This article appears in our 2016 Fall issue, Kids These Days. Subscribe today!
In 2013, what began as a simple hashtag turned into a movement when CaShawn Thompson tweeted #BlackGirlsAreMagic. Young celebrities such as Amandla Stenberg and Willow Smith exemplified and proclaimed it, helping to spark a movement for Black girls and young women whose very existence can feel fraught with the pressures of dealing with the double-edged sword of both racism and misogyny, amid all the tribulations of simply growing up.
Filmmaker Melissa Lowery followed the stories of Black girls who attended majority-white schools in the 2015 documentary Black Girl in Suburbia, showing that there is pain beyond the magic. It is in this spirit of looking at our own childhoods—in centering Black girlhood—that we wanted to have a conversation about experiences at the intersection of respectability and desirability, how it shapes treatment in schools and by our peers, and how we come to understand our racialized and gendered selves. In his recent acceptance speech for BET’s Humanitarian Award, actor and activist Jesse Williams said, “Just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real,” and it’s in digging into the reality of Black girlhood that we can begin helping Black girls grow up in healthy ways.
TAMARA WINFREY HARRIS: As Black women, we’re burdened with this Jezebel myth, this myth that Black women and Black girls are hypersexual and unrapable. It’s a stereotype that has followed us out of slavery and for hundreds of years afterward. The common response to that from our own community has been one of respectability, requiring that Black women and Black girls be as chaste in 2016 as white women were expected to be in 1816. To prove that we are beyond reproach. When I say “beyond reproach,” I mean that in a very sexist way, in that it’s requiring us to have no sexual desires, to not enjoy sex. We are supposed to act like Madonnas, not whores.
I’m in my 40s, and I am lucky that my parents didn’t rely on warnings not to be “a fast-tail girl” and negative strictures surrounding sexuality. But a lot of 30- to 40-year-old women I talked to for my book, The Sisters Are Alright, had a different experience. Many of them didn’t come to understand their own sexualities until very late, if they ever did. I hear something different from millennial Black women, though. Respectability politics is butting up against the values of a more sexualized society. Performing sexiness for the male gaze is important; being a sexual being, not so much.
ZOÉ SAMUDZI: It’s an impossible standard to ever be able to reach. Because when men are dictating these behaviors before us, they kind of want us to be these sex robots that can respond and conform to their whims and their projections of sexuality. But they don’t want us to be experienced, and they don’t want us to be able to do this…on our own.
TAMARA: Yes! Black women have to navigate sex through mainstream gender biases that say good women have to be chaste and racial biases that say Black women have this bestial sexuality. It’s complicated: How do you even own your sexuality? If you have audacious amounts of sex, are you just playing into stereotypes or into modern hookup culture? If you don’t have sex, are you giving in to respectability politics? How do you find your own sexuality in the middle of all of that?
ZOÉ: My whole constructed identity revolved around respectability, particularly sexual respectability, because my parents are immigrants and academics from Zimbabwe. There was a tremendous amount of guilt and fear when I started trying to explore things on my own because I was always taught that this is not the best way for me to behave, even though I was being safe and responsible. I think that can also very easily lead down to a whole world of emotionally painful things, like using sex as a means of trying to be affirmed by and get emotional validation from boys and men who ultimately see you as disposable. That wasn’t something I understood until I learned about it on my own.
TAMARA: As a 23-year-old, what were the messages that you received growing up about sexuality from your community?
This article appears in our 2016 Fall issue, Kids These Days. Subscribe today!
ZOÉ: I grew up in painfully white suburbs in Missouri, and was not surrounded by other Zimbabwean folks. Being in that particular environment, there were so many things associated with white women and white women’s sexuality that were aspirational to me. There was a kind of freedom I saw, a space to be able to do more things that they could do, but my parents were stricter than theirs. I wasn’t allowed to wear certain kinds of [clothing] or go to certain kinds of places with boys. But I saw my white girlfriends doing it.
Ultimately, though, I don’t think any of those things were things I wanted to do or would have done, because I was kind of scared of sex. In high school, I was living in an even smaller town than where I grew up, I was around people that I knew were having sex. There was something about what they were doing that was still aspirational to me, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to do it because instead of fear, I was confronted by all of these politics of desirability. I was in an environment where I might’ve wanted to do something, but nobody found me attractive as a Black girl. Or no one would admit to finding me attractive as a Black girl.
TAMARA: Sexuality and desirability are so tied together. In Western culture, white women are presented as the most desirable and Black women are thought to be their opposites. For some Black women, there’s the question of, “If I am outside of a Black community, who is going to find me attractive?”
[And], in many ways we do see modern white women’s sexuality as aspirational, because they seem freer to make choices. Feminism says that white women are free to be bawdy and sexy and try things and be like Amy Schumer or Lena Dunham, who are bold with their sexuality. There is no counterpart for Black women.
ZOÉ: It became a lot easier for me to be a sexual agent and to be comfortable in my body once I started stepping out of these very white spaces, and once I started being comfortable with the fact that I am not included within a particular standard of beauty. But in other ways, I am: I’m cis, able-bodied, medium toned rather than dark skinned, cute, and I’m petite so I can appeal to masculinity in my “daintiness.” It was a learning curve before my skin and my body stopped being a problem for me.
TAMARA: I’ve been interviewing Black girls between [the ages of] 12 and 17 for my next book. One of the things that I’ve heard from girls who attend majority white schools is that, at some point in middle school, when kids first start having crushes and partnering up, Black girls get left out. Their Blackness makes them unworthy as romantic partners. One girl told this story that breaks my heart about sitting in the school lunchroom with a table full of white friends, and they decided to play Kiss, Marry, Kill.
The subjects of the game were a Black girl and two white girls. Her white guy friend told her, “Well, I’m gonna have to kill you because you’re just too dark. Because you’re Black.” How awful that must have felt! As I’m talking to Black girls who are growing up in majority-white environments, that seems to be the consensus—anti-Blackness generally, but anti-Black-femaleness specifically.
But at the same time, the girls said if white guys pay attention to them, then it will often be outside of school and they’ll text and they’ll talk to them on social media and then kind of deny it—
ZOÉ: In public.
TAMARA: —in public and in school. They also say that those same guys are more willing to send them explicit pictures and explicit messages than they are with the white girls in school.
ZOÉ: Because we are this uncharted territory for sexual experimentation, the way that they’re projecting these tropes, these Jezebel tropes like you said. We represent this space where they can be uninhibited, regardless of the way that we actually would respond.
TAMARA: Yes, not desirable but sexual.
ZOÉ: You have to humanize somebody to find them desirable, to an extent. You have to see me as a person who could return your desires, as a person who could potentially be feminine, who could be gentle, who could be soft. But being in this space where all they want from you is to get nudes or send you nudes, that is not a humanizing desirability.
TAMARA: Stereotypes about Black women’s sexuality also burden us when we’re girls—the way Black girls are kind of never seen as children. The minute they go through puberty, they’re seen as sexual objects, as these sirens who are trying to lure men. They’re seen as unrapable because of the perceived idea of undesirability, and they’re disbelieved if they are sexually exploited, which they often are.
It’s punishing and dangerous. In 1995, a study called “Date Rape: Effects of Race of Assailant and Victim and Gender of Subjects on Perceptions” found that, if a Black woman was involved, college students were less likely to define a scenario as date rape, and believe it should be reported or that the perpetrator should be held accountable. That is chilling.
ZOÉ: That just compounds the way that Black women internalize victimization. It’s an external gaslighting that you eventually internalize.
That’s exactly what happened to me when I was raped, particularly because the guy was the kind of man that if I were to tell authorities what happened, they wouldn’t believe me because I’m a Black woman and he was an attractive white man and how and why would I say no. There’s the unrapability. “He could get anyone he wants. He could get anything he wants. Why would he have to do this to you?”
TAMARA: I spoke at a university earlier this year, and a young woman stood up and said almost verbatim what you just said. She said she was raped when she first [arrived on] campus, and it was a white boy, someone she thought was her friend. She never said anything about it because she really felt like people would think, “Why would he want you?” That whole pressure of desirability versus the idea of her being hypersexual.
ZOÉ: As much as you don’t want to believe in your own unvictimizability, part of the process of recognizing that you don’t have recourse is admitting that. You come to understand the violent way in which your Black female body is a particular kind of sexual commodity, and as a commodity, your sexual agency and your ability to accept or refuse sexual advances is not recognized. You aren’t a person: You’re merely a site for the performance of masculine dominance, you’re a thing that men of all races and ethnicities are entitled to.
TAMARA: We get no resolution. It circles back to the idea of the strong-Black-woman trope because—once again—we’re put in a situation where we have to self-soothe: handle it yourself because no one’s going to be there for you.
This idea that young Black women are unable to be victims is also attached to the way girls are disciplined in school. The girls I spoke with say that Black girls are far more often identified and called out and punished than their white counterparts. They said, “There can be a group of us doing the exact same things, and the Black girls are told to be quiet or you’re on detention. The white girls are told something else.”
We’ve seen these things in the news, such as the 15-year-old girl in Texas, with the police officer and this tiny, little girl, and he pins her to the ground and sits on her back. Or the girl in South Carolina who refused to put down her cell phone—which is belligerent in a way that teenagers are often belligerent—and she was thrown out of her chair like a hardened criminal. You don’t often see white girls being treated like that because there’s still this idea of their inherent delicacy and femininity that we aren’t seen to possess. So we don’t need to—even as children—be treated with the same value and delicacy.
ZOÉ: Black girls are seen as behaving in ways that need to be regulated and curbed.
TAMARA: White girls are often seen as inherently good and feminine, and if they’re acting out, something must be wrong. If Black girls are acting out, well, that’s who they are. No surprise. It’s not acting out; they are being themselves.
ZOÉ: It’s this conditioning that teaches Black children, and puts them in their place as soon as possible. Some of the worst experiences of racism [were ones] I had in school, and it wasn’t so much about my misbehaving. I was a mouthy kid. My parents taught me to challenge authority when I didn’t think that the authority made sense. But I got good grades, and I was well-behaved. So I wasn’t a “bad kid” by any stretch of the imagination. But there were so many instances where I was punished or reprimanded publicly [as a way for] my white teacher—specifically, white, male teachers—to attempt to curb and regulate my behavior. So I remember there was a time when I challenged my sixth grade social studies teacher, and he really didn’t like the way that I challenged him. He asked this white girl student if I should get detention.
ZOÉ: So I got detention. That’s an example of school being an institution of punishment and order and regulation that teaches Black girls to not act in ways that are unsuitable for them to act within this violent white gaze, that discourages creativity, that discourages questioning a teacher’s authority.
It’s funny because I’m very respectable. And I’m not saying that in that I’m proud of it, necessarily. But the way that I talk is not “threatening,” and the way that I carry myself and move around spaces is palatable, so to speak, because of my background. And yet, because they see a Black woman, they see a threat.
TAMARA: But the reality is that respectability doesn’t save you because you can’t be respectable enough. Respectability never saves you. And to your point about school, you made me think that it’s almost as if childhood for Black girls is sort of an attempt to break them or break them in and prepare them to fit within the guidelines, the very narrow guidelines, that society has set up for Black women. And either you will learn or you will pay the consequences.
Very often, it’s not until we become women, and we at least have the power of adulthood, that we’re sometimes able to kind of break out of that and reclaim ourselves as who we really are, if we’re lucky.
ZOÉ: At the same time, if I’d had access to the [current] Black role models like Amandla Stenberg as a younger Black girl, that would have helped so, so much. I am just so [impressed] with the way that they articulate their gender and sexuality. Amandla is the kind of queer role model that I could have so benefited from as a teenager when I was being told that my liking girls was just a phase and wasn’t legitimized.
I see so many young queer Black women or young trans girls articulating identities that are so advanced for younger teenagers! I’m so bowled over by the way that technology has enabled them to create these communities for themselves online, because unfortunately, they often can’t find it in real life. I’m imagining coming of age today as a young Black woman, a queer Black woman, or a young trans girl and having Laverne and Janet and this whole canon of cool-ass Black women to look up to.
TAMARA: Yes, yes! I feel like when I was growing up, your world was your family, your school, your community. And God help you if you didn’t fit in there because you weren’t going to see many countering messages in popular culture. I’m sure there were many queer and trans girls that I grew up with who were not free to be themselves and to accept their identities because where would they even learn that? Where would they encounter other people who were living their truth? The walls around who they were allowed to be in their communities were pretty small. But now, there’s always somewhere online where you can find your peeps. No matter who those people are. Popular culture has broadened so that you can turn on tv and see Laverne Cox. That wouldn’t have been possible 30 years ago, when I was 16. That kind of validation is tremendous.