My roommate showed me Willow Smith’s new video and I was extremely moved by it – the song “I Am Me” is a great and empowering message about self-acceptance and individuality. The video is excellent, too. It was refreshing to hear lyrics with actual substance – which is more than I can say for 95% of popular music. However, “I Am Me” is receiving a lot of criticism, and I found a great article on Clutch, written by Tami Winfrey Harris, that dissects the negative reactions to the video. Ok, I know social media is all about the snark and ratchet, especially around awards show time, most especially around BET Awards show time. But snark reveals a bit of truth about what the snarker believes. And if reaction to Willow Smith’s appearance on the BET Awards pre-show, where she debuted a new song called “I Am Me,” is any indication, we believe some pretty depressing stuff about black children – and black girls specifically.

willow smithFall in line

If white kids can be goths and punks and skaters and metal heads and jocks and nerds, shouldn’t black children have the same latitude for self-expression? It is true that race changes things. I imagine there was a time when cautioning black children not to do their own thing was about survival — sometimes even life or death. Fifty-some years ago, it was hard enough being black and simply living life. When you can’t even reliably vote or get a decent education, there is no need to borrow trouble by adding defiantly quirky to your list of challenges. Black children and adults fell in line with rigid codes of respectability for a reason. But we’re not living in 1962, so I can’t imagine why so many people find Willow Smith’s sartorial choices and I-am-what-I-am ethos so threatening. “Willow Smith, you’re 11 years old. Nobody needs advice about ‘being themselves’ from you. Call us back when you get your period” was tweeted and retweeted hundreds of times last night and Monday morning. Don’t give me that an 11-year-old rich girl doesn’t have problems. Ask an average pre-teen or teen and they will share a ton of problems. It doesn’t matter that to adults the problems seem trivial. They don’t seem trivial when you are 11 or 15, do they? And I am willing to bet being the child of celebrity parents comes with some very real and unique challenges (like seeing speculation on your parents’ marriage on the cover of tabloids). Considering what black children learn about blackness, subtly and openly, in the media and in American culture, don’t we want them to have the strength and resilience to say, “I am not your stereotype, but I am me”? Don’t we want them to feel comfortable in their skin? Don’t we want black children to be as free as other children? Don’t we want to inoculate little girls against the onslaught of shitty messages about black femaleness? Perhaps we don’t. I can’t help but set reaction to Willow Smith next to the plethora of young male performers who brag about swag and girls and money without raising so much as an eyebrow. But a little black girl sings “your validation is not that important to me,” and all hell breaks loose. (Note to Willow: Watch out girl! Steve Harvey and Tyrese will tell you all that independence is gonna leave you manless one day.)

Act like a lady

Much reaction to Willow Smith also confirms the way women are expected to perform femininity. One person live tweeting the BET Awards offered that Willow Smith was “turning into a little lesbian,” and that wasn’t the only message speculating on the 11-year-old’s sexuality or questioning her gender. Another tweeter snarked that rapper Tyga and Willow are one in the same. There would be nothing wrong If Willow were to identify as a lesbian or a boy, but what narrow parameters are we placing on girls and women if simply wearing our hair short, sporting a button down over skinny jeans, and daring to mount a skateboard dictates all anyone needs to know about who we are and who we love? (I could write a whole ’nother post on the idea that black, natural hair is masculine and not “pretty.” Black folks need to check their self-hatred on that one. *cough* Wendy Williams). It seems quirky is only cute if it is Denise Huxtable/Zooey Deschanel-style, sufficiently girly wackiness. Perhaps Shiloh Jolie-Pitt and Willow Smith can start a club for celebrity daughters who get grief for not wearing pink, tulle, and sparkles, and wanting to be pirates and punks rather than princesses. I’m with my smart co-contributor Britni Danielle: We need to interrogate what gets everyone so heated over Willow Smith and how she rolls. The girl isn’t falling out of night clubs or taking bath salts. Considering her dad was a smart kid who attended a pre-engineering program at MIT, I’m thinking education is a big deal in the Pinkett-Smith household and that Willow must be hitting the books in addition to making music. She is unfailingly charming and well spoken (if maybe a little grown) in interviews. She seems to have a strong and loving relationship with her family. She marches to the beat of her own drummer. She seems to have avoided being sucked into princess mania. And if her new song is any indication, as @abelleinbk tweeted, that Willow has been digging into her mama’s Alanis, Fiona, and Jewel albums, then she’s got good taste in music, to boot. What’s the problem? If I had a little girl, I would be excited as all get out if she were like Willow Smith. I wish I had been more like Willow at 11. (But then, I don’t have multimillionaire parents, which makes some difference, yes?) We lament the presence of strong role models for our children. They could certainly do a lot worse than idolizing a seemingly smart, engaging, self-assured, quirky black girl. That so many of us don’t recognize that says a lot about our society — none of it good.