Childhood Should Not Be A Privilege: The Projection of Adult Stereotypes on to Black Girls

Intersectionality theory asserts that individuals experience varying degrees of oppression and marginalization due to social factors or constructs such as race, gender, class, etc. that work in a reciprocating and cumulative manner. Accordingly, the simultaneous effects of racism and sexism are part of the lived experiences of women of color on a regular basis. This, of course, is nothing new as scholars including Kimberle Crenshaw, Patricia Hill-Collins, Angela Y. Davis, bell hooks, and Melissa Harris-Perry have all eloquently examined the relationship(s) between and among social constructs used to label and subjugate women, people of color, and/or low income persons. In deed, in her highly insightful and influential work, Black Feminist Thought, Professor Patiricia Hill-Collins elucidates what she termed the Matrix of Domination – an invisible yet unavoidable socially manufactured system of power that disproportionately impacts women of color. In Black Feminist Thought, Professor Hill-Collins explains that “controlling images” of black women perpetuate stereotypes that negatively impact the manner in which they are perceived thereby influencing how they are treated on a day-to-day basis. Common “controlling images” or stereotypes of black women include but are not limited to the jezebel, mammy, sapphire, welfare mother, etc.

Although such is the reality for black women, unfortunately, it seems that such is the case for black girls as well. During the 2013 awards season, Quvenzhane Wallis, then 9-years old, received much deserved attention upon her Oscar nomination for her role in the critically acclaimed Beasts of the Southern Wild. Without a doubt, an Oscar nomination is one of the greatest acknowledgments of an actor’s talent and hard work. For many adult actors, an Oscar nomination is one of the greatest achievements of their careers. Hence, one can only imagine that a nomination at the age of 9 is a tremendous fete and a very proud moment in the life of a little girl.

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However, years from now, when Quvenzhane reflects back on the night of the Oscars in 2013, her memory of the event will likely remain tainted by The Onion’s characterization of her on social media. Explicitly, of the 9-year old acting phenomenon, The Onion staff posted via Twitter, “Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhane Wallis is kind of a c*nt, right?” Needless to say, The Onion’s social media staff received quite a bit of backlash resulting in the deletion of the tweet. Most recently, Mo’Nae Davis was referred to as a sl*t on social media simply because Disney has chosen to do a movie about the young, athletic phenomenon. Although the person responsible for the Twitter message was soon suspended from his college’s baseball team, Miss Davis proved to be the more mature person and asked the college to revoke his suspension. Despite being young girls, they too are being subjected to and subjugated by the same stereotypes and controlling images associated with those adults who stand at the nexus of race and gender within the African American community.

One could argue their experiences are, in part, the result of movie and television depictions of young black girls as “sassy” and “outspoken” – smaller versions of the sapphire stereotype often associated with black women. Past television characters such as Dee from What’s Happening or present day television characters such as Zuri on Disney’s Jesse perpetuate the notion that young black girls possess the same behavioral characteristics projected on to adult black women. Consequently, their innocence and vulnerability is obscured preventing people from seeing them as the children they in fact are.  Childhood is a wonderful time in a person’s life.  You only get to enjoy it once.  We should allow all children to enjoy its innocence.  It should not be a privilege.