She was the smartest one in her fifth grade class, which, on the face of it, was big and impressive, but not something that we appreciated as parents or that bode well for my Mari. See, we’d always encouraged our daughters, the straight-A’s, gifted gangstas of their elementary school, to do their absolute best. But we also taught them that it wasn’t necessarily a good thing to be the smartest in the room because when that happens, chances that they’ll learn are greatly diminished.
Sure enough, this was proven to be so for Mari at the tender age of 11. Being the smart one left Mari sitting in the back of the class, quietly reading a book while the teacher gave lessons to the rest of the students, because baby girl had already mastered the material. It also meant that Mari spent way too much time for my taste working practically as a teacher’s assistant, helping her classmates understand the lessons when the teacher couldn’t connect with them.
But that wasn’t the biggest problem. The whopper was that the Black students in the class—a bunch of little Black girls, to be specific—would give Mari the business for being smart. Part of the time they were leaning on her to use her influence with the teacher to get the entire class out of reading assignments and extra homework. At other times, they were leaning on her to let them copy her homework or cheat off her tests.
The worst thing, though, was what would happen when she didn’t yield to their demands: they’d say she was “acting white” and use her intelligence, her gifted status and her love of reading to question my baby’s blackness. Despite that this child was blackety black black, being raised by two fists-in-the-air black parents who had practically given her an IV of blackness from the womb.We have to #TalkEarly to our kids about the foolishness of 'acting white' accusations. Here's how I did it. Click To Tweet
Baby girl was overwhelmed by the accusations. Confused, too, seeing as outside of school, she was surrounded by people who were both black and smart and didn’t think for even one second that one of those designations came at the expense of the other. Mostly, though, she sat in her fifth grade class feeling isolated, anxious and misunderstood, and definitely tired of some of her black peers dismissing her simply because she chose to use her brain.
Let me tell you this: parenting her through this was no easy feat. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t want to march up to that school and check those lil’ heiffas… um, have a stern talking with the kids… for not only making my baby feel a way about her beautiful brain, but also for falling into that tired ol’ trope of equating intelligence with whiteness and ignorance with black people. Like, bruh, who taught you to hate you?
Clearly, this wasn’t something we could check out on; Mari needed real-time advice on how to deal with what was basically racialized bullying.
We started by teaching her the most important lesson of all: that no one, especially those little girls, had the power to validate her. What they had to say about her intelligence, lust for learning and reading and especially her blackness was inconsequential because they didn’t make the sun rise in the morning, they weren’t paying any of her bills, they were not responsible for giving her the grades that would ultimately open doors for her academically, financially and socially later on in her life, and ain’t nan one of them push her from their loins. And seeing as they had the power to do not nan one of these things, they did not have the power to invalidate her, either—no power to tell her what to do, how to be or who she was, periodt.
But telling her to disregard what they had to say wasn’t going to be enough; she still had to go to school every weekday. So we validated her feelings and told her that we understood what she was going through, because we went through it, too. She got regaled with stories about what it was like to, like her, be one of only a handful of black kids in advanced classes, plus ways we stayed encouraged to do our best and ignore the students who had a problem with that.True blackness is about loving hard, embracing others and valuing culture and excellence, too. Click To Tweet
We followed that up by making opportunities for her to be with friends who actually cared about her—who didn’t give her grief for being herself. That circle included her cousins and kids she’d attended private school with before going to the public school where she was catching hell. We got her involved in a myriad of afterschool activities that got her around other kids who shared a love for things she loved—art, soccer, and the like—that stretched beyond the classroom. Having different friend groups helped her see who was worthy her time and brain space and who actually didn’t care about her and wasn’t worth her time.
Finally, we poured into her constantly—made sure that she understood what blackness really is. It’s people who love hard, embrace others and value their culture and yes, also, excellence. It’s blue collar workers and CEOs, church folk and sinners, bougie people living in big houses and ratchet people living in the hood and a whole lot of people who fall economically and geographically between the two. It’s Kirk Franklin and Mahalia Jackson, Kendrick Lamar and Future, ribs and greens and fried tofu, weaves and cornrows and locs. In other words, blackness, we explained, is a myriad of things that stretch deep into the soul of our humanity. There’s no one way to be black. Simple as that.
And that made all the sense in the world to my baby—fortified her so that she could make it out of the fifth grade whole.
Now, we put her in a private school after that so she didn’t have to deal with that “you acting white” foolishness in middle school, when kids tend to turn into uncontrollable savages herded by hormones and attitude. But Mari learned some valuable lessons, especially how to build positive, solid friendships and how to have the confidence to make the right decisions for herself, including not playing herself small for the sake of others. It was a lesson that came in handy over and over again as she matured and faced new sticky situations and had to think for herself how to roll in them—from choosing a good set of friends who had her best interest at heart, to choosing not to get herself caught up in situations where she’d be asked to do things she wasn’t ready for, like drink and take drugs. The confidence she built in the 5th grade helped her make it through.
In honor of Red Ribbon Week, a week dedicated to encouraging parents to talk to their teens about preventing drug use and underage drinking, I encourage you to talk to your kids about the importance of curating good friends, having the confidence to make the right decisions and, of course, refraining from underage drinking. Need help with that conversation? I encourage you to visit Responsibility.org to find helpful resources on how to talk to kids about alcohol and being responsible.
And please, let’s do what we can to let go of this “acting white” trope and teach our babies about real blackness and its interconnectedness with excellence.
* * * * *
I’m a proud #TalkEarly blogging ambassador and I’ve been compensated for this post, but trust and believe, these opinions are my own. You know I’d have it no other way.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.