Black feminist, theorist and author Audre Lorde once wrote, “Raising black children, female and male, in the mouth of a racist, sexist, suicidal dragon is perilous and chancy. If they cannot love and resist at the same time, they will probably not survive.”
As I live life in this world as a black woman, I often wonder, how does one, at a young age, learn to both love and resist? What does resistance in the face of racism and sexism look like? And, how young is too young to learn these lessons of survival?
I was five years old, braided twists and colorful bobbles and barrettes in my hair, learning to read for the first time, when my mother held me close and gave me my first lesson in respectability politics, and, consequently, my first lesson in survival for a person of black girlhood.
My mother, a Caribbean-American immigrant born in Jamaica, and I were reading Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli at the time. In this book Mr. Magee reaches the town of Two Mills — a town literally divided by racial lines. In Two Mills, Black citizens lived in the East End while the white citizens lived in the West End. On his first day in East End, Mr. Magee met and befriended a reluctant Amanda Beale.
Amanda Beale, an impeccably dressed black girl with glasses, plaits, a messenger bag full of books, and on her way into East End’s school house, just didn’t have time for the strange, ripped-and-dirty-clothes-wearing white boy who in his haste to talk to her was making her late for school.
Amanda Beale was an avid reader, a no-nonsense girl who had no problem putting Mr. Magee in his place. She was smart, confident, well-read, and poor. Amanda Beale was relegated to best friend of the main character status. Despite the book’s white savior complex (and the fetishizing comparisons of Mr. Magee’s newfound black friends' skin complexions to foods like caramel and coffee beans), this novel was essential to my development.
It’s clear to me, now, that my mother had chosen it for us to read because of its discussions on race relations. It was my literary introduction to my mother’s lessons on respectability and survival.
It began when I expressed my awe of Amanda Beale’s character. She wasn’t like any representation of a black girl I’d seen in the media thus far, and yes, at five, I picked up on that. To this notion, my mother held me close. Her voice trembled but she looked me squarely in the eyes.
“Are you listening?” she’d said.
“Yes, Mom,” I replied, because in our house it was "yes, Mom" or "no, Mom." There was no, “What?” “Huh?” or my mother’s least favorite, “What do you want?” to be had or heard in that house.
“You like Amanda, right?”
I nodded my head, my hair bobbles click-clacking with the movement.
“You see that she can read and write better and she doesn’t take anything from anybody?”
I nodded again. I did see. Amanda’s intelligence wasn’t a novelty to us, though. Despite what the media will tell you, black women are statistically the most college-educated across racial and gender lines in American society.
But an Amanda Beale would be a novelty to some. And my mother understood that. In that moment, she would make damn sure I understood that, too.
“There are people in this world who will . . . ” she scrunched up her eyebrows and nose, debating her words with careful precision, “underestimate you. They’ll say little things. They’ll doubt that you’re smart, they’ll doubt that you’re kind, some will even treat you like less than a human being deserves.”
I didn’t like where this conversation was going.
Because I was five and maybe it was too soon for me to be learning this, really contextualizing and unpacking this, but what was the alternative? A black girl ill-equipped will be chewed up and spit out. I didn’t yet know that a black girl can never be equipped enough to face the racism and sexism of this world, though we quite literally fight and, some, die trying.
All I could do in my discomfort was squirm. My mother believed that a small price to pay. She held me, firmly.
“There are people in this world that will judge and hurt you, because of me.”
She said things like that a lot.
She blamed herself for the racially and classist based mistreatment that my brother and I would face. As if it was her fault that her children are black, like blackness is a stain on our skin and a stain that needs to be wiped out by society. Or like capitalism, racism, and her disabilities weren’t partly to blame for her, at the time, working class status in society.
You see, before my mother knew anything about me, she knew two key things that would dictate the trajectory of my life: I would be born black and she would have to raise me on a limited income. She blamed herself. People of this world have ill-formed preconceived notions of black people, black women, poor people, poor black people, and especially preconceived negative notions of poor black women.
Back on her bed, she told me, “Because of that, you’ll have to study hard and push yourself. You’ll have to push yourself harder than most other people because that isn’t expected of you. You don’t want people to think you’re not smart do you?”
I shook my head slowly from left to right. No.
“Good,” she said.
She would teach me respectability and a form of survival in order to combat classist, racist, and sexist attitudes. This conversation was only the beginning.
When I was nine years old, living a few towns over in Mattapan, Massachusetts in another three bedroom apartment, I remember having fun joking with my younger brother.
Arriving home from school, we’d barely stepped over the threshold of the front entrance to our apartment. My high cheekbones etched with the laughing lines of my pronounced lips, I joked with my brother in African-American Vernacular English. Some people also refer to this language, steeped in both English and West African linguistic patterns, as slang and/or Ebonics.
My brother laughed at whatever I had said.
My mother rapped us both with a light slap to our book-bag strap clad shoulders. She wagged her right index finger, maneuvering her finger and reprimanding stern look between the both of us.
“Don’t talk like that. Because if you say that here, you’ll slip up and speak like that outside.”
She “humphed” and walked further into our home, leaving my brother and me to stew with our thoughts.
There, walking away from us further into the house, was a woman whose Jamaican born parents told her to “lose" her accent in order to better assimilate into American society and negate negative stereotypes. To this day, my mother’s voice and speech pattern of Jamaican patois only becomes laden with a Jamaican accent when she’s angry.
There was a woman who’d learned her own respectability politics from her mother, my Nana, and was now passing this knowledge down to us.
This was my mother’s act of revolution, my mother’s lesson of resistance, my mother’s shield to racism and classism that she gave to her children. It was her only hope to fight the fear of our forthcoming mistreatment.
While white children could speak in popular slang terms and not be judged as unintelligent and forced to represent their entire race, my brother and I had to mind our tongues from speaking in a language that our people had hatched, cultivated, and enriched. I reflect on this at a time when it is popular for ads for various companies and products to use Ebonics or slang to sell their products, although their companies don’t reflect a diverse group of employees in positions of power.
At the time of being reprimanded for our slang, my brother and I, nine and eight respectively, had only mostly been subject to microagressions. Sure, when I was only four and my father had been taken to a police station under the guise of “justified” racial profiling, a white cop walking near me, “bumped” into me and assaulted my small frame with the gun latched into his holster. And sure, he didn’t apologize and he walked on by like he hadn’t done anything wrong or, quite frankly, committed an act of violence against a four-year-old black girl. My mother lit into him with verbal foliage so colorful that I’m sure his children many times over will feel the wake of its effects before they ever commit other acts of racism. Or, so I hope.
But, mostly we’d been subject to casual racism, like the teachers at my school who told me I was so articulate and spoke so well. (What did they expect? It was at a rare rigorous elementary school in the inner city where they themselves instructed me.) Or like the people who asked my mother if she was sure that her daughter played the violin in a highly selective orchestra. Was she sure? Hell yes. She only drove me to six-hour rehearsals every Sunday.
But, my mother upheld that if my brother and I negated these ill-formed pre-conceived notions by not speaking in Ebonics and studied hard, our lot in life would be easier.
In fact, later that year when my predominately white fourth grade class that I was bused to via an advanced placement program for Boston-based minorities was learning our multiplication time tables, she turned it into another respectability lesson.
First, my mother had me make a flash card set of multiplication equations up until the “12 times” tables.
She, in no uncertain terms, told me to sit down and learn them and not to come to her unless I learned, understood, and memorized them all.
“If you come to me and I test you on any one of these and find that you don’t know them, I’m gonna spank you.”
I violently shook my head from side to side and protested, stamping my foot into the hardwood. It was ill-advised. I’m lucky she didn’t snatch me up right then and there for the rare form of disrespect administered by a child of color to her parent of color. In non-western cultures, disrespect to your elders is more than frowned upon.
And so I wised up, “fixed my face,” and sat up straighter, mumbling a sorry.
“I’m not doing this to punish you. You need to understand.”
She got closer now, in my face where we could be eye level.
“You have to be twice — TWICE — as good to get half of what they have. Always.”
I fought back tears.
I was already experiencing this in school — and I did have to be “twice as good” to be applauded for my work in class when my mostly white classmates escaped casual racism on a daily basis. I did have to stand out to be noticed or celebrated in a world that directly and indirectly berates children of color and reprimands us when we attempt to carve out spaces for ourselves. I did have to go above and beyond in all things to negate the racism that I would face in a “prove them wrong” fashion.
And when my white classmates' parents leered at my peers of color and me for taking up too many seats in the local school of their suburban neighborhood, though we’d earned our seats through placing high scores on a test while some white students weren’t nearly as well-read, versed, or didn’t study as hard as we did, those white students were still celebrated and cherished members of our school environment. They would still grow up to be privileged in a classist and racial context of our society. And I would still face classism and racism as a poor black girl until the day I die.
I learned all of my multiplication tables that day.
Not before trying to skirt past my mother’s own rigorous standards and pretend like I’d learned them all. She started with the hardest ones first, weeding them out until she caught one that I couldn’t rattle off immediately.
And she whooped my butt.
From the clothes my brother and I wore, to the conversations we held, to the ways in which we wore our hair, to the music we listened to, to the schools we were admitted to, down to the grades we received, there was always a double standard to be met.
I remember as a young teen joking with my cousin and brother as we procured bandanas for our hair, loosened our pants so that they hung low, and walked with a limp in our step around my cousin’s home.
“Nah come ‘round here like no city boppin’ fool . . . chuh!”
The three of us, my cousin, brother, and I, jumped in place having been startled. Turning, we spotted our grandmother’s disapproving look. We quickly straightened, fixed our pants, and ripped the bandanas from our heads. It felt like we’d been caught committing a cardinal sin. As a joke, we’d adopted caricatured mannerisms of the ways in which we saw black and brown people being portrayed on television, but with our grandmother’s reprimands, the moment quickly became serious.
I reflect on this moment at a time when it is trendy on social media for my white peers to take selfies wearing hoodies, black sunglasses and caption their photos “thug life.”
And at a time when it’s popular for college students to adopt “thug,” “gangster,” or “hood” Halloween costumes, complete with painting their skins black or brown. I can’t articulate enough that baggy clothes, bandanas, hats, and braids don’t make a person a gangster or a thug. The juxtaposition of white skin against these articles of clothing allow for a sort of costuming or ironic joke to take place. It’s funny when a white suburban kid dresses up in a hoodie, baggie jeans, etc. because “of course,” the white suburban kid would never be suspected as being a thug. “Of course,” the white suburban kid would or could never be a thug.
In reality, more often than not, a white person committing a crime is never described or policed as a “thug” but, rather, “misunderstood,” and treated as a human being entitled to due process in a court of law.
However, my brother, cousin, and I are not allowed that “joke” in the context of our lives. Despite the college educations at top universities between the three of us, more often than not we will be perceived as threats, thugs, or dangerous in our lifetimes. That statement is not for semantics. It’s not exaggerated and it’s not said for dramatic effect.
That’s not something I can prove to anyone who doesn’t experience racial profiling firsthand. And by firsthand, I mean you being on the receiving end of being racially profiled, not you driving around with your black friend. For more on the matter, I suggest tracking and comparing the 140 character anecdotes found in the hashtags #Alivewhileblack and #Crimingwhilewhite on Twitter. For my grandmother, however, her scolding didn’t go past that one scolding sentence. It would take the next several years for me to unpack and fully understand her policing of my brother, cousin, and me that day.
But, are these lessons in respectability useful for children of color to learn?
Consider, for instance, that despite being a college-educated and god-fearing man, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was targeted and, ultimately, killed because of his race.
But, similarly in the way that young girls and women are taught not to wear revealing clothing in order to prevent a rape from being committed against them, children of color are taught the world over various ways in which we should prevent the acts of racism that are committed against us. Through an intersectional lens, consider then the gender and race-specific respectability politics that are taught to a black girl, woman, or female-identified person throughout their years in order to prevent sexual assault, sexism, and racism from plaguing their lives.
Finally, I’d like to note that this essay and similar sentiments made in other conversations or mediums (such as the scene in Scandal during which Papa Pope reminds Olivia of his instructions that she herself must be “twice as good to get half of what they have”), are not made to express that individual white children don’t face hardships or that they don’t learn difficult lessons from a young age.
White supremacy makes way for terms like “white trash,” a term that suggests that a white person who is poor, illiterate, “country,” or perhaps mentally ill, etc. is an atypical white person. The “white” in “white trash” is used to denote that this person is unusual for the white race.
However, it is important to note that these lessons in respectability politics and survival that are taught to young people of color may not be enough to save us from the violence.
I look inward, having reflected on my upbringing and understand my mother and grandmother’s version of resistance but look outward in wondering, “What other forms of resistance can we teach young people of color to thwart the racist, sexist, and suicidal dragon?”
At this time of national turmoil and unrest, it is my deepest regret that I do not, in fact, know.