She is a pretty little girl, but that is probably part of the problem.
I’m not one that swoons over blond hair and blue eyes; I’m woke. I appreciate the attractiveness of African diasporic features just as much as I appreciate the attractiveness of European diasporic features.
Still, I recognize that this little girl is most people’s aesthetic wet dream, whether they’re white or black.
She has the blond, natural curls tumbling over her shoulders–the sort that literally bounce when she walks–and eyes that are a bright–not a watery–blue like a crayon or square of bathroom tile.
She has cheeks that flush baby doll pink, a small, pink mouth, and just enough sun in her skin so that she doesn’t look sickly, but she doesn’t look burnt.
She is her mother’s only daughter–a cherished child–born and raised in this affluent suburb–cosseted like a flower in a hothouse.
Her mother and father are married; they live in the same house; they’re both gainfully employed. They take her to church every Sunday; they attend as a family. She has been horseback riding, and she takes paid swimming lessons. People compliment her on her confidence and singing–in that order–and she struts around like the little second-coming of Christina Aguilera.
She is in my daughter’s Brownie troop, and, at their last meeting, she stopped suddenly while playing with three other white girls, another black girl, and my little girl, and called a secret meeting.
She called two of the three other white girls by name to join her, stepped away from the lawn with them, wrapped her arms around their necks, and brought their faces down, close to hers so she could whisper to them.
Then, they took off–the three of them–across the parking lot to the woods out back of the church where the meetings are held.
The black girls watched as the white girls met and ran off, then they followed, thinking that whatever business their “friends” needed to handle was done, and they could all start playing together again.
The last little white girl hung back. Intuitively, she knew what had just happened. She knew that a decision had been made to ostracize her.
She is an overweight little girl and already indoctrinated by society to believe that her body makes her ugly and unworthy; you can see it in the way she quietly, fearfully holds herself when she is sitting with the other girls.
She almost always wanders away, to the table of mothers at the back of the meeting room, when the other Brownies start playing, as if she’s doing their dirty work for them–kicking herself out of the game before someone else does.
Anyhow, back to the woods–
As the overweight white girl hangs back, and starts trying to figure out how to amuse herself, my daughter and her black friend run after the secret conspirators like silly little pups.
“Hey, you guys. We’re coming,” they call.
Before they can even arrive at the mouth of the woods, though, Curly–little Christina Aguilera–whips around and gives them this disgusted look.
“You’re not allowed in the woods,” she tells them. “I’m a member of this church, and you’re not members of this church. I can go into the woods, but you can’t.”
The girls are stunned. This is, of course, when I intervene.
“Let’s go,” I call to my daughter. “You, too,” I say to the other black girl.
I send the other girl back inside, where her mother is finishing up some field trip business with the leader, and I put my daughter into my car.
“Why did we have to leave?” she whines.
“Because I don’t like what was happening,” I tell her. “I don’t like what __________ was doing to you.”
I had been standing with another mother, watching the girls play–the mother of one of the conspirators–a quiet, brunette girl that is much more delicate and shy than Curly and so goes along with whatever she says–probably so Curly won’t hurt her feelings.
When this mother sees that I am gathering up my daughter, when she hears me explaining to my daughter, through the open windows of my car, that she should never beg for anyone’s acceptance because good people wouldn’t put her in the position to beg, this mother calls her daughter to the car, too. She puts her in the backseat and helps her with her seatbelt.
I don’t know what she tells her little girl, if she tells her anything. I only see them speed off. I see the dots of Curly and her other friend’s blonde heads against the blackish background of the trees in my rearview mirror
My daughter, asks, as we pull off of the parking lot, if Curly called those other girls over and took them into the woods with her because she’s white, and they’re white.
I reason it out with her. I ask if the other girls are members of the church; she says no. I ask whether the other black girl or she had been mean to Curly and her conspirators; she says no.
I ask whether she or any of the other black girls in the troop get to be a part of Curly’s “secret meetings” whenever she calls them (I make a guess this isn’t the first time she’s called a meeting, just the first time I’ve seen her), and she says no again, confirming that this behavior is a pattern–one that I wish I’d detected much earlier.
It’s only after this final “no” that I say to my daughter, yes, I think Curly did that because those girls are white like her, and you’re not.
I explain to her that they are heading into intermediate school and adolescence. Everyone is going to start feeling weird about themselves and their bodies. Some people are going to displace those feelings onto others; they’re going to make other people feel bad so they can feel better about themselves. So they can feel like they have more control over their lives than they really do at their age.
One of the ways that they will do this is by separating themselves. They’ll do it by color, income level, level of academic ability, level of athletic ability, all sorts of superficial things like that. A lot of people will start hanging in groups of people that look like them exclusively so they can pump each other up. Some might even start picking on people that don’t look like them so they can make themselves look “better.”
Curly has discovered the worst kept secret of white America’s “success”–I tell my baby–that they can always use black people like pawns whenever they need to fake a win.
My daughter, the pragmatist, sighs and says, “Well, then, I’m glad my best friend is black.”
It’s sad, but I silently agree with her. I’d hate to see her get her heart broken by some girl she actually loves that turns and treats her like Curly.
I’m still not sure it won’t happen at some point in the next few years.
I titled this post “Privilege & Privation” because I think this story is an interesting example of both.
Curly, to me, is nothing but a miniature of a certain type of white American. One that feels entitled to a high level of self-worth and resents the threat that people of color pose to that high level of self-worth.
She was raised privileged, and she wants to hang on to that privilege for the duration. It feels vitally necessary to her in order to function.
So much so that even as part of a Brownie troop in which six out of the 11 members are black (and two are Indian), she is determined that the tone of the interactions will be such that she gets to feel like the troop’s worthiest member.
Curly has clearly made up her mind to force her standards for worthiness–with her secret meetings and convoluted “codes”–onto everyone else before she is forced to measure herself according to the black girls’ standards and experience privation–a lack of validation–for what would be the first time in her life.
Curly is no different than older white people that assert “All Lives Matter” when they hear people say “Black Lives Matter.” They are operating from the same impulse to preserve their privilege.
They are terrified that a movement that highlights the moral and ethical depravity of so many white police officers and lawmakers will really start to undermine the cultural myth of whites as superior and make it impossible for white people to position themselves as arbiters, i.e. the people that set the standards.
These white people understand that white privilege hinges on the hypothesis that white people are more worthy human beings than people of color.
They understand that in order for America to keep operating from the theory that whites deserve their privilege, they cannot allow this hypothesis to be proven incorrect.
So they say things like “He should’ve complied” when it comes to injustices like the murders of Eric Garner and Sandra Bland. Or they say “He was doing something illegal” when it comes to injustices like the murders of Mike Brown and Alton Sterling. Or they say “The cop feared for his life” when it comes to injustices like the murders of Alton Sterling and Tamir Rice.
They keep trying to make it seem as if these murders are justified, and legal, and they aren’t products of racism and bigotry.
They talk about black-on-black crime as if one atrocity somehow justifies another. They talk about the outrageous number of blacks in jail, ignoring the fact that the majority are in jail for nonviolent drug offenses and as a result of racist mandatory sentencing laws that target crimes to which blacks tend to gravitate (thank you, President Bill Clinton).
They say and do everything they can to discredit arguments that the victims of these murders are in fact victims, and they were murdered as much by bigoted perceptions of them as black men and women as by guns, so they can remain steeped in their privilege.
They are terrified of privation–the profound lack of respect, regard, rights, and refuge that blacks suffer across the board in American society.
They are doing just what Curly is attempting to do in my daughter’s Brownie troop– to make sure that the culture never becomes such that rewards and punishments–inclusion and acceptance–are doled out by non-white people on bases determined by non-white people.
I don’t know what it’s like to have an entire society slanted toward my survival or happiness. I don’t know what it’s like to be privileged. I am a black woman in America.
I have two degrees, but I am still underemployed. I have 10 years of experience in my field, but I am still underpaid. I have a blog that has received 31,000 views since January 8 (!), but I can’t even put this accomplishment on my resume because I know that the content of the blog, though extremely relevant to my life and life in America on the whole, can be construed as “anti-white.”
I live in a perpetual and edgeless state of black middle class privation.
Still, I am intelligent enough to understand why white people grasp so desperately at their privilege and honest enough to say that it makes perfect sense.
Which makes me overwhelmed when I try to think about what black people might do to get ourselves out of our institutionalized state of privation.
I am inclined to think that as long as such a large swath of the majority is acting like Curly–scared to exist in a space in which their exclusive survival is not the absolute and official priority–things will never get truly or substantially better for black people in America.
And I am angry that these adults that act like Curly get to go around pretending to be so supremely able to function in that sort of meritocracy when they clearly are not (privilege).
I am angry that Curly is how she is, and my daughter will have to deal with girls like her, doing the same sort of cruel things to her, for the rest of her life, just because my daughter is black.
She will have to fight so that her sense of herself isn’t chipped away, petty, hostile, unjustifiable interaction by petty, hostile, unjustifiable interaction.
And God forbid she run into a Curly that’s a cop. Someone that can take her desire to make my daughter feel puny and powerless and fire a gun with it. Legally.
See what I’m saying? Privation.
As a black American mother, I don’t have the privilege of pushing scenarios like this out of my head.
That they might actually happen is just too possible for people like me.