Open Letter to a Mother


JAvacia NovWhy a “Black Girls Rock” T-shirt is OK.

By Javacia Harris Bowser

 

You see an African-American girl bouncing through the aisles of your local supermarket donning a T-shirt that reads “Black Girls Rock,” and you’re offended. You want to approach her parents and ask how they would feel if your daughter wore a shirt declaring “White Girls Rock.” But you decide against it.

You believe that if your daughter did wear a “White Girls Rock” T-shirt, both she and you would be declared racists and you don’t think that’s fair. You think it’s a double standard.

You’re right. And double standards suck.

But you know what else sucks?

Black women and girls rarely see complex and realistic representations of themselves in the media. Women of color are either hypersexualized or portrayed as an asexual “Mammy” figure. They’re the “angry black woman” or the sassy sidekick.

Mainstream beauty standards tell black women they are not desirable. In 2011 a Psychology Today columnist wrote an article claiming to have used an “objective” measure of attractiveness to determine that black women are the least attractive women of any race. Some black women still worry that wearing their hair in its natural state will cause them to be deemed unattractive to potential mates or unprofessional to potential employers. I’ve had men tell me to my face that darker skinned women are less feminine. I’ve been told by members of my own family that I need to stop exercising outside because I’m getting “too black.” People have told me I’m “pretty for a dark skinned girl” and thought that was a compliment.

Statistics show that more than 64,000 African-American women are missing, but these disappearances receive little to no media coverage. For most, the term “missing persons” conjures images of Natalee Holloway, not of Phoenix Coldon, the black University of Missouri-St. Louis student who’s been missing since December 2011.

My point is this: Black women and girls live in a society in which they are constantly told indirectly and explicitly that they are not beautiful and that their lives are not important. So, yes, sometimes we need to remind ourselves and publicly declare that we rock. But this declaration is not meant to imply that we are better than women and girls who are white.

I am not ignoring the fact that rape culture, misogyny, and sexism dehumanize women and girls of all races. And I am certainly not claiming that black girls and other women and girls of color have some monopoly on self-esteem and body image issues.

I mentor several teen girls, many of whom are white, and they all struggle with image issues on some level. But for the African-American girls whom I mentor, their self-image issues are almost always related to the color of their skin, the texture of their hair, or stereotypical notions about their race.

You say that this “Black Girls Rock” T-shirt confuses your daughter and undermines your efforts to teach her that race doesn’t matter. But race does matter. We do not live in a post-racial society. Do not say the name “Barack Obama” to try to prove to me that we do. Names like “Trayvon Martin” and “Michael Brown” prove to me that we do not.

I see your good intentions. I know your heart is in the right place. You’re doing all you can to make sure your child judges people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. And I admire that. But teaching your child that “race doesn’t matter” could lead to insensitivity. Your child could be the one telling her black male friends that they are “just overreacting” when they talk about racial profiling or police brutality.

You say that this “Black Girls Rock” T-shirt undermines your efforts to teach your daughter that we are all the same. We are not all the same. We are all equal. But we are not the same. And that’s OK.

I am OK with you recognizing and acknowledging the fact that I am black. No, I don’t want you to make sweeping generalizations about me or my race. No, I don’t want you to assume you know what kind of music I listen to or what kind of food I eat just because I’m black. No, I don’t want you to assume you know all about my culture just because you watched The Wire. And, obviously, I do not want you to think I am less intelligent than you or that you are less sassy than I am simply because I’m black. But it is OK for you to recognize that I am black.

We are not the same. Even if we had grown up in the same neighborhood, went to the same schools, and today worked the same job making the same salary, we would still not be the same. My experience as a black woman in this country is not the same as your experience as a woman who is white. Acknowledging that does not make you racist; it makes you empathetic.

As writer and activist Feminista Jones said so perfectly at BlogHer ’14, “I don’t want you to be colorblind. I want you to see my brown skin, and I want you to  love it.”

6 Responses to “Open Letter to a Mother”

  1. Cherie says:

    Awesome article!!!

  2. Jennifer says:

    Beautifully written and explained. Thank you for writing this!

  3. Annemarie Gray says:

    Spot on!

  4. Angel says:

    Thanks!

  5. Sharon says:

    wonderful article! Will certainly share!

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