On NPR’s tumblr today came a quote from a story I’d subconsciously blocked from my twitter feed last week:
So when the most influential black woman in the world, armed with degrees from some of the best institutions in the world, names Beyonce, a singer best known for a song called “Bootylicious,” as someone she aspires to be, how can we expect young black girls who didn’t go to Princeton to aspire to more than that?
Look, there’s a whole story about poor critical analysis here but, as is my usual schtick, I’d like to stick to what I see are the larger, more salient issues.
We’ve got about a hundred years of educational research out there in the ether that aims to understand the complex process of educational and life decision-making models. A great deal of that research is concerned with “minorities”. We don’t have all the answers but we’re fairly clear that the chronically marginalized tend to not make educational choices based on flights of fancy about pop stars, athletes, or rappers. Yet, we continue to get this bad black role models argument with predictable regularity.
Here, the argument is that poor black girls will see that Michelle Obama likes Beyonce and will have yet another reason to choose pop star dreams over Ivy league aspirations.
Ay yi yi.
The first issue with this line of argument is the idea that black girls have lower aspirations than white girls. That simply is not true. Black women and girls are among some of the most aspirational groups in this country. Despite steep structural disadvantages, data show that black girls in high school disproportionately aspire to college and beyond. We see higher college attendance rates among black women than men even when they are more likely to be single parents, poor, and/or employed. To borrow from Mr. Beyonce, black girls got 99 problems but aspiration ain’t one.
The second issue is the blatantly disrespectful assertion that black girls would be presented with a choice between Princeton and Bootylicious and choose Bootylicious because the most visible black woman in the world is a fan. Again, the data show that black girls aren’t choosing among college and American Idol. Black girls are like almost all other children in that they imagine their lives using the tools of their parents lives. That’s what people do. It takes a fantastic jump in faith and imagination to create a vision for your life that does not include a template based upon what those closest to you — those who look like you, talk like you, love you, and invest you — were able to do with their lives. That is compounded by the fact that you are living in the same cultural, temporal, and social milieu that produced those people. Those are structural issues, not issues of individual choices.
And if you’ll forgive me a moment, I’ve been a black girl. You know what I wanted to be when I was growing up? Wonder Woman.
Now THAT was a bad chick. She had a midriff baring costume, sparkly jewelry, flowing hair, theme music, killer boots…actually, she was a lot like Beyonce.
And like the 50 million or so other people who are fans of the pop star today, including Michelle Obama, I thought it might be cool to be Wonder Woman.
But in my house, the place where I lived, where I slept, where a chain of command was clear and clearly enforced, there was only one real, actual super hero: my mother.
She taught me to read. She went to college and took me with her. She asked me where, not if, I’d go to college. And so when it was time to imagine my life I used the tools she’d given me — books, confidence, college guide books — and I took my happy ass to college.
Not to Princeton because as educated as we were the ivy league was not real or concrete to us.
And, no, I did not know much about STEM or college majors but I knew enough to show up and persist.
And so I may not be who I would have been had institutional barriers to information about things like biology majors, STEM careers, and the many advantages of the ivy league had not existed for a woman who, herself, attended a segregated high school. I took my mother’s experiences — books, early literacy, and an appreciation for education — and imagined my own life. Not surprisingly, it was a life heavier on books than lassos of truth.
When it came time to build a real life I did not refer to my idol, Wonder Woman, but to my mother, Vivian.
In the same way millions of black girls may admire Beyonce and even Michelle Obama. But what we know from research and what my own narrative tells me is that growing up is complicated. And when life gets complicated black girls turn to the same source that all other kids turn to: those closest to them.
If we want to support the aspirations of black girls we can support the communities where they live, go to school, and dream.
We can support their mothers as they return to college, retrain for new careers, and start new businesses.
What probably is less helpful is characterizing black girls as imbeciles who think that there’s a job listing for “pop star” in the want ads, or characterizing their life decision-making processes as linear, discrete and somehow different from other young people; or by using them to sell an attention-grabbing blog post in the content hungry blogosphere where views trump evidence and nuance.
To the extent that any young person has unrealistic aspirations it is because they are making the best use of the tools provided them. Michelle Obama liking Beyonce is not going to impact that anymore than Wonder Woman made me eschew college for clown school. There’s a real conversation to be had about how we can support black girls as they work to achieve their dreams in a world of institutional sexism and racism that would limit them. But that article ain’t it. And seeing it on NPR (admittedly their tumblr page) might confuse people on the merits of the line of argument. And that’s unfortunate. And dangerous.
Support actual black girls, not arguments that use them.