Confession: I’m a grown woman with (sadly) no ties to the Pinkett Smith clan, yet I love and support Willow Smith. Is that weird? Maybe, but here’s why I do:
Willow Smith is a carefree black girl.
Now, I didn’t coin that term; its origins are to be uncovered somewhere in the murky waters of the internet by a far more intrepid explorer than I, but if it wasn’t birthed to describe Willow, I would be surprised.
The existence of the carefree black girl isn’t new, however. If you were a young girl in the 90s, as I was, you probably recognize her in Lisa Bonet. Denise Huxtable and Lisa Bonet somehow fused to become the ultimate carefree black girl: confident, stylish and supremely herself. I didn’t know many girls who didn’t want to be her. Didn’t we all dream of attending Hillman College? Had Hillman not been fictional, it probably would have been full of carefree black girls. Black girls with self-assurance so strong, you couldn’t help but admire it. I know I did then, and still do, even in someone as young as Willow Smith.
Willow exudes the confidence of a young girl who has been given the space and freedom for self-exploration as far away from the pressures society places on young girls of color as a privileged upbringing can afford. As others have rightly pointed out before me, Willow’s ability to explore various interests and forms of expression stems from a place of significant privilege—a fact that cannot be overlooked, and while her parents are indeed famous and wealthy, it is undoubtedly also their commitment to a manner of parenting that favors such exploration that has resulted in her confidence.
While Willow is not your average young black girl due to her upbringing, she is still subject to attempts to force her into the narrow silos in which black girls are allowed to exist. As witnessed in the YouTube comments section for the video of her latest output as one half of the duo Melodic Chaotic, a song called Summer Fling, respectability politics are already being bandied about regarding her musical and visual choices. Willow’s public existence and determination to explore all versions of herself represent a narrative that we don’t see nearly enough—one that moves away from the constraints placed on young black girls regarding their own bodies and their true, full selves. While many have focused on what they deem wrong with the Smiths’ parenting choices, perhaps the focus should shift to what it means to have a young black girl in the public eye who exhibits such a strong sense of self, as well as how to nurture that same sense of self in other girls.
Willow Smith’s commitment to herself is admirable; however, this issue extends beyond her. The larger issue at hand is one of young black girls being afforded the luxury of self-expression in a manner that is generally reserved for their young white counterparts. While young white girls, simply by virtue of being girls, face a host of pressures, their experiences differ greatly from those of young black girls with respect to the freedom to exercise agency over their own lives. Thanks to persistent societal inequality, black girls don’t often find the carefreeness with which white girls travel through childhood and adolescence mirrored in their own lives. The actions and bodies of white girls are not coded in the same manner as those of black girls, creating a disparity in perception and reception of their respective activity. With songs like Whip My Hair, or even Summer Fling, Willow Smith has tapped into a space that has publicly primarily been reserved for young white girls; a carefree space that should be open to all young girls, yet isn’t.
Ultimately, Willow represents what it means when young black girls are presented with a variety of potential paths to self-determination and self-acceptance; paths to a carefreeness that releases them from the pressures of a society wherein everything from their hair, to their language, to their bodies, to their names is fair game and policed. For evidence of this, one only has to look back to 9-year-old Beasts of the Southern Wild star and Academy Award nominee, Quvenzhané Wallis whose name was mocked and mangled during the entire award season, and who was sexualized in the name of comedy during the night of this year’s Academy Awards show. The bigger issue here is one of black girls moving through the world with a sense of freedom from the restrictions placed on their every move; one of young girls fully standing in their bodies despite outside forces attempting to minimize them at every turn.
So yes, I love and support Willow Smith, as well as every young carefree and not-so-carefree black girl who is just trying to make her way through this world on her own terms, because to be a carefree black girl is to be courageous and defiant in the face of sustained pressure to the contrary, and to be one at an age as young as Willow’s is to be definitively ahead of the curve.
I grew up watching a lot of comedy with my dad. It was the 80s. I loved Punky Brewster and polka dots. I barely knew how to count to 10; there was no way that I understood George Carlin. But I watched anyway, laughing when my dad laughed, nodding when he did too, desperate to feel a connection in that living room where the giant wood-paneled television set sat on the floor. It wasn’t until I saw Whoopi Goldberg on stage with a white shirt on her head to resemble the flowing “long, luxurious blonde hair” that she wanted in order to appear on The Love Boat that I stood up a little straighter. There was something about that monologue that meant more to me than any other joke or comedy routine that I had watched in that living room. There was something about that joke that bridged that gap between performer and viewer for me, although I doubt that I was able to articulate why it meant something to me. Had my father – or anyone – asked about my thoughts on it, I would have responded with simply, “It’s funny!” Despite this childlike inability to explore the depths to which this joke reached me, I did know that it was something unlike any other joke that I had ever witnessed. I wasn’t just watching Goldberg perform this routine, but I was a part of that routine. It was my story too, and one that I would carry with me like a disease for two tragically painful decades.
I have forever been surrounded by white girls.
We moved from one housing complex specifically for University of Illinois graduate students to another housing complex that consisted mostly of U of I post grads, graduate students whose spouses got better jobs, single moms, and low income families before I even began attending elementary school. I was too young to really remember any of my friends from that first complex, but it was while we were at the second – and where I would live until 8th grade – that I began attending the elementary school the next town over. My mother had enrolled me in Girl Scouts while I was in Kindergarten. I started from the bottom as a Daisy and was later transferred to a troop in my new school district, where I would remain until 6th grade when I decided that I would not begin my middle school career as a Girl Scout. Throughout my time in that troop, there was only one other black girl. By the time she came along, I had already shimmied my way into the periphery of the cool girls. I had worked hard to narrow the distance between myself – the other – the little black girl whose mother would not yet allow her to have a relaxer put in her hair even though she desperately, desperately wanted one and opted instead for a short, natural hair cut adorned with a ribbon headband less people think that she’s a boy, and the pretty white girls with long, luxurious hair and for whom the cute white boys were always vying attention. At one point, I had to “try out” to be a part of this clique. Remembering the audition process, and the part in which I was asked to run across the playground in zigzags because “boys are always chasing us so we need to know how to run fast,” and remembering that I complied without hesitation is absolutely mortifying. But I needed to belong there. And so when I did, if even just a little bit, I was determined to not screw it up. That other little black girl who joined our Girl Scout troop threatened my position within the in crowd. I panicked that the other girls, the pretty white girls with long, luxurious hair, would align me with her, would remember that I too was a little black girl who did not belong, and I would be thrust aside, forced to fend for myself. On a Girl Scout camping trip I somehow convinced her to wear her bathing suit backwards. I stood and whispered and giggled along with the other girls as she emerged from the bathroom in a bathing suit that was clearly on wrong. The lesson that I should have learned from this was that despite my efforts, this girl did not seem to give a shit about her wardrobe malfunction and likely had more fun than any of us that weekend. Instead, I smiled to myself knowing that, at least for the moment, those girls with the long, luxurious hair knew that I was one of them.
This self-hatred and near manic desire to distance myself from blackness was something that I had perfected along with my times tables, and continued through middle school, high school, and college. By 6th grade, I was finally allowed to get a relaxer and relished in the straight hair that seemed worlds away from the naps that accrued near the nape of my neck. I continued to surround myself with white girls with biblical names and blonde hair, and I continued to be the always boyfriend-less funny black sidekick. I moved to live with my father in Western Massachusetts when I was thirteen and attended a high school that was so white that Senior year I had to convince my guidance counselor to just give me the original scholarship application for African-American students rather than make me a copy simply because “no one else is going to need it.” I went to college on Long Island, realizing now that it was perhaps among the absolute worst environments that I could have put myself in, with an infinite sea of pretty white girls with Coach bags and Gucci sunglasses, driving their graduation present of a BMW or a Lexus around campus.
The ways in which my self-hatred manifested itself slowly changed, however. It became a raw, dangerous internalized hatred. I was less likely to point it outwards, less determined to make another black or brown girl feel my same pain. Yet I was more likely to patronize myself, to deem myself so worthless that whatever I chose to do – or not do – simply did not matter, more likely to blame my blackness for everything that was wrong in my life and the ultimate reason why I was so unhappy.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly what changed. I do know that the presence of beautiful, strong, black women in my life now has helped immensely, but also know that a change like this – to be able to somehow get out of a space in which you hate yourself so deeply that you almost feel like you don’t belong to you – is something that had to mostly come from within. I suppose you reach a point where the energy it takes to be so sad and angry is too exhausting to bear.
I remember watching Goldberg perform that long, luxurious, blonde hair monologue and laughing, believing that I understood comedy. And perhaps I did understand comedy then, but more importantly, I understood what it was like to be a little black girl who wanted to be a little white girl. I understood what that felt like and was soon going to spend years seeing how that manifested itself. Like the little black girl that Goldberg portrayed, who longed for the perfect hair to get her on The Love Boat, I believed that long, luxurious, blonde hair – or rather, whiteness – was going to bring me happiness. Like that little black girl, I had to learn that it wouldn’t. And I did. And I’m here. And I’m fine.