When I look back on my earliest years in education, I think my favorite thing about it was how unaware and uncaring I was. From spilling secrets that weren’t my own to talking too loudly to being too messy and leaving food all over my teachers’ floors, I had no filters as a child. None of us do. However, there’s an unspoken difference on how we grow out of this blissful ignorance phase.
One group gets the chance to live and learn and ultimately build a subconscious set of rules as to what is acceptable in the school system. The other group carries invisible targets on their backs and has an army of administrators marching behind them much less quietly than they think they are.
I Just Wanted to Wear a Tank Top (and that one red shirt)
In elementary school, I was dress-coded my fair share of times, but it was always fairly justifiable. In sixth grade, I had a red shirt that I loved. It had cutout shoulders and flowers. I wore the same shirt in seventh grade. We had a new assistant principal. I remember her coming to my classroom and telling my teacher that she needed to see me. She told me I needed to come with her to change my shirt because it was inappropriate. I told my teacher, “This is the same top I wore the year before.” My teacher said, “Well, maybe you’re more mature this year.” A two-month summer wasn’t the cause for my wardrobe change. I could point out at least five other girls with more revealing tops and more “mature” looking bodies. None of them looked like me.
In eighth grade, the dress code at the same school was slightly lifted. Administration gave the girls an inch, and we went a mile. On the first day of school, I remember seeing girls wearing off-shoulder, cropped tops. All I wanted was to wear the cute tank top I bought at the store one weekend. In the morning, the school librarian told me to wear a jacket, because I shouldn’t have been showing my shoulders. I had a jacket, but I wasn’t going to put one on. I ignored the librarian and went to my locker. My shoulders were nothing compared to the girls showing their midriffs. But in traditional old-lady librarian fashion, she followed me from the library to my locker and called the same assistant principal from seventh grade (the one about the red shirt) to report me, as if I was doing some crime. No one ever dress-coded those other girls. Middle school was when I realized that it really didn’t matter what I wore. The body of a Black girl would somehow always be more inappropriate than the body of a white girl.
The Feminine, White Cry
It only took Carolyn Bryant making a false claim for Emmett Till to be lynched. It only took Sarah Page and Fannie Taylor doing the same thing for the Rosewood and Tulsa Massacres to ensue. It only took a white female classmate of mine for me to end up crying, embarrassed, and with my teacher, my counselor, the principal, and my parents having read my diary.
Fifth grade was the worst year of my academic career so far. I was getting in trouble a lot at home, and I was having an even harder time at school. See, I’d befriended a classmate of mine, but throughout the year we had many falling outs and teachers always got involved and we always found ourselves in the hands of administration. No matter the situation, I was always painted as the bad guy. I have one particular memory of being in our then-guidance counselor’s office and her looking at me, then at my two classmates. “I just feel like you’re more assertive than they are,” she said. I remember asking her what the word meant, and she could barely tell me herself.
About the diary story. I was 10, and I loved to write. I’d already been having an awful year, and it was finally coming to a close. At any time of the day, all I wanted was to spill my thoughts and emotions without actually having to do so. I’d been having problems with this girl for the entirety of the year, and administration always took her side. So, I stopped talking and started writing. I wasn’t safe even within the pencil and paper.
We were eating lunch outside one day, and since I no longer had any friends by that point in the year, I ate alone. I vividly remember the girl looking over at my journal, calling the teacher, and saying to her, “She’s writing about me.” I was, and I was glad that she knew. But I didn’t want the trouble, so I headed inside the school and stood in the hallway by the door. Minutes later, our teacher burst inside, snatched my journal from one hand, grabbed the other, and angrily speed-walked to the counselor’s office. “You’re coming with me,” she said.
The guidance counselor told me all about my own words, as if I didn’t know what I wrote. After she did that, I was sent back to class. Meanwhile, my journal was taken, and my words were put into a copying machine. My counselor did this, then proceeded to hand the original document to my principal. My principal read them aloud to me. At the end of it he said, “You had all these great plans and then it went south. You’re using words like ‘sexy’ and ‘bi-ch.’ You’re 17 in 10!”
Um, that’s how emotions work. One page you’re happy, the next you’re in full-blown preteen rage. I wasn’t “17 in 10.” I was an angry 10-year old. Maybe I felt 17 to you because when I was 5 I seemed 9, and when I was 3 I seemed 5.
A 2017 Georgetown Law article titled “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” spoke on the adultification of Black girls and showed that adults believe Black girls ages 5-19 need less nurturing, protection, support and comfort than white girls of the same age, and that Black girls are more independent, know more about adult topics, and know more about sex than white girls.
The school called my mother that day and gave her my journal, and a recommendation for a mental hospital. Today, as I write this, I still feel the anger of a child bereft of privacy and dignity. For Black men and women alike, white women’s tears have invaded Black safe spaces and flooded them in the aftermath. As a Black woman, my experience with the aftermath of white women’s tears will never be the same as a Black man’s. For the Black man, this experience usually appears in the form of false rape accusations that lead to assault and violence charges. It paints him as an angry bull looking to charge at the poor maiden. Black womanhood in the white eye moves a thousand times faster than white womanhood. It isn’t graceful, it isn’t precious and it isn’t something that needs to be protected. To society we’re just angrier and more miserable for no good reason, as if we don’t have every reason to be. It took me a long time to realize this, and for me to understand why all of these experiences in the world of academia upset me long after they were relevant.
The Point of it All
I now realize that I was so angry because they never had the right. My middle school administrator never had the right to decide that I couldn’t wear a dress-code appropriate top because she “felt” it was inappropriate. I didn’t wear it seeking her approval. My classmate never had the right to tell a teacher that she didn’t like what I wrote. I never wrote it for her. My teacher never had the right to take my thoughts and share them and copy them. My principal never had the right to read my thoughts in front of me and tell me his own thoughts about them.
I don’t want anything for these experiences. I don’t wish any bad on any of the people who did these things, especially because I don’t think they even saw the undertones of their actions. I just want them to never do those things to another Black child, and I want them to know that they never had the right to do those things to me.