On Kiera Wilmot, And Being A Smart Black Girl

I set the science lab on fire when I was in 8th grade. Not on purpose.

May 3, 2013 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

I set the science lab on fire when I was in 8th grade.
 
Not on purpose. In typical “so smart you're stupid” fashion I was careless with a beaker of alcohol and a Bunsen burner. The resulting damage was well... minimal isn't the correct word; still, they only had to replace one wall, not the whole room.
 
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I didn't mean to burn things down.

 
 
I was all of 12, and--except for some very blunt words about safety--I didn’t really get in trouble. Mrs. Archibald (a great woman with no sense of humor, but an exceptional sense of devotion to her students) didn't even ban me from the lab. She knew I enjoyed science and wanted me to be everything I could be in life.
 
It turns out that my innate clumsiness precludes any work that requires steady hands moving slowly (though I can throw a grenade really really far), but I still loved learning how things work. And now, I watch my soon to be 14 year-old son do incredibly stupid things (none of which have involved fire, thank God), I am eternally glad that I was able to get here from there. 
 
Fortunately, I went to a majority black school with a majority black staff, and am frequently aware that my experience in Chicago Public Schools was vastly different from what it could have been had I the misfortune of an administration that wasn't invested in my success.
 
We had school security, though not the police officers that are so popular now. Mr. Mack came upstairs the day I set the lab on fire, shook his head a lot, but didn't once suggest putting handcuffs on me. Like the rest of the staff, he was focused on protecting us from ourselves and from outside dangers. Unlike Kiera Wilmot, my mistake caused actual property damage,  though no one was hurt. My life may have been ruined if anyone had decided to press charges against for being stupid with chemicals. 
 
We can pretend that Kiera Wilmot's expulsion, arrest, and felony charges are about fear of terrorism, or zero tolerance's fault, and that race has nothing to do with it. We can even pretend that her being charged as an adult is a fluke. We can even pretend that Polk county is a place where she ever had a hope of fair treatment from authorities.
 
All of those are lies, but whatever comforts America and bolsters the delusion that we're post-racial is going to be said anyway. So, say it to yourself and then move on. This is about race, gender, class, and access to higher education. It is about the profit margin for prisons and police brutality and a dozen other hoops that Kiera will have to overcome to succeed.
 
By all accounts, Kiera is a smart kid with an excellent behavioral record. That's great, really. I'm glad she appears to be the perfect victim of circumstance because that ups her chances of being helped. After all, it only took black women raising hell to every available media outlet for a week to take this story national. That's pretty quick. And I really believe that the internet will be able to help Kiera Wilmot in this situation. 
 
What I don't believe is that Kiera Wilmot's case is unusual. Not in Florida, or anywhere else where being a person of color means fitting the description for crimes that have never been committed. Much is made in some circles of the higher rates of incarceration for black people. And yes, the War on Drugs, gang violence, and sheer poverty have a lot to do with those statistics.
 
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Even as a responsible adult, I still look like trouble.

 
 
But what is rarely discussed is how often people who aren't guilty of anything more than being of color can face lifelong consequences for their skin color. Racism punishes black people for existing much less for exhibiting behaviors that would likely be seen as youthful indiscretions if they were white. 
 
I went to high school with a white guy who stole things (including $20,000 worth of computer equipment) from our school district. He got the lightest of wrist slaps and went on to have a successful military career. Another white guy built pipe bombs. Regularly. Even phoned in bomb threats when the mood struck him. He also got a slap on the wrist, some counseling, and is now living in relative obscurity.
 
Lest you try to frame this as a privilege reserved for white males, let me also point out that I have known more than one white woman who stalked a black man and he was the only one facing any real consequences for it. 
 
Anecdata, you say? Sure, we can go with that. It's not like anyone tracks slaps on the wrist. But ask yourself when was the last time you heard about a improperly supervised white child experimenting in school who meant no harm, harmed no one, and damaged nothing of value getting hauled out of their school in handcuffs and summarily expelled a week later.
 
Better yet, ask yourself why the school district felt so free to take these actions against Kiera. The same system that says “Don't ruin their future!” to young white Americans feels free to destroy the futures of black children.
 
Why is that? How post-racial are we when black parents have to sit  down and warn their children not to be too smart, too curious, too anything, because that could ruin them?