Two weeks ago a report was issued about the “adultification” (1) of black girls. It was a familiar story. People of all races and genders perceive black girls as older than they are. This perception is used to justify the interpersonal and systemic abuse of black girls. They are more likely to be punished in school than their white peers and more harshly for the same infractions, often for made-up infractions. They are less likely to be viewed innocent by juries and other gatekeepers in the criminal justice system. They are more likely to be sexually abused, molested and physically abused by older men, often authority figures on whom they rely for support they do not get in school.
I had these ideas fresh in my mind because last semester I assigned Monique W. Morris’ book “Pushout” in my graduate seminar. The seminar is the sociology of race. I’ve taught it three times now and each time I experiment with the right balance of canonical race theory and my desire to talk about people absent in that canon: black women, girls, black queer theorists, etc.
Assigning “Pushout” was one of my attempts to balance the weeks I spend on DuBois, Bobo, Bonilla-Silva, etc. The students took to the narratives in the book, which details how schools fail black girls when they assume that they are “grown”.
I was thinking of all that when the latest on the decades-long R. Kelly drama emerged, also about two weeks ago. R. Kelly is one of many popular culture examples of how we glorify the sexual exploitation of girls and women. His case is also generational. For black women of a certain age, R. Kelly was part of a moment in the 1990s. If you came of age during that time and you were a black girl, then you probably learned about your place in the world partly through debating R. Kelly’s meaning in the culture. I am a black woman of a certain age.
I am also a black woman who writes. That is why I sat down to write about how these phenomena – a culture of racist sexism and social institutions like schools and criminal justice — are made and re-made in the most mundane ways. We are always making an R. Kelly. In an earlier time, R. Kelly was Mike Tyson. My mother and your mother have their own versions of this essay, of this story.
My essay started with ribs and in a blog post draft.
I was waiting for ribs at my aunt’s house when I had one of my first debates about sexual assault and R. Kelly. I was with my family, for no special occasion. On random Sundays, my uncle made his ribs and we black folks gathered around them. This was such a day. It doesn’t get much more mundane than that in my life history: ribs, a dining room table, and shooting the shit.
I worked from the mundane setting to the macro context of sexual abuse and specific context for black women. I moved from history and schools to interpersonal interactions because that is how oppression is created in our daily lives. We talk things into existence, we defend them through millions of micro interactions, we reinforce them in institutions and then we move back to talking them into existence.
The story is about family as much as it is about R. Kelly or Mike Tyson. I thought the story was too personal to have much resonance. That’s why I drafted it as a blog post. At the last minute I shared it with an editor at the New York Times Magazine who, in turn, shared it with an editor at The New York Times op-ed desk.
Sharing it with outside publications was a huge step for me. I have wrestled for years with how to be an academic and a writer. Only recently, with the release of my three academic books, have I begun to embrace my odd approach to scholarship and creativity.
The New York Times was interested.
The editor and I spent about a week editing it. We wrangled over space. We moved back from my turn into a discussion about “John Henryism” and the invisibility of black women’s cumulative stress in research, policy and the cultural imagination. I wanted to talk about how the misconception of black girls as grown and therefore not needing social protection extends to how medicine, science, research, and policy also considers black women unworthy. Those grown black girls, if they are lucky, grow up to black women whose pain doctors ignore, reproductive health medical research complex does not fund, and economic well-being is subsumed in the story of white women’s pay gap. I have lost babies. I have fought with doctors. I have earned less than my colleagues. I have been molested by police officers. I know that trajectory and I wanted to show the continuum.
In the end, the New York Times editors really wanted me to tell my story – just one story. I agreed. I can be edited, no matter what my editors tell you. Until the very final moments before going to press, I was nitpicking word choice and structure.
Finally, I let it go. The story went live. I went to sleep. This kind of writing makes me tired.
Lo and behold, the story resonated with a lot of people. It eventually resonated with Oprah Winfrey. And then Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And then Gabrielle Union. And so forth and so on.
The story that I thought was only big enough for a blog post seemed elastic enough for millions of people to fit it to their lives.
I’m trying to learn the lesson in that.
- There is some meaningful discussion about whether a recent report on black girls’ vulnerability in the criminal justice system fits the theoretical framework of adultification, which has been mostly understood as an adaptive behavior to resource deprivation and instability. I think the takeaway is that there is a difference between perceiving children as adults and using that perception to justify the rape and abuse of children.