Monday, November 26, 2012

A New Model For Black Motherhood: Why We Need More Jada Pinkett Smiths

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Last week, Jada Pinkett-Smith posted an open letter on Facebook about her choice to allow her daughter Willow to make some controversial decisions about her personal appearances. Jada wrote:

The question why I would LET Willow cut her hair. First the LET must be challenged. This is a world where women,girls are constantly reminded that they don't belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own, nor their power or self determination. I made a promise to endow my little girl with the power to always know that her body, spirit and her mind are HER domain. Willow cut her hair because her beauty, her value, her worth is not measured by the length of her hair. It's also a statement that claims that even little girls have the RIGHT to own themselves and should not be a slave to even their mother's deepest insecurities, hopes and desires. Even little girls should not be a slave to the preconceived ideas of what a culture believes a little girl should be. More to come. Another day.
The actress and her husband Will chose a style of parenting that's given 12 year-old Willow the space to grow into her own woman, and I couldn't love them more for it.

It's clear that Jada and Will employ a far more permissive parenting style than many of our parents, and that makes many uncomfortable. This seems to be particularly troubling for some Black folks who are used to a certain unyielding dominance.

Black parents are notoriously strict. Whenever the topic of the way "we" raise our kids arises, Black folks eagerly trade discipline tales like war stories. And no matter how traumatic the ending, the sharer will often note that they're thankful for their parents' MO because without it they would either be dead or in jail. As much as that may be true, I do wonder how our communities might be improved by allowing children more opportunities to push boundaries and ask questions.

(Read: A Domestic Dream: Re-imagining Black Motherhood)

Willow's parents gave her the chance to test the waters, and she chose a path that dismisses social expectations. With her androgynous style, Willow is a different type of role model for young women. She's not one of the the overly-manicured, fashion-obsessed tween Disney or Nickelodeon stars that have come to dominate children's entertainment.She's just being Willow -- quirky, emotive, bold. These are traits to be celebrated not feared.

I'm more worried that today's popular singers and actresses promote sexualized aesthetics that seep into consciousnesses of little girls. As a result, younger and younger children are being ushered into the Beauty Industrial Complex. 6 year olds now not only want to be beautiful princesses but sexy celebrities. According to researchers at Knox College, girls know the difference between “sexy” and “not sexy” by the time they get out of kindergarten. When asked,to choose between two dolls, the girls in the study overwhelmingly chose the "sexy" one.

Unsurprisingly, their preference for the more provocatively dressed figure increased with their television consumption. Girls know that they are being judged based on their physical desirability before they know their multiplication tables. Our sexist society does not even give girls an opportunity to develop a healthy self-image or sexuality beyond their bodies or sexual attractiveness. The cycle will not be broken without mothers and fathers actively working against the conditioning.

(Read: Unpretty: My Personal Battle With Vanity And Insecurity)

The Knox College study also points to the importance of mothers in shaping their daughter's self-perception. Jada deserves credit for her own fearlessness. The Willow we see is a reflection of her mother's willingness to break the mold. Mothers are our first teachers. They help us gain an understanding of our position in the world. They teach us what it means to be a woman. By giving her body autonomy, Jada has made it clear to her daughter that she is strong and capable by birth.

Parents want the best for their children, but they may not realize how pushing their daughters to conform to narrow modes of femininity might set them up for failure. Young girls, particularly young Black girls, receive endless messaging that they are not enough. The pressure can be dangerous when it comes from outside of the home, but devastating when administered by close family members.

Willow's personal style challenges traditional gender binaries in a way that's prompted absurd speculation about her sexuality. The talk is thinly veiled homophobia, and to her credit, Jada never acknowledged the whispers. The rumors are less about the woman Willow will become than the young woman she is now. Willow Smith is fearless and unapologetic--two things many think children should never be.

(Read: Invisible Chains: Unlearning My Mother's Wisdom)

Jada unchained her daughter. Our mothers, grandmas, and aunties taught us to draw as little attention to ourselves as possible as we make our way through the world -- or if we should be noticed, make it only for our exceptional achievements. Too many of us were taught that Willow's style and demeanor are for white people; "we" don't behave that way. But personal freedom isn't just for white girls. Every little Colored girl deserves a chance to grow into the woman she longs to be. I could not be happier that preteens today who look like me now have Willow.

In Willow, I see a confident young woman who sets her own agenda -- a beautiful Black girl who knows her worth because her parents chose to empower rather than to control. For better or for worse, we derive much of our identity from how we're addressed by those closest to us. In every comment and action you're telling your daughter something about herself. What are you saying?

Jada's unorthodox mothering frees us all to re-think our intimate relationships. For mothers and daughters, the Smiths represent new possibilities.



Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet. Email or Tweet her.

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