Let Kids be Kids: Recognizing Black Girl Pain and Our Faulty Constructions of Masculinity

by Kimberly Foster @KimberlyNFoster

I’ve spent much of my life searching for safety. Like so many other Black kids, I was robbed of a carefree childhood. At age 5 or 6, the time I first came to know myself as a Black girl, the careful negotiations with white supremacy began—the shrinking, the code-switching, the self-surveillance—It all became routine.

Long before the age of smartphones, Black children daily battled threats to their humanity, but, today, kids can utilize the technology we carry with us as another tool in the fight for our lives. As a result, images of brutalized Black children spread quickly, and so does the outrage. Each time it happens, I feel anger, frustration, and sadness, but, ultimately, I feel helplessness. Because neither an arrest nor a firing will prevent more Black kids from being subject to varied forms of violence at every turn.

Watch: Video Shows Black Female Student Brutalized in Class by School Resource Officer
In Columbia, South Carolina, Ben Fields, a former school resource officer known for his brutal reputation, was filmed accosting a Black teenager as she sat at her desk. Fields flipped her on her back, dragged her across the floor and arrested her for allegedly defying directions to surrender her cellphone. Throughout the ordeal, the girl, who has not been named, remained eerily calm. In fact, the only sounds we hear in the short clip are threats from Fields and outcries from a female classmate. In the frame, we also see a handful of boys, most of them Black, silent with their heads bowed.

The classroom was violated, but not by the 16-year-old. Responsibility for the unnecessary escalation lies only with the fired cop and inept teacher. Strangely, however, in defense of the young girl, ire has been directed at the boys in the room for their lack of action on her behalf.

Black girls deserve the same fierce protection afforded to Black boys. No longer can we ignore the psychological torment or the physical predation they endure. And we cannot allow this young woman’s pain to become a talking point.

But the boys in that room are children too. Attempting to map heroic masculinity onto their teenage bodies dehumanizes them. We cannot know for sure what was in all of their minds as they sat in the room seemingly docile and withdrawn. But Tony Robinson Jr., a black male student who also filmed the incident, told WLTX, “I’ve never seen anything so…sick to the point where other students are turning away, they don't know what to do.” He continued, “They’re scared for their lives. That’s supposed to be someone that’s going protect us…I was scared for my life.” These boys are allowed to be afraid in the face of abusive and potentially lethal authority. Confusing fear for nonchalance or apathy is a mistake. It is likely they were shocked into stillness.

Liberation of all people requires the dismantling of oppressive paradigms. Refusing to acknowledge the vulnerability of Black children thrusts them into a premature adulthood, broken and unprepared. Children cannot be tasked with protecting other children from adults.

This does not mean that it is not possible to impart a sense of justice early. But that morality cannot be centered in patriarchal norms. We care for each other in community because we know that our survival depends on reciprocity and mutuality. Hypermasculine displays of ownership or bravery are not required.

I do not want to teach boys that they must protect girls because of their innate fragility. Framing the trauma we all endure while navigating white supremacist terror as an assault on Black male patriarchal power continues to leave the Black girl pain that stems from misogynoir unaddressed. Those of us who desire equity cannot confuse mutual care with benevolent domination. Again, in the brutalization of a Black girl, this framing allows boys to become the focal point.

18-year-old Niya Kenny demonstrated remarkable courage in speaking up for her classmate and confronting the officer. Her actions are exceptional and should be celebrated as such. Black girls often embody a warrior spirit because we have to, but that should not be the norm.

Watch: Second Student Arrested in South Carolina Speaks Out About Police Officer's Violence
This is precisely what bell hooks means when she writes, feminism is for everybody. White supremacist capitalist patriarchy limits our ability to move freely within the fullness of our personhood. Expectation of heroics in spite of trauma leaves little room for expression.

We have to be the safe spaces for Black kids. Protecting their childhoods often means being with them in the confusion as they work to make sense of life in a world that hates them for surviving. The Black male administrator who stood by and watched as the teenage girl was assaulted is a disgrace. He failed as an adult and an authority figure. Those of us who care for Black children cannot stop fighting because we will encounter countless others like him who are propped up by fundamentally unequal systems. And, like Assata said, it is our duty to win.

Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor-in-chief of For Harriet. Email or

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