that could lift me off the floor, propel me like a cannonball into the offending target, and destroy everything in its path with the force of a gale. But most times, I told her, holding in everything I’m feeling is what stings the most.

I was reminded of my encounter with Mandy again this year, in February, on the night of the Academy Awards. I was in California, grinding away at a work event, not watching the broadcast. At some point in the evening I took a second to glance at my Twitter feed, and I saw the tweet that you’ve no doubt heard about by now—the one where The Onion, in an attempt to be funny, called the nine-year-old Best Actress nominee Quvenzhané Wallis “a cunt.”

I reread the tweet to make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me. I blinked with disbelief—they wouldn’t really write that about a child, would they? But sadly, that was just a vestige of that same naïveté that had convinced me that Mandy had simply forgotten my party invitation.

As I felt my innards contort in that familiar and disconcerting way, I realized that I was foolish to have been surprised for even a second. Quvenzhané Wallis, after all, is not Elle Fanning or Chloë Grace Moretz or any other well-known (and white) ingénue. And, contrary to the protests of several internet commenters in the days that followed the Oscars who argued that her race was completely irrelevant in all this, I believe it matters. Like many others who understand the long history of black women’s bodies being objectified, undervalued, sexualized, and exploited, I doubt that a similar joke would be lobbed so cavalierly at a white girl. Quvenzhané’s experience was infuriating, but, to anyone who’d gone through it themselves, immediately recognizable as a tragically inevitable rite of passage: our first encounter with racism. Up until that moment most of us naïvely assume that the world is basically fair. And then someone says something that reveals what other people think of us, and we start to understand what it means to be a black girl in a racist, sexist world.

I got my moment of enlightenment courtesy of Mandy that day on the playground, and its lesson was reinforced countless times in the years that followed. When I was not much older than Quvenzhané is now, men routinely called me a “cunt” and the N-word when I ignored their obscene comments on the street. I once, also as a child, literally fought off a delivery man who tried to accost me in my home and said disgusting things about my “exotic” heritage and “wanton sexuality.”

So it did not surprise me, but it broke my heart, to watch another little girl—and one who happens to be brimming with talent and apparent joy, and who seemed to be reveling in the her status as the youngest-ever best-actress nominee at the ceremony—go through this rite of passage. Jamilah Lemieux put it just right in Ebony magazine: “I wish that Quvenzhané could enjoy her newfound fame without these hard-earned black girl lessons, but they would have caught her on the block, in the classroom, on the internet at some point even if she hadn’t garnered an Oscar nod.”

Now this offensive tweet from a publication with close to five million followers is part of Quvenzhané’s story, and she’ll probably be reminded of it for years to come. This was a coming-of-age moment, a first lesson in the hateful indoctrination most black women are subjected to over and over in our lifetimes. It seems like even in 2013, no one can escape this ugly education.

Not 17-year-old Gabby Douglas, who, following a gymnastics performance that earned her an Olympic gold medal, endured negative reviews of her hair, and who faced backlash after speaking out about racially motivated harassment at her gym in Virginia.

Not Malia Obama, whom conservative blog commenters targeted with racial slurs a few years ago, when she was 11, for simply wearing a T-shirt with a peace sign.

Not 14-year-old Amandla Stenberg, who played Rue in The Hunger Games and sparked the ire of racists on Twitter for looking exactly the way her character was described in Suzanne Collins’s book: as someone with dark skin and eyes. It was devastating to see tweets from people who said they were less sad about Rue’s death because of her skin tone, and others who decided that they were less “pumped” about the book because she was black. The irony of the situation is that Jennifer Lawrence played Katniss, a character whom the author described as having dark hair, gray eyes, and olive skin. The same people who were angered by what they erroneously considered to be Rue’s inaccurate physical representation weren’t at all bothered that Katniss was being played by a fair-skinned natural blonde.

And, of course, not me. After that moment with Mandy, when people treated me with indignity and unfairness or excluded me without reason I had to wonder if it was because of my actions or the color of my skin. Racism has a way of permeating even the most mundane exchanges: I go shopping and am followed around the whole time by salesclerks who repeatedly inform me of the cost of the clothes in their store. I get accepted into an honor society at school and one of my classmates hypothesizes that the reason I got in was affirmative action, not my academic performance. And on and on. While I’ve always maintained my own sense of inherent worth and dignity, it has been exhausting.

But, you know, I always have an optimistic heart. And it’s always holding out for people to grow, change, and treat one another better. It can be really discouraging to see how far we still have to go and how much work still needs to be done before we can create a world where we’re all judged by how we are and not how we look, but I’m strengthened every day because I’m still here, I’m surviving, and I’m using my voice. When I need to blow off steam, I vent with friends and family who understand and trust my perspective. I nourish myself by speaking up when someone makes a racist (or sexist or homophobic or otherwise bigoted) joke or comment, even when I’m scared to make the situation uncomfortable. And I try to tell my story as much as I can, because it’s important for me to let other black girls—and those who love us—know that they’re not alone. ♦

* This girl’s name has been changed.

Reprinted with permission from “Rookie” A website for teenage girls with contributors from across the globe. 

Jamia A. Wilson

Jamia Wilson is a writer and storyteller living in New York City. Her words and works have been featured in Alternet, CBS News, C-SPAN, Forbes.com, Fox.com, GOOD Magazine, GRIT TV, In These Times, Ms. Magazine,The Today Show, Rookie Magazine and The Washington Post. She is a contributor to Women of Spirit and Faith’s 2011 anthologies, Women, Spirituality, and Transformative Leadership: Where Grace Meets Power; Rookie: Yearbook One, Our Bodies, Ourselves 2011 Edition, Madonna and Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop and I Still Believe Anita Hill. Jamia is a member of the Feminist.com board. http://www.jamiawilson.com

Discussion Questions

  1.  Jamia says that before the episode at school she was “naïve.” What did she mean by that? What does it mean to be naïve? What is the difference between being naïve and being innocent? Are children born with prejudices? Where does prejudice come from? Does prejudice protect you or does it limit the experience of life? How? Explain.
  2. *Mandy told Jamia that her mom “doesn’t like blacks;” “doesn’t like them in her home;” “blacks are bad.” Those are called sweeping generalizations or sweeping judgments. In this case, a whole race is judged negatively. Is that fair? Where do these opinions come from? Is there evidence of a whole race being “bad?” A whole class? A whole ethnicity? One sex or the other? How do you think Mandy’s mother’s prejudice might affect Mandy and her brothers and sisters? Are generalizations, judgments or unexamined assumptions passed down from one generation to another? Discuss your feelings about this. 
  3. The author’s descriptions of her experience and her accompanying feelings are very vivid. Remembering the incident puts her right back there in the past experiencing it again. That kind of experience is wounding and each time a similar experience occurs, the wound is revisited. That is called PTSD or post-trauma disorder. Is there a trauma in your life where you remember it vividly, it wounded you deeply and a similar incident takes you right back to the past and the original wound? How did/do you cope? Did/do you have feelings of wanting to get revenge or to hurt the other person in return? How do you cope with those feelings?
  4. Words can wound people deeply. Words and violent traumas to tender psyches are vividly remembered and sometimes never heal. Why would someone want to harm another person in this way? Do you think Mandy wanted to deliberately hurt Jamia? What about her mom? Do you think it’s important to think about how your words and actions are going to be received? To imagine yourself as the other person and examine if they are harmful or helpful? Do you think about how your words and treatment of others affects them?
  5. Do you think it’s harmful or helpful to keep angry or volatile feelings inside? Is anger appropriate when you are hurt? Is violence appropriate? How could you take care of yourself and your feelings without becoming violent? What do you do with your angry feelings?
  6. Jamia describes other situations where words were used carelessly or hurtfully. Do you remember any of these incidents—like Quvenzhané Wallis at the Academy Awards or Gabby Douglas at the Olympics? What prompts that kind of mean commentary? Is it jealousy or envy or carelessness? Why or why not? Where does the “mean girl” impulse come from? Is it easy to recognize? What do you think would happen if females began supporting one another? If they started celebrating others’ awards and achievements? Have you personally experienced mean commentary? How did you cope?  
  7. In this case the author knew who was dissing her and why. Have you ever been in a situation where someone dissed, slammed or bullied you anonymously? Are the rules different when commentary is anonymous? Why or why not?  
  8. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you were being treated badly for no rational reason, through no fault of your own or you experienced what the author describes as a “black girl lesson?” What did/could you do to handle it? Do you suppose there are “white girl lessons?” Discuss. “Native American lessons?” Do you suppose there are “boy lessons” too? Discuss. What do you think about these “lessons?”  
  9. Discuss “empathy”. Discuss “compassion.” Are they important human traits? How does one develop and use empathy and compassion? What does Jamia mean when she says “optimistic heart?” Do your words reveal your heart? How? What kind of heart would you like to have? What kind of heart would you like to see revealed by others? How can you remain hopeful and optimistic? What can you do to create more optimism and hope? How could you bring more “heart” into the world?
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Jacques Prevert