OK, I know social media is all about the snark and ratchet, especially around awards show time, most especially around BET Awards show time. But snark reveals a bit of truth about what the snarker believes. And if reaction to Willow Smith’s appearance on the BET Awards pre-show, where she debuted a new song called “I Am Me,” is any indication, we believe some pretty depressing stuff about black children — and black girls specifically.

Fall in line

If white kids can be goths and punks and skaters and metal heads and jocks and nerds, shouldn’t black children have the same latitude for self-expression? It is true that race changes things. I imagine there was a time when cautioning black children not to do their own thing was about survival — sometimes even life or death. Fifty-some years ago, it was hard enough being black and simply living life. When you can’t even reliably vote or get a decent education, there is no need to borrow trouble by adding defiantly quirky to your list of challenges. Black children and adults fell in line with rigid codes of respectability for a reason. But we’re not living in 1962, so I can’t imagine why so many people find Willow Smith’s sartorial choices and I-am-what-I-am ethos so threatening.

“Willow Smith, you’re 11 years old. Nobody needs advice about ‘being themselves’ from you. Call us back when you get your period” was tweeted and retweeted hundreds of times last night and Monday morning.

Don’t give me that an 11-year-old rich girl doesn’t have problems. Ask an average pre-teen or teen and they will share a ton of problems. It doesn’t matter that to adults the problems seem trivial. They don’t seem trivial when you are 11 or 15, do they? And I am willing to bet being the child of celebrity parents comes with some very real and unique challenges (like seeing speculation on your parents’ marriage on the cover of tabloids).

Considering what black children learn about blackness, subtly and openly, in the media and in American culture, don’t we want them to have the strength and resilience to say, “I am not your stereotype, but I am me”? Don’t we want them to feel comfortable in their skin? Don’t we want black children to be as free as other children? Don’t we want to inoculate little girls against the onslaught of shitty messages about black femaleness?

Perhaps we don’t.

I can’t help but set reaction to Willow Smith next to the plethora of young male performers who brag about swag and girls and money without raising so much as an eyebrow. But a little black girl sings “your validation is not that important to me,” and all hell breaks loose.

(Note to Willow: Watch out girl! Steve Harvey and Tyrese will tell you all that independence is gonna leave you manless one day.)

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