I had been sent the link by multiple friends, who just knew it would be right up my “awww” alley. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a little girl telling her daddy, in the politest way possible, that he did not do her hair right. The clip has since gone full-on viral, as this mini queen uses all of the benign words in her vocabulary to explain to her dad his missteps in doing her hair and to compare his effort to her mom’s styling skills—all the while reminding him that she still likes it and assuring him that he does not have to correct the hairstyle.
She’s adorable, kind and sensitive while voicing her dissidence and sparing any hurt feelings—even though she is clearly unhappy with the outcome. The little girl’s father later revealed on Twitter that she eventually decided to wear a hat out instead of the lopsided pigtails that inspired the popular video, finding her own tactful solution to her displeasure.
But as adorable as this black girl is, my heart hurt watching her be praised, specifically by mainstream culture, for nicely speaking her mind; for being amenable enough to disagree without inconveniencing her dad or bruising his ego, even as he stood behind the camera chuckling.
I’m not so hypervigilant about the imbalance of societal gender perceptions that I can’t see this video for the cute clip that it is; but I’m also unable to ignore the differences in the words we use to “compliment” girls when they are following our expectations for them. All around the internet, this little girl was affixed with terms like “polite,” “sweet” and “kind.” What words would have been used if she had been a little less demure with her opinion?
In her iconic essay “We Should All Be Feminists,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains what we, as black women, know all too well: “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller.” Men are socialized to be assertive and direct, while women are expected to be caring and interpersonally sensitive. Girls are not often taught to advocate for themselves in the same way that boys are.
These early lessons seep into our adult lives and often hinder the way women move in all areas, from the workplace to our own physical health and well-being. A 1999 study (pdf) conducted by the Center for Women Policy Studies found that as many as 44 percent of women of color feel they have to “play down their race” and keep quiet in order to succeed at work. With only 5 percent of managerial and professional positions being held by black women in the current American workforce, the results of bias toward us are clear as day.
This is not just an issue in the workplace; Serena Williams spoke out about her battle to be taken seriously while telling medical professionals that she felt something was wrong after giving birth last year. Mortality rates for black women are three times higher when it comes to pregnancy-related complications, cancer diagnosis and many other health issues. Medical professionals’ bias, coupled with this learned curtailment of self-advocacy and obsession with black women’s “quiet strength,” can literally be life-and-death.
The last viral video I remember sparking my comparable concern was titled “Little Girl Snapping Like a Grown Woman to Her Man.” In it, a little black girl is shown arguing with a man behind the camera, giving us the tone and body language of a woman 10 times her age. It garnered 8 million views as the internet went wild at this tiny person presumably imitating the mannerisms of older women in her life.
Maybe if I didn’t know that black girls are 5.5 times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school for being seen as more aggressive and less feminine than their nonblack counterparts, I could lightly chuckle at these videos and move on. Angry or acquiescent subjects are apparently the opposing attributes that really get the crowds going when deciding on the next video to skyrocket to viral status. But all I see are one-minute reminders that the labels used to marginalize black women throughout history in this country are still apropos.
As I recently watched singer Kelis share her story of physical and emotional abuse during her five-year marriage to rapper Nas, I clapped for her bravery, which began with the line “I have edited myself for nine years, and I woke up this morning and said ‘not today.’” She admitted that while she is a private person, she was also very aware of being labeled an “angry black woman” who just wanted to drag down a black man after the relationship didn’t work. It’s not surprising, since it’s the moniker so often given to black women anytime we dare to disagree with society’s expectations.
Some of my earliest memories as a child were being told that I should smile more; family, strangers, teachers—all adults, both men and women—not so subtly teaching me their expectations of my emotions, and my duty to express only the positive ones to the world.
My shrinking came in the form of a mask of perfection that I am just now learning to remove. I joke that I attended etiquette school growing up; my mom is the epitome of politeness, and taught my sister and me all of the do’s and don’ts of being a proper lady. I am so thankful for this upbringing, thankful I was given a crash course in society’s expectations of me before learning the real truth: Society would have an opinion of my every move as a black woman, no matter how soft I made my voice or how many times I apologized for just being.
The lock screen on my phone is a quote from Nigerian writer Ijeoma Umebinyuo that asks, “Are you shrinking yourself again, darling?” Many times, I am. Many times, I need a cue to say what’s on my mind, even when I know it won’t be received well; to allow myself to frown when I feel down, and to allow myself room to be flawed.
The post of the little beauty above shows the nurturing impulse and caring core of womanhood. It also shows the love and kindness between a little girl and her daddy. However, to me, it also shows how careful and quiet girls are taught to be when disagreeing or attempting to gain control over something that we should already own: our identities.
I can’t laugh at her nascent smallness in an effort to protect the feelings of someone else—even if that person is older than she is, even if that person is someone in authority, even if that person is someone she loves. I won’t see her preoccupancy with safeguarding her dad’s well-being over her own comfort and self-appraisal as “cute” or polite.
I do not know the little girl in this video, or her parents. I have no context for how she is being raised or shown how to express herself. All I have is my personal knowledge of the work it takes to unbecome the sweet and polite girl I was raised to be, all while becoming an assertive and assured woman who champions my wholeness above all else.