When Cori was 6-years-old, she began to play outside with the girl next door, let’s call her Eva. Eva hadn’t lived next door long and since Cori had never really had a friend in our neighborhood, she was beyond excited. The friendship started off good enough. They would both run in and out of their homes grabbing baby dolls, sidewalk chalk, and whatever else they needed for their games. But, one day things took a turn. I glanced out the kitchen window to check on Cori only to find her leaning up against the car with Eva mushing her in her head.
Now, maybe another kind of mama would go out there and intervene or shout “y’all play nice” to break up their altercation. But I’m not that kind of mama. I think kids need the space to figure out how to resolve conflicts on their own and since most of those interactions tend to happen in school, I don’t always get a chance to witness how my kids handle beef. So, this was a perfect opportunity for me to observe Cori in action.
So, there she was, getting mushed by little Eva and what does she do? No. She didn’t push her back. She didn’t even call her ugly, grab her toys, and leave. She shouts out, “This is my body. I DID NOT give you consent to touch my body.” SMH. Eva ignored that shit and continued sonning her. When Cori finally made it in the house, exasperated and confused as to why Eva didn’t listen to her demands, I told her “Look. That feminism shit don’t work outside” and sat her down for some real talk.
Cori’s fight with Eva made me think about my interactions with the young feminists that I advise and mentor. So many of them come into feminist consciousness in a space that is affirming, thoughtful, and inspiring. They become feminists in a women’s studies classroom, a women’s center, organizing around women’s issues, or in Cori’s case, in the lap of her feminist mama reading her Dear Girl as her bedtime story. These are places where we believe that “your silence will not protect you” so we praise the Lorde when someone does what Cori did—finds their voice and uses it. This is the world as it should be. But, it is not the world as it is. The world is deeply patriarchal and misogynistic and almost the direct opposite of the places where their feminism is first nurtured. This is a world where other little Black girls might roll up and mush you in your face.
So. what do we do? Let me be clear. I don’t think that we need to harden these spaces in an effort to “prepare them for the real world.” These spaces should remain the affirming, inviting spaces that they are. However, when they encounter an ugly world, I think we have the responsibility to tell them the truth about feminism. Not necessarily the truth about the world. I think they know that truth and that is why they became feminists. They want to enact upon the world in a way that makes it better for women and girls. I think they need to know that feminism isn’t easy or formulaic. Rather, it lives in the gray areas. They need to see and hear examples from seasoned feminists about how we do our feminism in real life. I think we need to share with them, and each other for that matter, the practice of our politics.
So here are the lessons Cori had to learn about feminism that day that I also tell the young feminists in my life:
1. What do I do when people don’t listen to me? We have to translate our feminism. Some of the academic and activists concepts we use in feminist spaces are not intuitive. We have to get really good at figuring out who our audience is and speaking to in a language that makes sense to the people we are speaking to. Young feminists often tell people, “read a book” or “do your own homework” or “I’m not doing that labor.” And that’s fair. It is labor and it is exhausting. But, when you have the capacity, it’s worth the effort to translate in a language that the people you’re talking to would understand. I often use hip hop, pop culture, and sports to explain concepts and provide relatable examples. You can find whatever works for you. Cori didn’t need to use words like consent to tell Eva that she disapproved of her touching her. If Eva didn’t understand “this is my body” Cori could have tried, “You better get the fuck out my face!” I bet Eva would have understood that and Cori’s core message would have stayed intact. Lmao.
2. What do I do when people don’t respect my boundaries? Defining your boundaries is very feminist but it is usually only the first step. Feminism often requires some action too. I’m not talking about fighting (but I’d be lying if I acted like I wasn’t secretly hoping Cori would push the shit out of Eva). But I am talking about moving beyond vocal definitions of who we are, what we want, and how we want people to treat us. Think, ”I can show you better than I can tell you.” My feminism is about that action. A teacher ridicules your comments in front of the whole class? Stay after class and tell her how that impacts your ability to learn. You feel like people are not respecting your contributions at work? Keep receipts by make a running list or updated resume of all the things you’ve been doing and share it with your supervisor. (You want to be extra spicy, send it out!). A little girl trying to play you outside of your own house, get your toys and go. Bet she’ll understand when you don’t play with her anymore.
3. What do I do when people are mean? See. This is where I think “they” have feminists effed up. I think they think that because we value inclusivity and want to make safe/brave/courageous spaces where people can learn and grow, that we are nice. Not me! My feminism is a little bit gangsta and is the embodiment of “if you don’t give a damn, we don’t give a fuck.” I’m going to meet you with the same energy you bring. I don’t have to be nice to people who are not nice to me. You don’t have to work with people that want you to die and who actively try to harm you. Cori and her best friend London have disagreements and they are always able to resolve them by stating what they didn’t like, apologizing, and acting differently next time. But Eva is not London! Everyone doesn’t deserve your kindness. Some people need to be cursed out and told that their breath stinks. Cori, like all of us, has to discern for herself whether the people in her life add value and want to see her thrive or if they are toxic. Cori continued to play with Eva for a little while longer, but eventually decided she didn’t want to be friends with a meanie. (Now, if she decided the friendship was worth it and that Eva just had some issues handling conflict, I would have stepped in and helped. But she didn’t even know her like that, so whatever).
While, I quickly told Cori that “that feminism shit doesn’t work outside,” what I explained to her was more sophisticated than that. I affirmed that her voice matters and that I was proud of her for standing up for herself. I was proud of her for noticing behavior that she did not like and stating that loud and clear. What I was doing was adding some strategies to her collection. I explained that feminism often requires more than words and declarations and I shared with her that my feminism requires translation, action, and a little bit of gangsta. She may not do it exactly like me, but I think it’s important to share examples of everyday feminism so that she’s more prepared for the next time someone tries to play her.