As a woman who advocates for the safety and empowerment of Black girls, I was in complete shock and utter outrage when I viewed the recent viral video of a school resource officer’s violent attack on a 16-year-old high school student in Spring Valley, South Carolina.
Officer Ben Fields, a full-grown muscle bound white man, chose to use brute force to remove Shakara, a young Black schoolgirl, from her classroom as she sat at her desk quietly without posing a threat. Despite the fact that the student did not provoke or resist the attack, officer Fields was alarmingly aggressive and handled Shakara like he wanted to annihilate her. Fields showed no concern about the possible consequences of his actions — as if he believed his vicious behavior toward this child was justified.
Fields was angered and amped-up way beyond the disciplinary requirements for the situation. His actions seemed to suggest that there was something else at play here — something beyond the simple removal of a student who was not participating in class. Was it Shakara’s Blackness that prevented Fields from recognizing that this was a child, a girl, a student, or a human-being as he whipped her around the room like a rag doll? His behavior was insanely violent like he had a vendetta — not against Shakara personally, but against what her Blackness and subtle defiance must have represented in that moment: an audacious refusal to automatically obey and yield to White male authority. Officer Fields did not hesitate or think twice about the grave danger he put Shakara in, the criminal implications of his actions, or the psychological damage to the other students in the classroom. It was as if he was assured that Shakara’s Black skin and modest resistance automatically branded her as the “angry Black girl”, the disobedient aggressor, or someone possibly diagnosed with an ‘oppositional defiant disorder’ — a problem child worthy of extreme disciplinary action. It was as if he already knew that there wouldn’t be a penalty or consequence because the body and skin that Shakara possessed already labeled her guilty by default.
The Spring Valley High School Assault should have been a tipping point driving everyone regardless of race, gender, and ethnicity to examine the over-policing of Black kids in urban schools. It should have raised more awareness about the racial and gender biases that uniquely impact Black girls, the racial disparities in the school to prison pipeline, and it should have illuminated the urgent need to assess the cultural literacy and child development competencies of all adults who are working with our children in schools. While I am appalled that this incident happened altogether, I am also flabbergasted by the people who saw Shakara’s “defiance” as the primary problem here. The comment sections of the viral video are filled with venomous victim blaming! Many Americans weighed in and agreed that “[Shakara] was being disobedient so she deserved the punishment” or that “Officer Fields should not have been fired for his actions.” This public response exposes the subtle ways in which many people in our country devalue Black girls and fail to see them holistically.
If the racial dynamics were reversed, I am sure that the extreme madness of Officer Field’s actions would have been critiqued universally and the outrage against him would have been unanimous. Let’s imagine. If the student was a White girl who was manhandled by a big, Black, adult, male resource officer there would have been mobs of parents, students, and faculty to the defense of that child and there wouldn’t have been any questions regarding what the child did or did not do to deserve the attack. Seeing or hearing about any child attacked in school by a herculean man should automatically result in outrage! Period.
The suggestion that Shakara did something wrong in this scenario or that she deserved to be violently beaten by a grown man sends Black children a HORRIBLE message that can negatively impact their self-esteem, agency, and self-advocacy. The message is that in order to survive in America, Black children must learn to be quiet, passive, subservient, and docile — always being conscious of the need to be compliant at all times.
Black youth don’t have the right to protest unlawful assaults against their peers or unwarranted dismissal from class without being punished. Black youth don’t have the liberty to question authority without the threat of severe consequences. While it is normal and developmentally appropriate for teens and young adults to practice agency, to push back a bit, and to question authority occasionally, this process is automatically revoked from Black children or treated as a severe behavioral disorder. They don’t have the privilege to simply be kids. They are essentially taught that their very presence is a threat or a disturbance. This psychological burden is extremely taxing on our youth.
What is the psychological impact for a Black girl who witnessed this viral video depicting another Black girl being beat up by a grown man in school while the majority of the classroom watched without protest? Or seeing a Black male teacher and teacher’s aid stand silently and unmoved as a Black girl is battered before their eyes? Or seeing that the only person who was actually brave enough to speak up and intervene — Niya, another Black girl — was immediately silenced, criminalized and arrested for trying to stop the brutalization of her classmate? What type of voicelessness, worthlessness, hopelessness, and spiritual malaise is birthed from such a scene?
What is the psychological damage to any Black child who witnessed the students — black and white, male and female — stage a #bringbackfields protest in support of the officer responsible for putting Shakara’s arm in a sling? What is the message being sent to the rest of the world regarding the worth of a BLACK GIRL when we turn on the news and see major Black media personalities reporting on the incident and critiquing the victim’s behavior, but absolving and excusing the aggressive assailant from his violent violation of a child. Is Stockholm syndrome and ‘Tom-ism’ “the new Black”?
What is the psychological cost of being a Black boy in that classroom — a Black boy who may have wanted to help, but was frozen in fear due to the clear and present danger of rigid white male authority? This is a palpable example of our society’s perpetual mental and emotional castration of Black men — rooted in plantation psychology — that has historically deterred Black men and boys from coming to the aid of their sisters when in crisis. How does this example of the inaction of the boys in Shakara’s classroom impact the relationship between all Black boys and girls longitudinally? Does it send an everlasting message to Black girls that their male counterparts don’t have their backs? Does it catalyze a practice of internalized violence and self-hatred for Black boys and men, who in realizing that they cannot rise above the foot of white male supremacy — turn their anger and frustration into a nebulous cloud of rage that results in patterns of self destruction?
What is the message being reinforced to the White students witnessing this unwarranted and ruthless act of violence against a Black girl? What cycle of behavioral norms and belief systems does this incident begin to set in stone for them? Does it feed into the negative stereotypes that they may have already started to develop about Black people? Does it support the beliefs that Black youth have some innate propensity toward delinquent behavior that needs to be kept in check by brute force? Does it affirm that Black girls are lesser and do not need to be handled with care? Does it contribute to a feeling of omnipotence and superiority that justifies inhumane beliefs and practices against people of color?
The physical attack on Sharkara mirrors the overarching societal attack on Black women and girls. There is a systemic devaluation of Black womanhood — our narratives are constantly pushed to the margins, our value is frequently overlooked, our safety is often compromised and the notion that Black women belong at the bottom of a social hierarchy is the predominant message entrenched in our society. The harsh disciplinary action against Shakara is not simply an isolated infraction. According to BLACK GIRLS MATTER, a report released by the African American Policy Forum, Black girls are being over disciplined and pushed out schools and are suspended at a rate six times greater than white girls and two times more than white boys. Black women and girls also experience institutional and interpersonal violence at higher rates and are more susceptible to gendered violence than other women. The Black Women’s Blueprint reports that 60% of Black girls experience sexual assault by the time they reach 18-years-old and according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (2010) for every black woman that reports her sexual assault there are at least 15 Black women who do not report their experiences of abuse. In cases of domestic violence, in 2005 Black women accounted for 22% of the intimate partner homicide victims and 29% of all female victims of intimate partner homicide, but only comprised 8% of the U.S. population.
When Black girls are abused, molested, trafficked, murdered, raped, assaulted or go missing at alarming rates and there is minimal media attention or public outrage about their stories, it reinforces the idea that Black girls’ safety, well-being and lives don’t matter as much. Our society is so desensitized to violence committed against Black women and girls that there isn’t any real concern — even for the most horrific cases.
Recently, former Oklahoma City Police Officer, Daniel Holtzclaw, was convicted of 18 counts of felony rape and sexual assault. Holtzclaw who was accused of 36 counts of assault against 13 Black women, manipulated his power as an officer by strategically preying on vulnerable women of color in the very neighborhood he was paid to patrol and protect. Despite the number of victims and the severity of the case the Holtzclaw trial received minimal media attention. The lack of National media coverage on this troubling and tragic story is emblematic of our society’s disregard for Black women and girls’ lives, bodies, and overall worth.
There are countless examples showing that when high profile public figures violate and abuse Black women and girls, they are repeatedly excused and forgiven by the masses (because that’s their favorite rapper, athlete or R&B singer), while their victims are forgotten, blamed or shamed with comments like, “she must have done something to deserve it”, “she is trying to set him up for money” or in the case of underage victims, “she looked like she knew what she was doing”.
Famous and influential men are hardly ever penalized or scrutinized for their indiscretions when Black women and girls are assaulted by them. In most cases the victims are somehow held responsible for the attacks made against them, while their perpetrators are relieved of accountability and continue to be celebrated or embraced by the public. The recent Huffington Post Live interview with alleged child-sexual-predator and R&B singer R. Kelly strongly demonstrates this point. Defensive and irate, Kelly refused to answer a series of questions about his history regarding lawsuits and allegations of inappropriate sexual relationships with minors. Before abruptly ending his interview, Kelly exploded at journalist Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani with “since you are the one who brought it up, I will respond to you because I don’t hear that from anyone else. Everywhere I go from bars, to restaurants, to sold-out concerts overseas, and back… I get nothing but love.” Not only did R. Kelly’s response display a level of denial and lack of accountability for his disturbing history of abuse against young Black girls, but his words suggest that the support and fanfare that has continued around his career — despite public knowledge of his serial sexual abuse allegations — confirms his belief that the masses are not as critical of his pedofilic behavior as the journalist who interviewed him. Kelly’s behaviors have ultimately been excused, suppressed and swept under the rug by many people for decades. Rather than being held accountable for his actions, criminally and socially, he has been enabled by the general public and exonerated by the justice system. Unfortunately, the pass that R. Kelly received as a celebrity came at the expense of multiple underaged Black girls.
Media platforms that produce content that denigrates Black girls are also rarely held accountable for the constant barrage of demeaning, destructive and dehumanizing messages that diminish the value and worth of women of color as whole beings. These damaging messages reinforce negative stereotypes that shape the way our society perceives Black women and girls. They also present a narrow “standard” of beauty and identity formation for young Black girls, which enables dangerous self-fulfilling prophecies and can contribute to a broad range of social-emotional issues for millions of our girls across the Diaspora — issues that affect their self-image, esteem, academic performance, risk-taking behaviors, and other important life decisions.
Black girls also have to deal with the paradoxical message that says their Black is not beautiful, but their features can be bought and sold to enhance the beauty of other women. When the Black-girl aesthetic and Black-girl swag is only dope without the Black girl, but skyrockets in value and is put on a pedestal when appropriated, purchased, “cash-cropped” and placed on other’s bodies — our girls internalize the message that they are less beautiful, less important, less desirable, less valuable and therefore less worth defending or safeguarding.
Then, when Black women and girls make efforts to affirm our own aesthetic, cultural identity and value, we are met with unwarranted negativity for having the audacity to express self-love. Such was the case with 8-year-old Makiyah-Jae whose school principal recently forced her to change her BLACK GIRLS ROCK! T-shirt, which her mother purchased to boost the child’s confidence, pride and self-esteem. The predominantly white school’s principal told the parent that he made an executive decision to remove the child’s shirt because he felt it was no different than “a rebel [Confederate] flag.” The fact that the principal compared BLACK GIRLS ROCK! — an affirming mantra of empowerment — to a flag that is heavily tied to a history of domestic terrorism is very telling. The fact that the principal’s immediate course of action was to remove the shirt, rather than to explore the school-culture that made it necessary for the child’s mother to purchase the shirt is also telling.
Perhaps the principal of this predominantly white school had a blind spot — perhaps he did not consider the dearth of diversity in mainstream media; the overall lack of discourses about Black women’s historic and contemporary accomplishments; the negative impact that media messages have on the identity development of Black women and girls, and the importance of girls affirming their our own beauty, power, value, strength, sisterhood and self-worth. By removing the shirt, not only did the principal violate the child’s personal space and rob her of her agency, but he also sent a dangerous message to Makiyah and her peers that there wasn’t any space for her to celebrate her identity. The act of celebrating Black excellence, beauty, and brilliance is automatically treated as a threat to others — and this resistance to any manifestation of our confidence and consciousness reveals the lasting impact of white supremacy in our country. This type of reaction does not only exists in small cilos. First Lady Michelle Obama was lambasted after she delivered a powerful speech during the 2015 BLACK GIRLS ROCK! Awards on Black Entertainment Television. The first lady — a Black woman and a mother of two dynamic Black daughters — was brutally criticized for reinforcing an uplifting message and supporting a movement that empowers Black women and girls around the world.
I’m often asked “what do I see for the future of BLACK GIRLS ROCK,” and my answer is always the same. It is my hope that we are creating a world that is so progressive that there will no longer be a need for BLACK GIRLS ROCK to exist. It is my hope that we are creating a cultural paradigm shift resulting in a society that protects and values Black girls along with everyone else. Unfortunately, I don’t see that day in the near future so BLACK GIRLS ROCK! will continue to exist in order to nourish the next generation of young women — to help them understand that their BLACK GIRL MAGIC is the epitome of beauty and magnificence; to remind them that they are worthy of bountiful and meaningful lives; to encouraged them to know that they are exceptional, brilliant and extraordinary; to affirm that they have significant purpose and gifts to reveal to the world; and to remind Shakara, Niya, Makiyah-Jae and all Black girls that BLACK GIRLS do MATTER. Black girls are beautiful, important, and worth protecting.