As the Black mother of two Black girls, I am always acutely aware of how Black girls are harmed in this society. However, there are some moments in America, when it is amplified that me and my girls, are truly at the bottom of the totem pole of those deemed in need of protecting.
This weekend, the Lifetime docu-series, “Surviving R. Kelly” dug deep into R. Kelly’s alleged predatory behavior and abuse of mostly Black high school girls, some of whom he met inside Chicago’s Kenwood High School, which he attended. I went to high school in Chicago in the 1990s—peak R. Kelly—and remember his predatory behavior being normalized.
I remember the rumors about R. Kelly “going with”—dating, and possibly sleeping with—girls at my high school. (I have no idea whether those rumors about particular people are true.) I remember my friends who had his personal phone number. It was “a thing” to call that number and listen to his voice saying, “Yo, this Rob. Leave a message.” I have to believe that if so many students were aware of R. Kelly’s hitting on high school girls, surely at least some school adults would have been as well. Yet, nothing was done to protect us.
Just to be clear, the abuse and neglect of Black women and girls isn’t new, and it isn’t unique to schools. Since the founding of America, Black women and girls have been taught that our bodies don’t belong to us—that we were not human. While enslaved, Black women and girls were raped in massive—and uncounted—numbers by their slave owners and any White male who desired access.
The proof of this history can be found in the DNA of Black people today. The New York Times reported on a recent study that showed the average Black American’s ancestry is 82 percent African, 1 percent Native American and 17 percent European. Researchers estimate the European DNA was introduced in the decades before the Civil War, as a result of White male slave owners raping Black women slaves.
Black Girls Are Not Adults
Today, you can see this same type of slave mentality—the lack of humanity given to Black women and their oversexualization—shifted to our schools. How were so many Black girls able to be targeted inside Chicago Public Schools (CPS)? The simple answer: Black girls are not seen as children like other children.
There is a cultural component to the sexual abuse of Black girls. Black girls aren’t considered children. They are made into little adults and hypersexualized. They are considered “fast,” assumed older than their real age and thought to be less-innocent than their White peers. They asked for it, by wearing the wrong clothes. But children are not adults. Children cannot consent to adult relationships. Black girls do not ask to be abused.
The recent Chicago Tribune series, Betrayed, exposed how deeply CPS has failed to protect students from sexual abuse even from its own employees.
I can’t help but wonder, if a popular White artist was preying on high school girls at New Trier or Naperville, would he have been allowed to get away it for so long? If R. Kelly had targeted middle-class White high school girls instead of mostly poor, Black high school girls, would he have gotten away with it? As a member of that generation, I can say CPS failed us.
Even as I wonder about these questions, there is no doubt in my mind there are still predators targeting Black girls at schools, knowing that they are easy prey.
Yet, as a parent, I continue to hope that my Black daughters will have a different experience in school. Here are a few things that we can do to protect Black girls in schools.
Treat Black Girls as the Children They Are
Seeing Black girls as children starts with the basics, like ending misogynist name-calling. North West, Blue Ivy, and Quvenzhané Wallis have been constantly attacked for what they look like. Even to the point of being called a “cunt.” They are children. They deserve to have their innocence protected.
Seeing Black girls as children also relates to school discipline. Children are allowed to make mistakes. Children are allowed to have “attitudes” without extreme punishment. Unfortunately, for many Black girls, they are not allowed to make mistakes.
We see so many examples of who is valuable. My husband has literally had to calm me down in war movies, when inevitably, a scene shows a White girl crying in her mother’s arms, being protected from the “bad guy.” Where is the protection for Black girls?
Black women celebrate Black girls with the hashtag, #BlackGirlMagic. The hashtag has become popular in our circles, but not in the mainstream. Why is it only Black women who are celebrating Black girls? Let’s highlight more Black women in schools, in science, in literature, and in life. Celebrate Black hair. Celebrate Black girl names. Celebrate Black girls’ strength and resilience.
Make Schools Safe Spaces for Black Girls to Prevent and, When Needed, Process Abuse
While CPS has made a start on changes to protect students from sexual abuse and assault, like opening a Title IX office and conducting background checks on all employees, there is much more yet to do. We need schools to do a better job of teaching all students, and especially Black girls, about consent and healthy relationships.
We also need school staff to be better prepared to handle supporting children who have been sexually abused. Rape and molestation cause trauma. Many Black girls are unable to afford access to quality mental health services. Teachers and counselors are key adults in children’s lives—it is on them to look for signs of abuse and offer help. But to do that well, teachers and counselors need better training. Schools also need stronger connections to partners with expertise in supporting survivors of sexual assault.
Black girls who survived R. Kelly’s victimization were failed by all adults, including the adults in schools. As a parent of Black girls, I beg us all, especially adults in schools, to do better for Black girls now and start protecting, valuing, and loving them now.