Being black in the suburbans is a story that rarely gets told in mainstream media. The Cosby Show was one of the better depictions we have of the black middle class family. The 90s had a slew of black sitcoms that depicted black middle class families. We also had a few depictions of young black women from these backgrounds. Movies like Clueless and She’s All That, had prominent young black women who in a sense were playing second fiddle to their white costars, but they still made their presence known. They were fierce, fabulous, and outspoken teenage girls who had a wardrobe to kill for and the looks to pull it off. Much respect to Stacy Dash and Gabriella Union for playing some of the coolest teenage girls on the silver screen in the 90s.
On television, characters like Moesha (played by Brandy) and Angela (Boy Meets World), gave a glimpse of the life of middle class teenage black girls. That essentially they were just as normal as any of the hundreds of white girls that have been plastered on our TV sets for decades.
One of my first posts on here was deconstructing a popular 90s cartoon show, today I will be deconstructing a popular 90s teenage drama known as Dawson’s Creek. I’m sorry that I’m falling in the stereotype of kids born in the 90s obsessed with the 90s. Currently working at home and dealing with life post college, I have a lot of time to watch TV shows and movies on Netflix and write about whatever I want. What I want to write about today is about the black girls perspective living in suburban America.
What really inspired me to write about this topic was the Atlantic’s article, Black Boys Have An Easier Time Fitting in At Suburban Schools than Black Girls. It really struck a chord with me because looking back at my high school experience, it wasn’t always easy. Sure we’re all dealing with angst when we are teenagers, but when race and gender get tied in it can make going through puberty excruciating.
“But recent research published in the American Sociological Association’s Sociology of Education journal shows that my gender (male) was one of the determinative factors in the relative ease of my social integration. In an article published last year, Megan M. Holland, a professor at the University of Buffalo and a recent Harvard Ph.D., studied the social impact of a desegregation program on the minority students who were being bussed to a predominantly white high school in suburban Boston. She found that minority boys, because of stereotypes about their supposed athleticism and “coolness,” fit in better than minority girls because the school gave the boys better opportunities to interact with white students. Minority boys participated in sports and non-academic activities at much higher rates. Over the course of her study, she concluded that structural factors in the school as well as racial narratives about minority males resulted in increased social rewards for the boys, while those same factors contributed to the isolation of girls in the diversity program.”
From personal experience, this is true. My brother and cousin had an easier time navigating high school than I did. Unless you ‘assimilate’ yourself with white teenage suburban culture aka “act white”, you’ll have a hard time fitting in. You”ll then be labeled an oreo or the whitest black person. All throughout high school comments like this was thrown my way. Especially since I was mostly in honor or college level courses, I was propped up as a good ‘negress’ and considered ‘above the average’. Comments like that created a lot of confusion with identity issues. Being of mixed race, these skewed notions of blackness and whiteness we have seriously pigeon hold us as a society. The way one speaks, dresses, or hobbies they like shouldn’t measure in with their racial identity. However as we all know teenagers have a hard time not placing judgement on their peers.
It was like had to choose between two one sided ideas of being a young black girl. I was either asked to be more ‘hood’ or ‘ghetto’ or be a black white girl. There was no in-between, that is until I started forget the so called “racial rules” we have in place.
Yet most of my friends were of color. Growing up I attended two different high schools and both of my major friend groups were extremely diverse. We could of been the UN with how many backgrounds we represented in our little cliques. It made for for an smoother transition, from confused high schooler to self assured college student, but it wasn’t easy.
One of my earliest memories I have from my high school years was when I was awarded for being both black and smart. During my freshmen year at my first high school, I and three other students were given an award for being the smartest and most active black students in our high school. Of course there was already only about ten of us to begin with, and that didn’t mean we were the smartest, but it meant with had the highest GPA.
Out of the four of us, I was the only girl. Including myself and two other boys, we were technically biracial or multiracial, so it seemed getting this award of being both black and smart was humbling but also strange. Never in my life was I pin pointed because of my intelligence and my race in such an obvious manner. Mostly because up until this point I went to school with people who looked a little like me. If I got awards for having good grades it was because I did well in school, not because I was the little black girl who did well in school. At 15 I had to process that because of my achievement in school, I would get treated differently because of my race and my gender.
There was an award ceremony that took place at the local community college. My parents and brother attended. When I got there I realized how much of monopoly my award was. Schools all over the district had students awarded. 10, 20, even 30 students at a time for different schools were given the same award. So when it was time for my high school to be awarded, it was almost sad to see the four of us up on that stage. Granted our school was small and at the time the ratio to white and black students was low, but it felt odd. All these other schools had tons of kids to award, and here I was the only black girl and three other black boys representing our entire school’s black race. It was daunting, it was frustrating, it was kinda cool, but also had so much weight that it took me until just now to realize that moment would sum up my entire experience in high school. Probably my entire experience in life.
So how does this tie in with Dawson’s Creek? The answer is, everything.
Currently on the sixth and final season, I realize the lack of people of color on the show, well at least in their main cast. There’s Joey’s sister Bessie and her black boyfriend. They end up having a baby together. Her boyfriend, Boatie, is rarely seen in the first couple of seasons. I also have a theory that Joey, played by Katie Holmes, is actually biracial, but they hide this because she has the ability to pass for white. Also because as progressive as they think their town is, they felt like exposing the truth about her race would only be one more thing against her.
For some reason I always felt like the character of Joey could of been black or biracial, however I can see why the creators of the show would never do this because she would of essentially been a stereotype. Hey, if there’s a theory that Jay Gatsby could be black, this is totally plausible. Maybe I’ll defend my theory another day.
Then there was Principal Green and his daughter, Nikki.
I think the introduction of Bianca Lawson’s character, Nikki Green was important. I was sadden they didn’t have her character arc on a bit longer. Not only was she’s the principal’s daughter, she was the epitome of black girl excellence. Not only did she show up Dawson at the film festival, she sort of destroyed his perfect cinematic Steven Spielberg is the greatest director of all time lily white world. It was her talent that eclipsed him, and damn near stopped him from making films all together. It was also her budding friendship and healthy rivalry that gave him the inspiration to truly find himself. Loving films wasn’t going to make him a great filmmaker, but also loving life was.
One can argue that she played the “magical negress” in the series, almost a manic pixie dream girl to the already romantic dreamer that was Dawson Leary, but her presence seemed important to me. We Nikki’s of the world have to be twice as good as our white male counterparts. Papa Pope [of Scandal fame] powerful quote echoes in the homes of many overachieving black kids:
Rowan: Did I not raise you for better? How many times have I told you? You have to be what?
Olivia: Twice as good.
Rowan: You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.
After that episode premiered, every black person I know who watches the show said that quote was their life mantra. I call this The Nikki Greene Effect.
Being a black girl in suburbia is not only just about worrying about academic achievements and striving for excellence, but also worrying about safety.
Currently my high school’s district is entangled in controversy over alleged Anti-Semitic slurs and insults to their Jewish student population. A few Jewish families are suing the district for allegedly doing nothing when their children complained about bulling and anti-Semitic remarks. The story was published in The New York Times, giving my small-town high school in upstate New York national attention and painting the image that the town is Anti-Semitic.
Having only lived in Pine Bush for six years, I’m aware of the racist history the area had. Once a safe haven for the Klu Klux Klan, I’ve had teachers who have taught some of the children who’s father was a major leader in the group.
I can attest, that during my time in high school, I don’t remember ever having to deal with any outright racism. Some racial profiling and discrimination by local police (another story for another day) here and there. Once a little kid called my brother a racial slur on the bus, but he had no idea what it meant. However that doesn’t mean there are folks in my town that don’t hold prejudice attitudes. This story is ongoing and filled with a lot of missing pieces.
Then there’s an even more deadly aspects of being a black girl in suburbia; the untimely death of Renisha McBride.
19-year old Renisha McBride was shot and killed in Detroit on November 2nd when she was seeking help after being involved in a car accident. According to a toxicology report, there was both alcohol and marijuana in her system. That her blood-alcohol level was about 0.22, more than twice the legal limit for driving.
She was in a predominately white neighborhood on the outskirts of Detroit when she was killed.
The man in question, Theodore Wafer, was charged with manslaughter on Friday.
This story echoes much like the Trayvon Martin case. Quickly gaining national attention, the family of Renisha McBride want justice and supporters are calling this a racially motivated crime.
Her story is a remainder that black women are not always safe in our suburban towns. Just being black in the “wrong” neighborhood could cost you your life. We don’t just have to worry about if our peers don’t think we’re as smart as them or think we’re pretty enough, we have to think about will I be called a nigger to my face or will I be shot for walking in the ‘wrong’ neighborhood?
We Nikki’s of the world will collide into many Dawson Leary’s during our time. We will challenge them in ways they never could thought were possible. We may befriend some of them. We may fall in love with some of them. We may work for them, we may even have them work for us.
We must also remember that we Nikki’s can also be Renisha. We may not be perfect, but we deserve to live.