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Let's Stop Punishing Black Girls for Being Smart

Growing up, I was required to do well in school. My parents did not have a ton of rules, but I was expected to do chores at home, to be respectful, and to do my best in school. My parents, like many who welcomed babies during the 1980s, placed a lot of value on education. At the time, a bachelor’s degree took candidates very far on the job market, and as loving parents, they wanted their offspring to have the best chance at success in life. Being highly employable is one way to do that.

Along with an emphasis on education, my parents raised me with etiquette. I was taught to say, “Yes, ma’am,” and “Yes, sir,” to adults. I was encouraged to pronounce words properly and to spell with accuracy. Around fourth or fifth grade, it became apparent that I had a talent for writing; after this, my parents helped me to hone my writing talents for more effective communication, research, and reporting skills.

At home, life was pretty even-keeled. Our family had its share of problems, but none of those were ever put on me. Both my mother and my father encouraged me to do my best, and even exceed it. At school, my teachers and counselors echoed the sentiments of my parents, almost to the point of being annoying. Especially because their less-than-secret boasting of my achievements and abilities made it hard for me to keep those details a secret at school. Most of my peers wondered why I was so interested in books and not so much in basketball. Others just saw fit to poke fun at my glasses and clear diction because most versions of “black girl” in their minds did not include what I was.

It was not so bad in elementary school, as many of the class and gender lines that separated us as students had not quite descended upon us by that time. Through middle school and high school, the ridicule became more biting and repetitive (and admittedly confusing to me at the time). In fourth grade, all of the boys made fun of me for being smart. They stated it made me ugly.

By the time I was a freshman in high school, it seemed like mostly black boys who called me ugly for being smart. I did not get a pass with most black girls, either, because most of them perceived my studying and speaking properly as an attempt at one-upmanship to them. Or, that I wanted to be white. This trend continued through my undergraduate experience in college.

It took me a while to get to a place where I no longer cared about being labeled as a nerd, but I may never reach a place where the phrase, “You’re so white,” does not bother me in some way. My response to a statement like that has morphed over the years to go from being hurt by it personally, to being indifferent to it since I know exactly who and what I am. Yet, through my indifference, I cannot help but feel sympathy for the speaker. A person who believes that anyone else who speaks clearly and performs well professionally is trying to be white demonstrates their own willful mental shackling to white supremacy. Yet, so many black people keep this mindset alive by laughing at it as if it is nothing.

Is it nothing? In my case, I was picked on by black and white students at school. They all made Steve Urkel jokes. The black students accused me of trying to be white by being smart, and the white students just did not like my race for how differently it made my hair and skin look from theirs.

[Side note: It did not matter to the white students how I sounded when I spoke or whether or not I played basketball or watched Fresh Prince. So, as much as I was “trying to be white,” I never ever was. My good grades did not make me discrimination or hate crime proof.]

I still grew up okay despite these snags, and I lead a happy life as a wife, mother, and professional educator today. But do all young black girls find the same fate? McKenzie Adams did not seem to, and I doubt hers is the only story of its kind where a black child is made to feel that they do not belong by other black children. Children form their views of the world from their parents first and foremost, which means there is still an issue prevalent in black homes where black children are being programmed to believe that intelligence is a quality reserved for white people, and that the only way to succeed is through sports.

Instead, let us encourage our black children to be all they can be, especially when it comes to academics. Encourage smart black kids to help out their peers; they do not assume responsibility for anyone but themselves, but it is a nice gesture when children can share their talents to help someone else. And most importantly, let us distance ourselves from the idea that intelligence is somehow akin to whiteness or being uncool. Ignorance and illiteracy are never cool, and we collectively raise the bar again by refusing to believe they are. Young black girls need our support as they make their way through school, not our ridicule. With black women being the fastest growing demographic of entrepreneurs in the United States today, we serve to usher in better future businesses by nurturing black girls’ intelligence when they are young.

Antoinette is an online curriculum designer who moonlights as a writer/editor, podcaster, and yogini. When she is not designing courses or recording episodes for her podcast, she is usually busy enjoying life with her husband and two children. Find her on Instagram @msantoinettechanel.

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