The first time I saw this picture on the news I had to do a double-take. This young lady looked so familiar. Every time I look at this picture I see the face of one of the girls that live on my block, the girls I pass waiting on the bus stop, or the girls in the halls of the schools I support here in Chicago. And, more than anything when I see this picture, I feel like I’m gazing into the eyes of the over 500 girls I’ve served through Polished Pebbles Girls Mentoring Program. Renisha McBride may have been a teenager living in Detroit, but ultimately she could have been one of my girls, and perhaps one of the girls in your community too.
If you’re not familiar with the Renisha McBride story, she’s the 19-year-old young woman who was shot and killed while seeking help after a single car accident she had been in. The accident occurred in the Dearborn Heights neighborhood, a suburb of Detroit. When McBride stepped on 54-year-old Theodore Paul Wafer’s porch knocked on his door for assistance early on the morning of November 2, the man, in his home, wound up shooting her from a distance claiming it was an accident and he feared that she was trying to break in. Wafer has since been charged with murder in the second degree, manslaughter and possession of a firearm. Many have labeled this to have been an instance of racial profiling, and the prosecutor in the case made the following statement:
“We obviously do not feel that the evidence in this case reveals that the defendant acted in lawful self defense.There is no evidence of forced entry into the home. Our evidence shows she knocked on the locked screen door. The charging decision has nothing to do whatsoever with the race of the parties. Whether it becomes relevant later on, I don’t know.”
Autopsy reports of the 19-year-old show that McBride’s blood alcohol content was three times the legal driving limit for the state of Michigan and that she had marijuana in her system when she was driving. As for the shooting, many believe that it was motivated by race; that Wafer possibly saw a black woman standing on his porch late at night and assumed the worst. But her family and community just want to know why his initial reaction was to shoot first. Their attorney, Gerald Thurswell, spoke out for the family:
“If he had called 911 when he heard her outside his house, they would have been there within two minutes and she would be alive today. Maybe she would have been arrested for being intoxicated, but she would not be dead.”
The 19-year-old had just received a job at Ford after graduating from high school, and her family reportedly described her as an outgoing and friendly young woman.
I learned about Renisha’s story as I watched some of my favorite public affairs news shows and they were discussing the similarities between this case and the racial profiling in the shootings of other unarmed black teens such as the highly publicized Trayvon Martin and Jonathan Ferrell cases. But, they also talked about a prevalent “fear and loathing of black bodies” and it seems that black boys like Trayvon are vulnerable, but now after Renisha’s case it seems that black girls are just as vulnerable in our society. Many media outlets have been linking this case with the many prevalent and historical stereotypes about black women as being overly aggressive, less feminine and more masculine, being most useful as the sturdy women who have served as domestics for many years. These stereotypes that seem to affirm beliefs that black women can not be considered as possible victims of rape, or quite simply that black women in our society are in fact in less of need of help, or protection. One of the discussions even asserted that its stereotypes such as this that could lead someone to see a 5 foot and 4 inches, 19 yr. old teenage- girl like Renisha McBride as threatening enough to shoot. I found many of the points and conclusions in these arguments to be convincing, and have some validity. But, it all got me to thinking a little bit deeper about this situation regarding how black girls in America are viewed. As an African American woman, it may seem more obvious that I could understand the likelihood of Renisha being racially profiled in a predominately white suburb of Detroit. This seems to be a more likely story and unfortunately, all too familiar story. But, what’s more alarming is how I’ve observed how black girls are being negatively profiled by members of our OWN community.
After over 10 years experience in education and youth development, and over 4 years running Polished Pebbles Girls Mentoring Program, I’ve gotten to know lots of wonderful young ladies and their families. When I’m out and about and I tell people about my career mentoring girls here in Chicago, I frequently get many “pats on the back” and receive sentiments of genuine sincere support and appreciation for my work. But, that expressed appreciation is many times also decorated with tones of disdain and disapproval about the current state of black girls. People are so quick to say to me things like “Good, THOSE girls need it”,or “THOSE girls are lost.” And, I often think to myself, when did the girls living in our communities stop being OUR girls and become THOSE girls? It’s almost as if were no longer talking about young black girls that live and are educated in our communities, and our cities, and essentially products of us as a people. No, it’s more like were talking about a race of aliens that have swooped down and invaded our neighborhoods with disrespectful and unmotivated approaches to their own lives and lives of others. And, we don’t know how these alien black girls got here, and why they act the way they do.
It just feels like far too many of us in the African American community have a real discomfort, and honestly a disconnect with our own girls. We’re so frustrated with what we’re seeing as the end product in their some times inappropriate dress, appearance, attitude, and seeming lack of aptitude. I mean, I get it, and understand the frustration. I’m on the front lines of it all through my daily work. But, what’s troubling to me is that we’re not willing as a community to do the hard work of being non-judgmental and understanding enough to be honest about the reasons why our girls do what they do. When you work day to day with youth as I have over the last ten years, you get a better sense of why the surface behaviors that we often associate with our girls exist. That young lady on the bus stop is loud, because it’s a defense mechanism she’s developed to defend her reputation and earn respect in her neighborhood. She’s quick with her tongue, and fast to get snappy with you because she can’t trust anyone. She doesn’t trust anyone, because in many instances the initial people who were supposed to love her, nurture her, and help her learn what true trust and love could look like, abandoned those responsibilities, and essentially she’s raising herself. And, when you’re living in a community with an under resourced schools and economic opportunities you’re already at a disadvantage at being less aware of opportunities that may be available to you. So, why dress any different? Why aspire and participate in activities that happen in a world seemingly so far far away from your day-to-day survival?
It just seems sometimes at times that it’s no love our her for our black girls. I reluctantly “get called out” and get drawn in social media debates about the state of black girls and black women. Often the tones are very accusatory, lack empathy, and don’t involve any real desire to identify the root causes for these challenges. And, I walk away saying, when did so many of us in our community feel like it was okay to fall in the stereotypes too, and think that our black girls don’t need to be protected, don’t need to helped, and just don’t need to be loved? But, if we won’t be sensitive enough to love them in even really tough times such as this, then who will? We may not have the man that pulled the trigger on Renisha McBride, but perhaps the self esteem and hope of a young black girl in our community dies every time we refuse to place judgement to the side, learn her story, and help her. And, how do we learn that story of that girl you ask? MENTOR!! Get involved with a mentoring organization and volunteer, or at the very least support their work in some way.
And, we need as much support as we can get. At Polished Pebbles, we’re working with our girls to learn how to overcome the challenges they face as black girls in our communities by developing effective communication skills, and the necessary confidence. We have been able to follow a network of girls, but with decreased funding due to a tough economy and frequent budget cuts to already under-resourced communities and educational systems, it is becoming tougher to do that. As you can see below, our operating budget has been slashed significantly by almost 70% .
We are doing our best to maintain those relationships and continue to serve almost the same amount of girls on a budget that is five times smaller than what we operated on last year. However, we need your help. In just four years Polished Pebbles has grown to serve over five-hundred girls, and we want to continue to be able to serve this amount and more!
Please donate to Polished Pebbles so we can continue to serve young girls and provide them with the skills to build positive and successful futures!
I thank you for loving our girls, and your continued support!