Thursday, June 3, 2010

What it means to be a 14 year old Black girl

Recently, on the recommendation of both our pediatrician and a family friend, I read Reviving Ophelia, a book about the struggles of adolescent girls. It's a bit dated (it was written in 1994, before the Internet added a whole new level of complexity to being a teenaged girl) but some parts of it were intensely relevant to my current struggles.

And yes, struggle is the right word. Adolescence, as we all remember, is the struggle to find autonomy and identity separate and apart from one's parents. One of my favorite lines from Reviving Ophelia was that parents should think of teenagers as "being like people on LSD" because like a person on a drug trip teens are often living in an alternate reality. I read that section aloud to my husband and we both laughed. It was a grim, battle weary laugh-- but a laugh all the same.

My daughter Sisi turns 14 this summer. She's a good kid, wants to do right and wants to please us, her parents. But she also believes she knows everything. She wants to be free. She thinks our rules are "stupid"; she thinks they are punishments rather than protections. She tries to find out just how far she can bend those rules before they break. She loves us, but right now, to paraphrase the words of the song, love has nothing to do with it.

I remember when she LOVED for her mother to show up at school. These days, she's embarrassed to be seen in my presence for any length of time. But as uncomfortable as my presence is, her stepfather's is even more distressing.

"He's white, Mom," she says, rolling her eyes when I ask why Dad can't pick her up from cheerleading tryouts.

"Yes, he's been that way for as long as you've known him. Going on six years," I remind her.

"Yes, but I don't know these girls and I don't want these girls to know that yet. I don't want to explain him. He just complicates my life."

I understand... and I don't. I understand that people are curious. They take an extra moment to stare--especially when Kevin and Sierra are alone together. Because they aren't related by blood, there's little resemblance. And sometimes, people who see an older white man and a teenaged black girl add up the picture to an ugly, sexual conclusion that couldn't be further from the truth.

And then there are the comments she's gotten from some of her black girlfriends already: "Your mama married him 'cause white men got money, right?" she told me one friend asked. My daughter forgot to tell the girl her mom's a Harvard educated lawyer who makes money too. (DAMN-- missed opportunity to start dismantling some of the stereotypes about who black women are! But that's another post.) "That ain't even right!" A black boy she knows called out when Kevin picked her up from a school dance.

So, I do understand... but only up to a point.

Because, after all, these are other people's prejudices-- and problems. Kevin has been and is a wonderful stepfather to this girl and I long for the day when she can once again assert that proudly, like she did when she was little. I'm eager for her to outgrow her awkwardness and concern for the opinions of her peers and assert her individuality again.

I'm also annoyed. It's distressing to me that in 2010 black kids are still pressing each other into a "black box" in order to gain acceptance. In our community there are immigrants from nearly every country on the planet-- it's that diverse. But clearly, my daughter is receiving the message that her family's diversity calls into question her authencity as a black teen. It makes her different-- and not necessarily in a good way. The result: Kevin often gets pushed to the margins of her life.

Reviving Ophelia was useful to me framing my daughter's dilemma, but in addressing it. One of my compliants about the book is that, with the exception of a story of the identity issues of a Native American girl adopted by a white couple, it didn't deal with the concerns of girls of color at all. And given the wealth of extremely negative stereotypes aimed at girls of color there's a lot to be said. One of the most powerful things I've read about the cultural influences on young black girls was "Freaks, Gold Diggers, Divas and Dykes" a paper written by Georgia State professor Layli Phillips documenting the sociohistoric archetypes of black women that appear in modern media aimed at black teen girls. It's frightening how aggressively these images are marketed-- and how passively we all accept them.

Bottom line: Sisi may want to fit in-- to accept the limits of the roles that her peers find acceptable for her-- but it's my job to constantly raise her eyes to the horizons. In ways big and small, my husband and I will remind her that there is a world beyond high school, role for her beyond what her friends think is "okay" and families beyond convenient colorings or definitions.

Her job may be to rebel, but mine is to set expectations and challenge her meet them. So I'm sending Kevin to pick her up from cheerleading... and hoping she'll greet her stepfather with pride.

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