“Ms. Tiffany, why don’t black girls matter?”
It was an awkward question posed during one of the listening sessions I conduct for Black Girls Unscripted, a documentary in progress which aims to expose girls of color to positive self-imagery, educational resources, cultural exploration, mental wellness and leadership opportunities. It’s during these listening sessions that girls get to sound off and propose solutions to issues of importance to them.
I was stunned by the question, not quite sure how to offer a thorough answer in the 15 minutes we had remaining. So I posed the question back to them: “Tell me why you believe you don’t matter.”
Their responses varied—from the low expectations others have of them to persistent media stereotyping that undervalues women and girls. When I asked who, besides their parents, they confide in regarding their fears and concerns, they stated, almost in unison, “My parents told me to keep my business to myself.”
I was reminded of the stigmas surrounding mental health that permeated my own childhood during the ’70s. Back then, mental illness was viewed as a sign of weakness. I distinctly remember hearing folks say, “Black people don’t get depressed,” or “If black people could endure slavery, we can endure anything,” or “Black women just deal.” Mental-health care was a luxury that few in my community could afford. And those who did seek treatment often reported experiencing discrimination at the hands of doctors who failed to diagnose them properly.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and not much has changed. Stigmas still persist, and African Americans, especially youths, are still not receiving the necessary mental-health interventions.
A recent Time article highlighted a study published by JAMA Pediatrics indicating that from 1993 to 2012, the suicide rate among black children significantly rose while the rate among white children dropped. An earlier report funded by the National Institute of Mental Health found that black American teens, especially girls, may be at high risk for attempting suicide even if they have never been diagnosed with a mental disorder. Researchers estimate that at some point before they reach 17 years of age, 4 percent of black teens overall and more than 7 percent of black teen girls will attempt suicide. It is apparent that our girls are burdened by emotions bearing down on them in ways that we fail to properly address, leaving them to manage feelings of anger, fear and confusion on their own.
But, mostly, they feel invisible.
President Barack Obama recently announced a nonprofit spinoff to My Brother’s Keeper—the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance—which includes investments of more than $80 million for programs focused on the well-being of young black and Latino men. And while there is plenty of evidence to indicate that black boys and girls are drowning under the weight of similar issues, girls and young women continue to be excluded from the president’s signature racial-justice initiative.
So why do so few notice that our girls are also in crisis?
Girls like 17-year-old Ayana*, petite, with dimpled cheeks, who spent 13 years being shifted from one abusive foster home to the next. She reported the abuse to her caseworker, teachers and school counselors. They didn’t believe her. Forced to push down the pain and anger, fighting became her outlet.
Or Myrna*, a doe-eyed Latina, who endures the daily teasing about her broken English and the fear that her undocumented parents will be deported. Self-mutilation became her coping mechanism.
Or with my former mentee, Alisha, who attempted suicide because she didn’t feel pretty or worthy.
Thankfully, each of these girls now benefits from amazing programs that offer a safe haven, access to mental-health resources, a place to connect with girls who share similar challenges and a pipeline to opportunities. It’s stories like these, and the countless others that remain untold, that prompted me to create the Black Girls Unscripted movement, focused on the empowerment of girls and young women of color. We’re building critical partnerships with organizations like Breathe Nonprofit to deliver suicide-prevention education to young people and bring continued awareness of mental-health challenges in our community.
The quote “It takes a village to raise a child” has never been more relevant than it is today. I call on every black woman to commit to doing away with the damaging notions of the “strong black woman” that prevent us from seeking the help we so deserve. Let’s acknowledge that we are breakable and that it’s OK to ask for help when we need it. Let’s all rally together—fathers, sons, brothers and uncles included—to push for policies and programs that empower girls of color, girls who are full of aspirations, potential and hope. Their continued abandonment will only serve to undermine the well-being of our entire community. We owe it to our daughters, nieces, sisters, granddaughters, neighbors and students to advocate on their behalf, make room at the table for their voices and help them reimagine their role in society.
* The names have been changed to protect the identity of minors.