Tomorrow, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, my three-year-old son will dress as Queen Esther, the star of this show. But reactions to his choice show just how little room boys have for exploring different gender roles.
Tomorrow, Jews will celebrate Purim, my contender for all time best holiday in a religion. Not only are we encouraged to drink enough as to not be able to distinguish the names Haman and Mordecai (since those don’t sound remotely similar, that’s a lot of Manischewitz), we get to dress up and make lots of noise in the synagogue. And there are special cookies.
More importantly, Purim is one of few holidays in any liturgy that centers around the achievements of a woman. Not only are men in the foreground of our other holidays honoring specific people, they take center stage in many of those of other major religions: Passover (Moses with best supporting actor to Aaron and a walk-on for Miriam), Hanukah (Judah Maccabee), Christmas (Jesus with Mary supporting), Easter (Jesus again) and Laylat Usra and Miraj (Mohammed.)
Queen Esther, the heroine of the Purim tale, defied expectations to help save her people from planned annihilation at the hands of her husband’s no-good advisor, Haman. Every year, Jewish children dress up as one of the main characters in this drama. And when asked, Mordecai, Haman or King Ahasuerus — my three year old son quickly chose Queen Esther. A no brainer, really — she’s the star of this show.
While I happily borrowed a dress of the frilliest, shiniest available (and went wild at Walgreens on a plastic crown with matching jewelry) my husband is not so keen on this little gender-bending adventure. A close friend, your liberal by habit kind of corporate lawyer, declared — upon seeing him in full regalia — “that’s child abuse.”
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There’s been a spate of articles remarking on a burgeoning preference for girls. Change.org asked readers “so what do you think of this modern-day girl fetish? As we fight for equality among men, could it be possible that women in the United States will end up outgrowing the ‘boys club’?” And Elle magazine caused quite a stir with an article that chronicled several women’s obsessive desire for a girl.
Perhaps it’s only fitting to want a girl, in this age when girls can be Superman or fairies, lumberjacks or princesses. Girls, in many cases, have the whole range of gender expression open to them. We may call them tom-boys but climbing trees and playing matchbox cars is a possibility for girls.
Not so for boys — from the clothes they wear to the toys they play with — there is a proscribed set of options. Boys not only will be boys, we seem determined to ensure that’s the case. And this is not just a re-enforcement of the importance of masculinity above all things — it’s an implicit and powerful devaluation of what’s feminine in all of us.
Make no mistake, my son will be the cutest little Queen Esther in my eyes but it’s troubling that this role playing will surely cause double-takes for others. My son is no more likely to actually think he’s a queen than he believes he is a frog, his choice for Halloween costume. He understands Esther as a character he’s learned about in pre-school — one he desires to play. To me, she symbolizes courage, non-conformity, loyalty and faith — if these are traits my child wishes to emulate, I couldn’t be happier.
This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.
For Black girls, the very schools charged with educating them reinforce and reproduce a dangerous, though often invisible, form of racial and gendered inequality, explains Dr. Monique W. Morris in her new book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.
Among the young girls the reader meets in Pushout, there’s “Mia” (not her real name, as Morris used pseudonyms for all girls interviewed). Mia talked about how a “juvie” teacher assumed that when she asked for other tasks in class, that the girl didn’t complete her work. But Mia told Morris that she had raced through the assignment. Said Mia: “Then I’m like, ‘Can I write or draw?’ Something? I mean, it’s a whole hour to go.’ She was like, ‘No, you can’t do anything. You’re always getting done before the whole class. You know what, get out.’ …. I’m like, ‘Because I do my work, I’m actually trying to do my work now, and now you want me to get out? Hella shit.’”
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What Mia wanted was positive recognition. Instead, she got written up.
Though Morris did not coin the term, the word “pushout” is an intentional reframing of the word “dropout.” It acknowledges that young people leaving school do so for a variety of reasons, many not of their own making. Poverty demands they work. Predatory “boyfriends” induct underage girls into selling sex with promises of love, clothes, and cash. Chaotic schools can make a motivated student dread going to class. LGBTQ teens who don’t conform to gender norms get bullied by peers and labeled “distracting” by adults.
The reasons abound, but each year, millions of U.S. students face expulsion or suspension. According to research from the Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection, seven million of the almost 50 million U.S. students faced in-school or out-of-school suspension in 2011-2012, the most recent year for which data is available. About 130,000 were expelled.
An education scholar and co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, Morris focuses on implicit bias—a term from experimental psychology for the unconscious ideas that influence how we think and interact. Implicit bias can affect when police officers shoot, how managers making hiring decisions, and as Morris demonstrates with devastating clarity, when educators suspend students.
Teachers and administrators often bring racialized and gendered assumptions about what it means to be a “good” girl to the classroom, Morris explains in her book. Notions of appropriate girlhood—nonsexualized though heterosexual, compliant, and quiet—are often the opposite of historical stereotypes that have cast Black girls as sexually precocious, uncooperative, and disrespectful. If a person believes the idea that every Black girl is a Jezebel-in-training or hates school, it’s hard for them to see beyond that.
And, in many cases, affected girls understand this.
Largely absent throughout much of Pushout are Black girls’ parents or guardians. Morris departs from the long tradition of punditry and social science that churns out study after study about what’s “wrong” with this mythical, monolithic, and immutable Black family. It’s a refreshing absence that will make some readers ask about parental involvement. That’s a fair question—but an easy and familiar default that inevitably veers into talk about personal responsibility without taking structural inequality into account.
Interviewing almost 40 pushed-out girls in urban areas, including Mia, Morris uses their own words to assert that Black girls are worth study, attention, and equity in education.
“Shai” from Chicago noted different responses to her and white peers that she calls “little Suzie”: “When little Suzie gets the question wrong, it’s like, ‘Aww, you got the question wrong.’ It’s funny.” In contrast, when Shai made an error, “it’s like, ‘Oh, she’s slow.’ … I get so angry, number one, because I already told them I’m bad at math. Number two, because I’m not slow.”
Girls can be tossed from schools for fighting or so-called “status offenses”—actions such as skipping school that are punishable only for a certain class (in this case, minors).
But pushout occurs all too often when Black girls are labeled unruly. They talk too loud and too often, according to a teacher. Maybe a girl is wearing the “wrong” clothes to school (which might have to do as much with fashion, size, gender identity, or access to the right clothes as a desire to thumb a nose at authority). An authority figure says they have an “attitude.”
On any given day, girls of all races push boundaries on their way to adulthood. But white girls’ behaviors, interviewees said, are seen as temporary actions, not inevitable or part of their identities.
In high school, I too was guilty of these bogus offenses: cursing, wearing my older sisters’ too-grown-for-me clothes, occasionally sassing teachers. On the first day of my senior year of high school, my history teacher stopped me at the door and said, “I know you’re used to getting A’s. But that won’t happen in my class.” In the subsequent yearlong tug of war, I blatantly ignored his lectures—uninspired regurgitations of the textbook—by reading dusty classroom encyclopedias. He’d ask, “Why don’t you listen?” My response: “Why don’t you make it interesting?”
I was a “good kid”: straight A’s and well-rounded, with professional parents and from a neighborhood where more kids were college-bound than not. If I failed, my parents and other teachers at my 99 percent Black high school would cry foul. They expected me to succeed, just as my teacher—who sometimes mused aloud about his dreams to work at a high-performing school—expected me to struggle under his sad, uncreative teaching.
As Morris points out through this book, talking back, simply asking genuine questions, or expecting a teacher to teach can set a girl on a short path to school separation. She could face suspension, expulsion, being moved to an alternative school for troubled youth, house arrest, and even detention or incarceration in juvenile hall (and sometimes adult corrections facilities).
Pushout can have long-term consequences. As Morris points out, many girls struggle to return to school, and others land in the juvenile justice system due to an incident that began in a place of learning. Today, Black girls make up the fastest growing population in the juvenile justice system.
Concerns about Black girls and school discipline have not risen as quickly as the statistics, though groups such as the African American Policy Forum and many Black women scholar-activists are persistently sounding the alarm. Otherwise, it’s a quiet crisis silenced by Akeelah and the Bee logic that Black families don’t value education and are continually falling down on their most important job: raising well-adjusted, healthy children. Or it’s muffled by a comfortable patriarchy that, whenever attention focuses on Black children in education, centers on Black boys like the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative.
While Morris sounds the alarm that Black girls experience different racial and gender biases, she writes compellingly about the persistence of segregation after legal segregation supposedly ended.There are many segregations described in Pushout: the segregation of higher-performing students from those considered at risk in almost every school in the nation; the separation of “troubled” girls in juvenile facilities; and the concentration of Black and brown children in schools with few whites and few resources. Morris’ account raises the question of whether school demographics make a difference in this era of school resegregation. If teachers, administrators, and the broader society is disinterested in schools where students of color predominate, the picture doesn’t look much better for Black girls in majority-white schools.
I should note that Pushout largely focuses on urban girls in cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee, and San Francisco. What happens to girls in the rural South? Where there may be one high school in a county, alternative schools are rarely an option; if they are options, they may be in an adjacent county or farther, separating detained youth from their family and support network.
Despite this omission, Pushout pushes us to think about different kinds of personal, professional, and social responsibility. “Implicit bias” may sound like a more benign cousin to racism or “racism light” (and to be clear, implicit bias is not merely about race or gender, and it’s not confined to any one race or ethnicity).
If we accept that implicit bias lies at the root of pushout, how do we root out the bias at the levels of the self, the individual teacher, the school, and the educational and criminal justice systems? In a final addendum to the book, Morris points to two models: positive behavioral intervention systems (an approach that many educational institutions use to modify behavior and increase positive feedback) and restorative justice, which stresses communication and healing between the person who committed an offense and those affected. In the right circumstances, each approach can lead to change.
If Morris makes anything plain, it’s this: Black girls shouldn’t have to rely on their own resilience to stay in school. We need a sophisticated toolbox with multiple programs that doesn’t blame low-performing schools for their problems, that invests in Black girls specifically, and that takes aim at implicit bias.
But that’s easier said than done. We can spot the people wearing Klan hoods at Trump rallies, but implicit bias is a sneakier opponent that looks like and dresses like us.
White women have sat for too long as passive spectators to brutality and genocide committed by our own families, in our names, because we have been full of false convictions. Even if we did not start them, we can decide now to end them.
The white terrorist who gunned down six Black women and three Black men, peaceful worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, announced his murderous intentions by first declaring, “You rape our women.” We all know that he meant white women, like me. “His” women, as a white man like him would think of us.
There is something terribly, disastrously wrong with how white people tolerate racism among other whites, how we interact with people of color, how we interact with the Black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved by our ancestors. This is not something we can fix by promising to renounce racial slurs, nor even by promising to correct each other’s racist speech in private. The rot goes deeper.
Firstly, because it’s important to emphasize: White men are the ones who are most likely to rape white women. Especially those white men who think of us as their own, particular property. The majority of rapes, like the majority of all crimes, are committed by people known to the victims. White men have built a parallel society in the United States to keep white women and children in a society where a white person can often go for days, weeks, or longer, without meeting a single person of color who is presented to us as a peer. Whom else do white women usually know?
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These segregated, insular, white communities so many of us live in, we are told, were set up so white women and children could be “safe” in “good” neighborhoods, and many of us enthusiastically bought this story too. “Good” neighborhoods protected by police forces who are enjoined to act like white people’s personal enforcers—sometimes as agents of terror against Black children, women, and men, and against other people of color—rather than as public servants with a lawful duty to every citizen. “Good” neighborhoods where the only men around who have the social standing to rape with impunity are white men. And they do.
White men tell white women to be afraid of Black men. They ask us to call the police in the event of a “suspicious” non-white man in the neighborhood, especially a Black man, whatever he may be doing. We white women have often been eagerly complicit in this false, learned fear that has unleashed such devastating white terrorism on Black communities. It’s so much simpler for us to believe anything besides the truth, so we do. Too many of us have bought this slander of Black men, even as the men who usually rape us, and who so often get away with raping non-white women, are white men.
The tragic massacre of peaceful Black women and men at the AME church is exactly where these attitudes and behaviors were meant to lead. They are meant to produce a vicious, hateful willingness to destroy whatever a white person can’t “protect” through ownership.
Every one of us must reject these white supremacist attitudes, these claims to ownership over other people’s lives and well-being for the gratification of our own egos. We need to reject the moral authority of anyone whose ethics begin and end with their own rights to amass property. We have to look very hard at every part of our society where we perpetuate the idea that people can own each other.
And we must certainly look at the part of white women in all of this, since we’ve also been here, all along. Was it not white women who came in like locusts to loot the homes and businesses after the white male rioters and the National Guard burned Black Wall Street in Tulsa? Was it not white women who would have set out the family’s Sunday best and brought along the picnics for the lynchings that can be seen in those old postcards? We were there. How long did it take after the fall of Jim Crow for white women to even begin to think of mourning murdered Black children as if they were our own nieces and nephews, the children of our sisters?
In slave-owning white households, was it not also white women who made the lives of the enslaved Black women around them miserable and sometimes unimaginably tragic out of jealousy, instead of seeing the rape of their sisters and finding a way to act from compassion? Indeed, in the Jefferson household, as in countless others, Sally Hemings was in fact Martha Jefferson’s half-sister, because their father raped the women he enslaved. When the freed descendants of these enslaved Black women first took up paid labor in white households doing similar work, they were often still subject to the same threat of rape by white men and treated with scarcely more compassion by white women.
Before white men could own slaves, they could take wives. A wife is not a slave, but in much of historical white culture, neither was she a free person. Under the doctrine of coverture in English law, she was not quite a person at all, and the last of the laws that stemmed from coverture were stricken down in U.S. courts in the 1970s. Marital rape could not even be conceived of as a crime in white culture until the middle of the 20th century. And from the start of Western literature, it was already established that a wife and mother was not even supposed to speak in public, as an act of modesty and humility in honor of the family patriarch, while a first rite of manhood was to claim the authority to shut her up.
From the social fantasy of the model, upper-class, white wife comes the ideal of the passivity of white women. She is quiet, meek, pale with hiding indoors, she reacts, she supports. She gives, and loves, and simpers. Instead of acting, she asks, and so she acts under permission, under his authority as a good little girl ought to. The story she remembers of her own life is a story of things done around or near or to her, things witnessed from a remove, except the blur of menial tasks and social obeisance. She is helpless, unaccountable in the innocence of that helplessness, and in constant need of rescue by the white male hero. She is necessarily insecure, because what can she do?
Yet while white women can be trained into creating a convincing simulacrum of such a person, that has never been anyone’s authentic self. It’s a box built for women’s personalities so that white men could believe that we naturally exist as objects for their conquest and ownership, whereas no such thing is true.
As Andrea Dworkin said, “Genocide begins, however improbably, in the conviction that classes of biological distinction indisputably sanction social and political discrimination.” White women have sat for too long as passive spectators to brutality and genocide committed by our own families, in our names, because we have been full of such false convictions. Even if we did not start them, we can decide now to end them.
It doesn’t deny the misogyny we’ve been subjected to for us to acknowledge any of this. That isn’t how it works.
Because this fantasy of our “natural” passivity, so convincing a lie told about white women by white men that we often come to believe it ourselves, must go. We must give up being objects before we can seek a basic decency greater than that of those who would own us. And where we cling to these myths from fear, which is often, it’s a lie that turning ourselves into wish-fulfillment objects for white men will make us safe. Objects can’t love, nor can they be loved. Only love can make people truly safe with each other.
So we need to call each other to walk away from learned passivity and towards love, as many times as it takes. We must stop forgiving each other’s bad behavior, or asking for forgiveness, and insist on change, following the example of the dearly beloved Black women and men our nation is in mourning for right now.
It’s not Black people in the United States who need to change.
Every one of the AME worshippers died as a model of the kind of person all white people should strive to be. I hope my son will want to grow up to be like them. I hope he will be like the loved ones they left behind, people who showed incredible forbearance as cameras were shoved in their faces by white people who were asking for forgiveness before the bodies were even cold.
In the aftermath of white supremacist terrorism, white people must absolutely listen to the requests of the Black community that we stop asking them to act like the Rev. Martin Luther King, another peaceful Black person murdered by a white supremacist. Black people, like the murdered Rev. Clementa Pinckney and Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, already knew how to act like that. The slain worshippers lived as a testament to the church’s 200-year-old legacy of standing in fellowship against white supremacist terror. They easily extended their hospitality to a complete stranger, a hateful man who would sit with them for an hour before gunning them down, just like his white supremacist idols who had murdered other Black people they could not own or control.
Have Black people not been terrorized over the last few hundred years into a meekness toward white people that runs so deep, African-American men have been seen to politely ask their white attackers to stop hurting them even as they were taking their last breaths?
White people would do better to start listening to King’s request of us throughout his life and works, and throughout the life and works of the other women and men in the Civil Rights Movement, that we learn to listen to and love our Black sisters and brothers. That we make white society decent and humane at long last.
What is white fear of the “angry” Black person besides a worry that we will be held to account for the merciless slander and persecution of Black people by whites that each and every white person bears responsibility for tolerating as if it were not a deadly emergency?