Some of the harshest reactions to the Spring Valley high-school girl who was brutalized in the classroom came from a most surprising source: other Black people. This writer explains why.
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“Whether Fields was racist or not matters little to the millions who’ve seen the video, and somehow concluded this young girl got what she deserved. What they know and feel is that no black girl in the world should defy a police officer’s request and if she does, whatever in the world that cop does to her is fair game.”
My heart was shattered as I read these words, which appeared in a piece by New York Daily News Senior Justice reporter Shaun King, about the way people responded to the brutalization of an African-American teenage girl by Deputy Ben Fields last week at Spring Valley High School.
Having once been a little Black girl, presently being an aunt to little Black girls, and a mother to a little Black girl, I am, sadly, not shocked to discover that there are people who believe I hold no agency over my own body, and that any denial of White authority is automatically considered rebellion. But what disturbed me more than anything was seeing Black folks on social media and hearing them around the proverbial water cooler saying, “She was disrespectful” and “These kids don’t respect authority nowadays.”
I expect as much from ridiculous talking heads like Raven Symoné and Don Lemon, with all their “Well you gotta follow the rules in school” (Duh) and faux concern about “passing judgment.” They are paid to be provocative in the worst ways. But when seemingly humane “regular folk” co-sign that foolishness, it’s heartbreaking. Are folks really, even if unconsciously, colluding with the likes of Raven, Lemon, or Deputy Fields himself against this young girl? Never mind this child’s state of mind, that she was recently placed in foster care and transferred to Spring Valley high school. The takeaway seems to be, “Don’t you dare sass massa or you fo’ sho’ gon’ get a whippin’.”
There are not enough side-eyes or fresh-mouth words to justify what happened to her.
Ben Fields must be held accountable for his actions—even above and beyond his firing. But what haunts me is the image of the Black male teacher watching as his young student is tossed out of her chair by Fields, and thrown violently onto the floor like a rag. Was that level of brutality so commonplace in the school that he never considered intervening on her behalf? Or on behalf of the children—because yes, even Black 16-year-olds are still kids—who were obviously frightened and devastated by what they were seeing in his classroom?
I could barely bring myself to watch that video, but I forced myself to. I felt it was necessary, yes, because I’m a parent of a daughter. But also because my first thought was, “Oh, hell no! Let that have been MY child!”
I’d forgotten something.
Dr. Tina Opie, professor of Management at Babson College reminded me: “That was MY baby in that classroom. Your baby, all of our babies,” she said. She belongs to all of us. That girl IS my child.
And that’s where we have messed up. We don’t see these things as happening “in the family.” Unfortunately, we regard these horrific situations the way many White people do: as isolated incidents that don’t have an immediate impact on us—until, of course, they do. The response from some members of the Black community has been so remarkably complacent, so lacking in compassion, that I can’t help but see it as evidence that we have forgotten we are inextricably connected, and that what happens to one of us, happens to all of us. We have forgotten to care about more than what happens in our home and what affects our personal lives. Our lens is distorted by pseudo-self-preservation that approaching a situation like this holistically causes us great discomfort, to the extent that we are willing to collectively throw our children under the proverbial bus.
And for that very reason, I ask: When did we stop loving our babies? Really loving them. Sacrificially loving them. When did we stop protecting them? Have we become so humanistic that we forgot to be humans? Why does pain and tragedy have to hit close to home for us to stand up for what is right? Have we forgotten that risk and sacrifice are hallmarks in the fight for justice? Or do we just think it’s enough to wear our Black Lives Matter T-shirts and tweet our frustrations and leave it at that, without doing the work to help our own?
When will it be OK to fight for our children? I realize that this might be taboo to say, but would it have been OK for that teacher to take the risk of punching that cop in the mouth for dragging that child across the floor, and to suffer the consequences for that too? Because certainly that’s the very thing we hail when it happens in the movies. Good guy beats up bad guy to defend the hostages. Woo-hoo, we cheer! He saved the day! Is this little Black girl not worth defending? If not with our fists, what about with our words? Words that are becoming increasingly necessary to counter the internet-emboldened racist trolls flaunting just how unworthy our children are.
Far too many Black folks are sitting around talking about how disrespectful children are nowadays, how they don’t listen, how “hip-hop” is destroying our youth, while the real perps are getting away with it. Yes, it is the white-supremacist system permeating every major institution in our country placing our children at the bottom of every measure of success or significance. But White supremacy, unfortunately, will be around for a while. The fight against injustice must certainly continue, but as Ta-nehisi Coates pointed out in a recent interview for The Atlantic, “[If you say] ‘I will struggle for only that which will be realized in my lifetime, then your vision is impoverished already.’” So the realization of a time when Black lives will actually matter might still be a ways off and therefore, I submit that the most dreadfully influential culprit just might be us: Black folks. We are accountable. And I don’t mean in “make sure you don’t make massa mad” respectability politics kind of way. I’m talking about our inability to clear the way for our children. To take the hits and make the sacrifices. Maybe the teacher in that classroom should have risked his own life for the safety of the child. Maybe I should have stepped in that one time when I saw a young girl being verbally abused by a White vendor on the street—risking being verbally abused or worse myself. We are culpable also because out of either our own fear or some kind of hopeless resignation, too many of us have stopped defending our children. Because of the very real weights we carry, we have stopped fighting for them. We hesitate to step in on their behalf. We have left them psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually alone, to fend for themselves. Then we have the audacity to complain about them being disrespectful.
And maybe whether they respect us or other authority figures isn’t really the issue. Maybe some of our children, these spiritually and emotionally sensitive beings, have discerned that our love is more like a clanging cymbal: loud when touted and banged on for attention but dissolving into a grating silence and nothingness when they most need it. How does our love show up when things like Spring Valley happen?
Some Black folks are so caught up in appearances, so concerned about the way she looked and what she did or didn’t say, that we forget that she is a whole person. We focus on her mouth, we see her defiance, but don’t ask about her pain. Compassion doesn’t drive us to ask about the reason for her rebellion. Our “why” is focused on “why she deserved what she got” and not on “why she doesn’t talk in class” or “why she didn’t respond.” Her mental health, her wellbeing, is an afterthought as we passively defend a kind of aggression we ordinarily wouldn’t wish on a grown man. Disruptive behavior in children is often a symptom of something else entirely and it’s nearly always compassion and patience that helps them heal. Would being thrown from a chair and dragged across the floor make you more obedient? Or would the rage born from that kind of violence make you rebel more?
I think some of us are scared. Like slave mothers who laid their daughters’ brutal whippings and rapes firmly in those girls’ own laps, like early 20th century mothers who taught their children how to step off the curb and avoid eye contact when a White person of the opposite sex walked down the same street as they did, racism and White supremacy seems to have forced many of us into some kind of psychological limbo. To the extent that now we can watch videos of Black girls being brutalized by White overseers, I mean White cops, and the only thing we can think to say is, “What did she do to deserve it?” Maybe the feeling of powerlessness is affecting us so much that we choose to fault the victim rather than wrestle with the devastation and discomfort.
So maybe we are the ones who have been disrespectful. Not to White people or to any form of authority. We’ve been respecting White folks for centuries now—despite our respect not actually guaranteeing our safety from discrimination at the very least, and at worst, brutality. Maybe we haven’t held ourselves up in high enough esteem. And maybe our children have just been unwitting observers of that. Maybe as a result of not holding our made-in-the-image-of-God selves up, we’ve lost our courage. Our ability to say enough is enough! Not behind a computer screen or at the water cooler. But when it matters most. Those are OUR babies! How long will we continue to allow our children to be terrorized and beaten, and then sit back and talk barbershop, beauty salon, or Sunday church dinner smack about how rotten the kids nowadays have gotten?
Don’t we know there’s a tipping point? Don’t we realize that there is a breaking point?
250 years of slavery
100 years of segregation and Jim Crow
50 years of discrimination and brutality
And here we are, our cups running over with pain.
And yet some of us are still trying to put the weight and residue of that pain at the feet of our millennial children and somehow expecting them to respond with the same ole’ respectability, same ole’ shucking and jiving, surviving instead of thriving that we’ve always done.
But one day, they are going to say “Nah.”
One day, they are going to cry out “Black Lives Matter.”
And one day, maybe, just maybe, we will.
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