Last month, when The Onion magazine posted a tweet calling nine year old Quvenzhané Wallis the c-word, I tweeted a reply, “No Black girl is safe.” And that’s how I felt, and often do feel, even though it’s a bit bleak. But, let’s think about this: in addition to the ways that adult women are denigrated in society, it has become acceptable to make jokes about a (Black) girl. The safety of young girls from sexism is something that I became familiar with as a researcher/working with teenagers in Oakland, CA. Half of the youth activists I worked closely with in The Hip-Hop Generation Fights Back were young women, many of whom led the efforts.
This Women’s History Month, I think it’s important to turn our attention to young women, particularly young women of color. The Onion comment aside, young women of color are simultaneously heavily scrutinized and ignored. Take, for instance, the dual experience of some of the young Black and Latina women I worked with who were singled out for being presumed to be on the road to (teenage) pregnancy, so they were not taken seriously as students. Literally, one teacher commented that “I don’t really call on Latina or African American females. . . They’re gonna get pregnant and drop out anyways, so what’s the point?”
This discourse, as NYU author Lorena Garcia has pointed out, exists both in and outside of the classroom and has significant impacts on young women of color. This is something I urge us to think about during Women’s History Month: the ways that “women” as a universal term continues to privilege white, heterosexual, cis women; a long-standing feminist critique. However, the discourse around women primarily and solely focuses on adult women. The women we celebrate during this month, the women’s issues we collectively organize around, and the laws we pass are targeted at and specifically benefit adult women.
For example, the recent passage of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was celebrated because of its inclusion of Native American, lesbian, queer, and transgender women. However, a notable absence and hard-fought exclusion was the protection and decriminalization of human trafficking subjects—many of whom are minors and young women of color. More specifically, this group often includes women who are runaways, homeless, or thrown out of their homes as teenagers for their emerging sexuality.
And these young women are no different than the young women in my book: a young queer Latina who was routinely thrown out of her home and once boarded a bus to New York for a week, just so she’d have a place to stay; another queer Chicana, who was often threatened by boys for “looking like a white boy” when she was out with her African American girlfriend; still another young, African American woman, who had to take out a restraining order against her boyfriend for beating her up, a restraint he often ignored.
And these are the young women that we think are “protected” or “safe” because they are involved in organizing activities, ones specifically addressing the surveillance they experience as it relates to racism, sexism, and homophobia. However, we need to step into this battle with these young women in order to make our lives, as women, better. We must fight for the Quvenzhané Wallis’ of the world, the young women we have in our lives and know, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the ones that we don’t. And while we may want to think of these women as “our future,” let’s make this Women’s History Month about contributing to the history they—and we—are making now.
Andreana Clay is Associate Professor of Sociology at San Francisco State University and author of The Hip-Hop Generation Fights Back: Youth, Activism, and Post-Civil Rights Politics (NYU Press, 2012).