You Mad? #MeToo — Why Does Society Punish Black Girl Survivors?
I’ve been teaching weekly creative writing workshops at the San Francisco Juvenile Justice Center for the past four years. Getting in and out of the building is routine. Still, I cringe at the slam of heavy metal doors shutting behind me. I’ve found my weekly ritual to be a metaphor for an enemy that haunts all those that seek social justice — thousands of doors shutting, invisible puppeteers controlling access. It isn’t until I see my students that the problems our country grapples with take on a more familiar and urgent face: that face is of a young Black girl.
Although the experiences of girls like Cyntonia Brown have drawn widespread attention to the unique challenges Black girls face, our society is merely scratching the surface. And though activists like Tarana Burke and the #MeToo movement she sparked are gaining visibility, even gracing the pages of Time Magazine (albeit not the cover), we must continue to face the music. Not only do Black women and girls face disproportionate rates of sexual assault, harassment and abuse, but our society routinely punishes Black girls for responding to the harm they survive.
Of the five separate classes I teach at the detention center, only one of them is made up of girls. When I survey the room, I see mostly Black boy faces staring back at me. But, when referring to the young women that the incarcerated boys know accompany them behind bars, they often dismiss their peers using words like Ratchet or Thot. They use slurs even as they smuggle letters to these same girls, or strain their necks to get a glimpse of them as they walk past the glass. I point out that their logic is hypocritical since both find themselves in the same predicament. Unfortunately, in their eyes, there’s something particularly bad about a girl being locked up. In this way, the boys reaffirm a pervasive myth about what it means to be low-income, Black, woman, girl and or LGBTQX in the U.S. This narrative paints Black girls as inherently deviant, defiant and unworthy of tenderness.
Although Juvenile incarceration has decreased in recent years, Black girls continue to be the fastest growing population in these facilities. It starts in schools. Black girls are just sixteen percent of America’s female student population but they make up a third of all female arrests. And Black girls are punished for everything from wearing their hair naturally to talking loudly in class. A recent report concluded that educators and administrators view Black girls as less innocent when compared to white girls. These findings do not surprise me, but they are deeply troubling since Black girls deserve increased access to trauma-informed care, not the opposite.
In her book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, Monique W. Morris combines statistics with stories by Black girl survivors. The stories paint a portrait of the struggles many face as they are bombarded with neglect, abuse and over-exposure to the sex trafficking economy. Morris illuminates the ways in which Black girls give voice to their fury. The problem is, far too many educators, administrators, judges, counselors and guardians view rage responses as occurring out of thin air. To add insult to injury, some of the innovative ways that Black girls respond to their world — everything from hair styles, to figures of speech, to no-nonsense attitudes— are routinely appropriated in mainstream media as edgy, especially when coopted by white girls. These same white girls have the privilege of taking off appropriated styles like outdated outfits, and replacing their image with innocence.
Kimberlè Williams Crenshaw coined the concept of intersectionality decades ago. Yet, it is as useful as ever. Crenshaw was able to pinpoint the ways in which multiple forms of disadvantage impact a person’s ability to access resources and mobility within society. Black girls’ unique position of interconnected identities often results in an increased and unrelenting exposure to the trauma of oppression. Since advocating for some of the most vulnerable members of society can allow us to enact change from the ground up, it is urgent that we reposition Black girls’ experiences as central to actualizing systematic change.
Black girls talk smack, set trends, break into song, rap, dance and occasionally throw blows. Rage responses (whether expressively creative or otherwise) are not unnatural and should not be shocking. Even if responses are violent, how can we condemn violence when the norms and laws our society enacts perpetuate systematic violence in the lives of thousands of these girls?
Back at Juvenile Hall. In one of my classes, a girl with skin the color of burnt sienna shakes her head and yells,
“I CAN’T DO THIS!”
Her thick, false eyelashes droop from tear-stained eyelids. She’s sick with worry. She’s balancing between wanting to flip out and fearing that that precise reaction will result in her being sent back to a cold, concrete cell. A wave of loneliness washes over her. I’m asking her to write a Blues poem. It’s a form she’s familiar with. I give her space. Eventually she chooses to reach deep, to paint with midnight and rhyme. In these moments, between the pain and the poem, my own anxiety dissipates. My grief floats from my body like shards of dead skin. I shed pain so I can acutely awaken to hers.
I wish I could tell my Black girl students that it gets better, that feelings of rage fade as they age, but that simply isn’t the case. I still occasionally feel like I want to flip out. If I didn’t have creative writing, I don’t know where I’d be. Because I take a youth advocacy approach to teaching, I work to make my classrooms a space of mutual exchange and shared learning. My students teach me how to hone my fury on the daily. And to echo the words of Solange:
“I got a lot to be mad about”.