Written by Love Isn’t Enough Contributor A. Bloom
At five, our daughter, was still very much looking to our black friends and adults in her life (professors, artists, heath-professionals, and our pastor) to develop her sense of self. As white parents of black children, we had chosen a neighborhood and school where our kids would have teachers and school administrators (principal, school counselor etc) who are black as well as a predominantly African American peer group. In kindergarten, she and her peers were thriving.
A couple of months ago, our now six year old informed me tearfully that she had been informed that she needed to join the “Baddy Baddy Club.” She had been told that she was “one of us” (defined as “Baddies”) by an African American classmate, and that some of her friends were decidedly not Baddies. “Good Girls” weren’t welcomed to play.
At first our daughter was perplexed. Despite her social savvy, her experiences didn’t prepare her to see the invitation (or pressure) to join the club as raced. She had no idea why she and not another of her close friends would “need” to be a member. She had no idea why members were automatically “bad.” A kid who likes to test the boundaries at home but who also sees herself as diligent, kind, and good, was in distress.
My knee jerk reaction was “That’s it! Private school!” Friends of ours had chosen university-affiliated schools where a college-bound destiny is assumed, and they feel confident that it has contributed to a positive racial self-concept. But if that didn’t work, there was always Catholic school (the problems of “bad girls” would be delayed at least until middle school, right?) Or I could just keep her home with me forever which seemed, for the moment, the best solution.
Instead, we recruited our friends to help us, relying not only on their support and their status as “good role models” but also on their expertise. We remembered – with sadness! – that there’s always a point when peers will be more influential than adults. We met with our school counselor. And we knew that the studies on school diversity show that it is highly unlikely in a diverse school for children to keep best friends (up to fifth best friends, even) of different races.
But it was also very much another reminder to us that it matters what messages ALL of our children are sent, not just the children in my home or in the college-bound high school. Yes, we can look to African American role models to counter-act negative messages. Especially this month, that’s the tendency, and that’s important. But we can’t forget that that’s also mixed with continual and more pervasive messages of less-than. I also have no doubt that the impact of these messages at this particular age is both classed (I doubt the Obama girls’ peer group struggled the same way in first grade) and gendered: One friend suggested that the notion of Bad Girls having more fun could be blamed on moms watching Oxygen. But the girls saw it as both gendered and raced.
For me, the Baddy Baddy Club was a reminder that sending counter-messages is important, but so is working for structural changes. Living in a “Black History Month” world doesn’t make our problems history: My oldest notes cynically that the Disney Channel’s “Anything is Possible” Black History month spot totally neglects economic disparity. Internalizing negative messages in a first grade classroom are signs of structural inequalities and all of our kids’ efforts to explain them.
My daughter handled the Baddy Baddy Club – after role playing lots of alternatives with me, my husband, and her brother – by telling the so-called boss of the club “My mom says I can’t be a Baddy Baddy” and inviting all the girls to form a club that lets everybody in and doesn’t have a boss. Our daughter was successful in that moment because she has a lot of personal power — even if she doesn’t always know it. The balance and friendships alike were restored, for now.
But they’re not going to be six for long.
And I’m hoping you can tell me how to handle seven.