By Preshuslee Thompson
Middle school was when lessons of womanhood began slapping me in the face. I noticed my body changing in ways that many of the girls around me weren’t yet experiencing. For instance, the day I started my period. I remember as clear as day the moment a girl in my 6th grade class told me I had blood stains on the back of my sky blue jogging pants. My first response was asking her why she let me walk down the hallway with the entire class following suit back to our classroom without telling me about the stain. She responded with shrugged shoulders.
In that long hallway I felt myself growing smaller and smaller. Weighed down by this sense of betrayal. I couldn’t decipher if I felt more betrayed by my body or by the friend I felt could have saved me some embarrassment. I asked my teacher if I could go to the nurse’s office and call my mom. I turned around so she could see the stain. My teacher being the first adult woman I interacted with since taking this step into womanhood, was who I expected to offer me some comfort or encouragement in this ordeal. She didn’t, instead she sent me back down the long hall alone and exposed, to go to the nurses office. I guess I hoped she would hold my hand and escort me or offer me something to wrap around my waist. When she didn’t that walk to the nurse’s office began to feel more like a walk of shame. The school nurse offered me nothing but privacy to make a phone call. By this time the level of embarrassment was enough to make me want to cry. I couldn’t even tell my mother why I called. But of course, she’s a mom and she knew what happened. She gave me all the instruction I needed to care for myself and asked the nurse to let me wait in the office until she arrived. My mother and my aunt showed up to the school, smiles big and arms wide open, ready to celebrate me like the shedding of my blood saved lives. Relieved to be leaving school and surrounded by women who loved me, I realized some disconnect between what being a woman meant at school versus what it meant at home.
At home womanhood meant upgrading from a tiara to a crown. My mother ruled her matriarchy with grace, audacity, and love. In my home my sister and I were always empowered to be who we wanted to be. My mother fed into my sister’s dreams of athleticism just as much as she fed into my desires to learn and create music. In my home compromised of all women we wore what we wanted when we wanted. We indulged ourselves with the things we loved: cooking, dancing, yard sales, and car rides. Every tongue in our home was sharp. My mother encouraged me and my sister to express ourselves and to be heard. Holding back my comments of disapproval is a task I’m still learning to perfect today, but as an adolescent my filter was much more nonexistent.
My mom never withheld knowledge from us. She answered questions about how babies are made bluntly. She never shied away from the details of childbirth either, which may explain why I’m pretty content on being a dog mom/rich aunty. My sister and I were treated like we were the best things since sliced bread by my mother. We were confident in ourselves. We were taught to embrace our bodies and love our skin. Our hair was free reign for self-expression because my mom was a hairstylist. Our minds were fed constantly with random pop quizzes like what freeway signs meant, which singer of killing me softly did I share a name with (Roberta Flack), and what type of schooling I needed to be a librarian or museum curator. My mother was raising well rounded, strong minded, and loving queens. So my sister and I treated every day like a lesson.
I studied my mother and what womanhood looked like in her world. In my youthful eyes my mother stretched pennies into dollars, made adversity feel more like an adventure, she found magic in every moment, and solved every problem I brought her with love. A man was never present in our home so we did not sort tasks into gendered roles. We cooked and cleaned as much as we made impromptu repairs and took out the trash. Because my mother worked two jobs and sometimes three, I volunteered to take on some of her duties. Every school night I made sure my sister and I completed our chores and homework, cooked dinner, and was sure to call my sister inside by the time the street lights were on. So my age was never something that protected me from responsibility, and because of that I never let an age difference be the deciding factor for who gives respect versus who earns it.
I was the child that loved school. Learning just made me happy. From kindergarten on I spent my free time in the library so much that I formed close bonds with every librarian I had in k-12. In the library I felt safe. I could get lost in rows of books and dive into stories. I read books that taught me about black history and culture. I read books by Rosa Guy and fell in love with strong female characters like Edith Jackson. I learned of stories about the slave trade and escaping to freedom from authors like Sharon Draper and her book Copper Sun. Mildred D. Taylor taught me about the strength of the Black Family with her books about the Logan Family. In all these books I found myself. The books in the library were the only reflection of myself I could find in my schools. Few students, teachers and staff looked like me. In my entire K-12 experience I had only 4 teachers who looked like me and one of them was not my teacher. They knew they could not take away the strong sense of un-belonging I felt in my classrooms but they knew if they encouraged my reading like my mother did then I would find my place.
In my predominantly white suburban school I already felt “othered” because I was black but getting my period showed me that there would be an additional sense of un-belonging because I was becoming a Black Woman. In 4th grade I was sent home with a letter to my mother indicating that the blue braids in my hair were distracting to other students. I had spent the week prior to the start of school begging my mom to put blue weave in my hair for the first day of school. I saw so many other girls my age with dyed and highlighted hair so I wanted something that stood out too. But, being sent home with that letter let me know I couldn’t do the same things the other girls in my school could do. By 7th grade I began feeling as though I had a target on my back. On many occasions I was sent to the principal’s office. Generally it was due to my non-compliance with the school dress code and disruptive behavior. My curvier body was penalized for wearing shorts that were too tight, despite their approved length, spaghetti strapped shirts being too revealing despite the fact that it was a clothing trend many of the girls in my school participated in, and for wearing shirts that had too provocative Justin Timberlake lyrics in glitter. Despite how cute and “sexy” all the girls at school felt in their heels, make-up and t shirts knotted in the back for the belly shirt effect, it was clear my black body would not be the one to bring sexy back.
When looking at Ohio K-12 discipline disparities we can see that black girls receive the most discipline infractions. In fact they are disciplined at rates 3.16 times their total composition in Ohio Schools. The majority of the time their behaviors are deemed disruptive/disobedient. Of all the discipline infractions black girls received in Ohio schools 67% fell into the disruptive/disobedient category. However, this behavior category has no clear definition and is left to the subjective interpretation of school professionals. In addition black girls are getting punished in school for noncompliance with the dress code and often times simply from wearing their natural hair. Implicit bias research has indicated that stereotypes held about black bodies and black behavior have influenced teacher’s perspective of their students and clouded their understanding of cultural differences.
This information brought me to begin questioning my k-12 teacher’s perspectives of me. Ultimately I felt as though I was being punished for not being enough like the other girls. My sense of un-belonging was strengthened by the pressure of not being enough. My skin wasn’t light enough. My hair? Not straight enough. My words were too loud. I was told “you’re too smart for your own good.” “I know you said your mom taught you but that’s how I know it’s wrong.” “I don’t like like you, but it’s not because you’re black.” Comments like these made school feel less and less of a safe space by middle school.
The expectations of white feminity and womanhood were just something I could not live up to. Many black girls can’t and it’s not because we are incapable. It’s because there is no universal experience of womanhood. Being a womyn looks different in every culture and being expected to conform to behaviors that don’t align with your upbringing is a set up for failure. Young black girls like me, would never feel like they were enough if the expectations of white womanhood remain as the status quo.
So how were my teacher’s biases causing them to perceive me? Was my blue hair only disruptive because it was on my black body? Did beginning my period mark the beginning of my walk of shame days and hypersexual tendencies in my teachers’ eyes? Had I received no support from the female school staff around me because my body wasn’t as pure as the other girls? Could the curves on my brown body be more of a distraction to the boys at school than the white girls? Was I being called disruptive when answering too many of the teachers questions because they saw me as loud and boisterous with a “know it all” attitude? Understanding the manner in which implicit biases work revealed to me alternative explanations for my sense of not belonging in school.
I recall having trouble at home in 7th grade. This was the first time when I can remember my home life having a direct impact on my school work. From kindergarten I was deemed a gifted and talented student. As early as 4th grade I was being taken out of my classroom to take enrichment classes focused on providing more of a challenge in school. With that being said, I was considered an advanced student in my class and was put into high school level math classes in 7th grade. However, with the troubles at home I struggled in pre-algebra. Not because I did not understand the content but because I could not focus and I felt targeted by my teacher in the classroom. I remember constantly being berated by my teacher for not paying attention or not doing well on test. My homework, on the other hand, was immaculate. My teacher never sat down with me to find out what was going on. She never asked why my grades had suddenly dropped or if everything at home was ok. Instead she chalked it up to me not being able to perform and held me back in math the next year. Did my teacher internalize stereotypes about black students being troubled or girls being less competent in math? Were my math grades more indicative of her confirmation biases than a red flag for troubles at home?
Clearly I understood the work, maybe some additional attention and less reprimanding would have kept me focused. To 14 year-old me, my 7th grade math teacher simply did not like me. I hated going to her class more so than any other because I felt she constantly sought to embarrass me or call me out in front of the entire class. Speaking up for myself in her classroom always ended with a threat to go to the principal’s office. So I stopped speaking in all my classes. I unfortunately began internalizing the messages I received in school suggesting that if you were a black girl you were supposed to be silent, invisible, and take up as little space as possible. I learned to keep my head down and I worked hard because in my household we learned that as a black student you have to work twice as hard to get anywhere in this life and merely existing in a white space could make you a target.
I grew up with a lot of internal conflict about what it meant to be a woman and how my blackness conflicted those notions. This confusion in life was later resolved when I began exploring feminism and black feminist thought. I was able to gain a deeper understanding about the expectations of white femininity and womanhood and how historically speaking the black female body was never deemed pure like the white woman’s body. I learned about intersectionality and how race, gender, socioeconomic status, religion and other identities shape your experiences concurrently. Most importantly, I learned how to be unapologetically myself. In the last years of my K-12 experience I focused on living out loud and being the woman I was loved as at home.
When learning how to navigate black womanhood during the rest of my K-12 education and into my post-secondary studies I kept a few simple lessons from my mother in mind. If you put on something and you like how it makes you feel, wear it. The real punishments in life come from choosing not to speak up for yourself. Lastly, black is beautiful and sometimes standing in your beauty can be painful but true strength comes when you dare to be yourself unapologetically.