Every few months, my high school journalism classmates and I meet to pitch article ideas for the next issue of our school’s news magazine. And every single time, my classmates predict what I’m going to say. If they don’t guess before I open my mouth, they playfully roll their eyes after I’ve spoken. But sometimes their eye rolls don’t feel playful. Sometimes being the “angry black girl” doesn’t feel like a joke.
I’ve always been passionate about social justice and politics. My parents introduced me to the work of people like Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Maya Angelou at a very young age, and being raised by parents so conscious of racism in America has greatly affected who I am today. They raised me to maintain this consciousness, and I’ve been doing so since elementary school. My main tool for this is writing. I want to share information with other people of color about the ways in which we’re being oppressed and how we can overcome them. I want this awareness to inspire people to start discussing racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, classism, and other social systems that marginalize people based on their identities. As an aspiring journalist, this passion has come to feel like a responsibility, too — so I naturally always want to discuss it in my own life.
It’s difficult to start these discussions, however, when people assume they already know what you’re going to say. I’ve found that if you talk about serious topics often enough, there will come a point when people no longer take you seriously. In their minds, you change from being “intellectual” or “impassioned” to angry, difficult, repetitive, and divisive.
The point at which this shift begins isn’t easy to define, but I know I’ve reached it. Last year, as a sophomore, I was one of the editors-in-chief of my school’s news magazine and I had a lot of freedom as to what I could write about. I couldn’t help thinking about the 2014 shooting of Mike Brown and the social justice movements it inspired. At the same time that I was learning about the oppression evident in my own society, I was given a place to openly discuss it, so I decided to use my newfound voice and platform to write about things like intersectional feminism, mass incarceration, and mental health in the black community.
At first, I found the process of broadening my own knowledge and helping others to do the same empowering. But one day, while my journalism class was preparing for the next issue of our magazine, the teacher asked what I wanted to write about. I said I was planning to discuss the way society views black youth as less innocent or childlike than white youth, and someone in the class asked, “Is that all you write about?”
“I’ve never written about this topic before,” I responded.
“Not this specific topic, but it’s always something about black people,” my classmate replied.
Another person in the class chuckled and said, “Yeah, she’s one of those ‘black power’ girls.”
I could tell they weren’t making the comments maliciously. These kids were my friends, and they were both black. I wasn’t offended, but I did feel a little uncomfortable. Why were they tired of hearing about things that were not just objectively important, but that also directly affected them? Why should I stop talking about a problem that hasn’t been solved?
I faced questions like these again and again. The scenarios varied, as did the people asking, and I laughed them off every time. But the interactions still bothered me. Instead of amplifying my voice and creating a platform for others to amplify theirs as well, I felt like I had just turned myself into a stereotype. I was the “angry black girl,” the one who won’t shut up about racism and who needs to just forget about slavery. Before I began writing about these topics, I felt like people saw me for who I was. Now I couldn’t seem to speak up about issues that affected me without becoming an issue myself.
I’ve seen this happen to other activists, too. Black activists on the front lines of protests and movements who talk about racism are written off. For example, when Sandra Bland died, black people on Twitter and Tumblr were outraged and vocal about it. But a lot of my own friends didn't take her death seriously, nor did they think there had been any wrongdoing until large news corporations started to report about it. For too long, people just rolled their eyes. It’s what I call the “there they go again” effect: When certain individuals talk about a topic too much, others become accustomed to the point of indifference. I’m only 15 and I already feel like people are tired of hearing me speak out about these issues. By the time I become a professional journalist, will anyone listen to what I have to say?
This particularly frustrates me because my school is predominantly black. The people encouraging me to silence my voice are the same ones who are directly affected by the things I’m shouting about. I understand that being black in America is not easy, and that many people find relief in trying to avoid hearing or reading about the things that make their own existence difficult. But a problem will not disappear just by pretending it doesn’t exist. Black people should feel free to tune out from political discussions sometimes, as this is often an important method of self-care, but we shouldn’t make each other feel insecure about using our voices to create change.
There are millions of young black people like me who remain silent about their passions. They’re afraid of being stereotyped. They’re afraid of being made fun of. They’re afraid their black friends will become bored with them or brand them as “radical.” They’re afraid their white friends will see them as “angry” and accuse them of being divisive — as if talking about racism is more divisive than the system of racism itself.
Those people’s voices need to be heard, and so does mine. We cannot continue to intimidate young people who have a passion for social justice, especially in these times, when we need as much help as we can get to bring progress and change to America. Speaking up about oppression doesn’t make you an “angry black girl.” It makes you an engaged, passionate, driven person who is working to incite necessary change.
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