Being “twice as good” won’t save you from becoming a target.
Just ask 18-year-old Andrew Jones of Amite, La., who was denied the opportunity to serve as his class valedictorian. Despite earning a 4.0 grade point average, Jones was not permitted to participate in his high school graduation. According to reports, the student was stopped at the gate of the school and informed that his beard (which he’d worn throughout the school year) was in violation of the dress code. After he refused to shave, the school took his gown and Jones watched the ceremony like a spectator. This, despite the fact that it’s also been alleged that other students with facial hair from the same district participated in the graduation ceremony.
Or you can ask 18-year-old Taiylar Ball of Chicago, who was banned from her senior prom for using the n-word in a poem at school. The poem was addressed to black girls, and the word was used to illustrate how some white women view black men as mere accessories. The audience responded well to the poem, but the same cannot be said for the school administration. Ball, a National Honor Society member and recipient of more than $1 million in scholarship offers, was not allowed to attend her prom and came close to missing her own graduation.
Fortunately, people like Roland Martin from TV One and others in the black press have made this discussion public. After Jetmag.com broke the story, several readers took to social media to demonstrate their support and to seek answers from the school administration. Then, on May 25, it was announced that Ball would, in fact, be permitted to attend her graduation.
Black students—regardless of GPA or background—are often the recipients of more punitive school disciplinary actions. Respectability politics, be damned. And this issue didn’t start with these two students. Schools’ overly punitive treatment of black students is deeper and more pervasive than the occasional missed prom or graduation walk. Black students, in general, are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students. This is especially problematic considering that disciplinary problems at school can lead to a student’s first contact with the juvenile-justice system, which contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline.
Good grades and good behavior are often treated in our community as if they were a bulletproof vest, protecting our children from harm. But it’s the color of their skin, regardless of who they are as individuals, that makes them a target. Systemic racism doesn’t just come for your chest. Your head, arms and legs all remain exposed, vulnerable to a system intent on criminalizing the behavior of black children.
As much as we want to protect our children from racism and discrimination, hiding them behind the false protection of respectability politics won’t do it. Telling black youths that they will “succeed” and be safe if they can just be twice as good, speak a certain way and dress a certain way is a lie. Black youths should absolutely aim high. And we should push them to aim high—we fail them if we don’t. But we blind them if we teach them that this equals safety. Being an expressive and creative, beautiful black girl like Taiylar Ball is dope. Earning a 4.0 GPA as Andrew Jones did is admirable. Yes, aim high. Yet let’s just remember that racism doesn’t always shoot at the chest.
Shanita Hubbard is a mom, writer, social-justice advocate and Nas stan and is also the lover of a great twist-out and good books. Follow her on Twitter.