Advocating for Our Youth and Why We Need to Redefine Black-on-Black Violence

by Candace Simpson

As a high school student, I remember sitting in a packed sanctuary where politicians, scholars, and clergy shared reflections at a town hall meeting on the state of Black America. A young Black girl asked the question that silenced the entire sanctuary.

“How can we stop black-on-black crime?”

I don’t really remember much about what anyone said in response. But I remember how shocked the entire room was to hear a huge question come from such a small girl.

As protestors, we hear the chorus over and over: “Why are we mad at them when we kill ourselves? We have to take responsibility for our own communities!”

This trope has been overturned, as it should be, by well-argued logic. I agree that the phrase “black-on-black” violence is a way to distract from the realities of state-sanctioned violence, government sponsored ghettoes, and the school-to-prison pipeline. Yes, when we say black-on-black violence”, we analyze the phenomenon that only appears to exist as a problem for Black communities. It is a derailing tactic. We must stop pathologizing Blackness. Anti-Blackness is what makes us believe that somehow black crime is motivated by a morally distinct stimulus.

But every time I hear the phrase “black-on-black violence,” I think of the young girl at the town hall. I can’t help but wonder if her concept of black-on-black violence is something radically different.

To be a little Black girl in this country means to experience violence at the hands of people who are supposed to love you. White supremacy and anti-black racism are so insidiously evil that white people do not need to be the only ones perpetuating these ideologies.

When we side with Bill Cosby or Ray Rice, we are ignoring that black women and mothers face abuse. We silence survivors into not speaking about their abuse, and shame those who do come forward. Thus, we teach our children that if they are victimized or brutalized, they must keep it to themselves. This is black-on-black violence.

When we promote abstinence-only health initiatives, we are ignoring that our children need comprehensive ways to understand their bodies. By refusing to educate young people about their body, sexuality, and right to take ownership of both, we setting them up for possible hurt later in life. That is black-on-black violence.

When we tell children they are only worth attention and love when they do well in school, we are ignoring that the educational system is practically designed to fail them. To reserve our love when they overcome incredible obstacles, that is black-on-black violence.

When we refer to Black girls as “thots” just for wearing certain hairstyles, jackets, or lipstick colors, that is black-on-black violence.

When we tell students at an HBCU that they cannot wear certain hairstyles if they want to be considered for the business program, that is black-on-black violence.

When we tease the young boy at our church for being involved with the dance ministry and insinuate he is “confused” about his sexuality, or when we ignore the issues that black LGBTQ individuals face, that is black-on-black violence.

When we tell a pregnant or parenting teen that her child is “punishment” for premarital sex, that is black-on-black violence.

Are you catching the point?

As angry as I am that it is damn near impossible to grow up Black in this country, I still have hope. I’m beginning to wonder if our young people will ever have this same hope. We place so many limitations, pressures, and expectations on them—on top of those forced upon them by living in a racist society—that at times, I believe we’re doing more harm than good.

What space exists for the Black child to think without restrictions? How do we give them space to dream, to question, to explore, to be themselves freely?

There is no better case study for the way we fail our young people by looking at the rise and fall of rapper Bobby Shmurda.

While his lyrics glorify behavior and activities that many of us agree are wrong, Bobby Shmurda represented certain important aspects of youth culture. He was a young man telling the truth about his experiences. But in lambasting Shmurda, we missed a prime opportunity to acknowledge the cultural impact he had on our children when “Hot N*gga” rose to the top of the charts this summer. They were doing graphic design when they made memes using his image. They were creating drama, comedy, dance, and music through creative innovation. They were making meaning of something. They were creating something new. We spent so much time moving straight into the critique, that we couldn’t see the power of growing up in 2015. Our children can share information, ideas, and stories much quicker than we ever could. We need to honor that.

The Nae-Nae, Whip, and Yeet dance crazes were all largely popular due to the power of high school-aged social media users. But you know what’s violent? When adults use these cultural products to win points with young people, only to promote an agenda that is not youth-centered. It’s not okay when IHOP or Hamburger Helper tweets “Bae” to tap into the Black demographic, or to appropriate Black language to seem more relevant. it’s not okay when magazines laud the baby-hair or “big booty” trend and attribute them to white folks. And it’s not okay when adults steal cultural products from children.

It is still cultural appropriation.

It is one thing to enjoy a product as a community. It is an entirely separate thing to use a beloved word, phrase, or dance and misappropriate it for the aims of “civilizing” our children. I sat in a youth conference where the pastor said, “No, you are not a ‘Hot Nigga’, so y’all need to stop singing that Bobby Shmurda.”

I turned around to see all the adult chaperones cheering and all the teens were zapped of energy. When I talked to a student about the sermon, she said she felt “misunderstood” and “attacked” at that very line.

That is black-on-black violence.

Still, our children are working against violent forces. Students at Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science staged a rally to protest the firing of a teacher who was teaching Black history in February. And students in Newark have been using social media to organize and document a sit-in at the Newark Public Schools building to protest policies that were great for adult employees, but terrible for the aims of educating students.

I truly believe that our children will save us from the ways in which we commit violence against each other, without usually recognizing that is indeed what we are doing.

All we have to do is get out of the way.

Photo: Shutterstock

Candace Simpson is a seminary student and a Brooklyn native. You can follow her tweets on shea butter, Nicki Minaj, and faith at @CandyCornball .

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