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.