My Sister's Keeper

Black girls and Black boys both need our commitment

When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, we did not know if we were going to have a boy or a girl. We wanted to be surprised. Many of our friends and family guessed we would have a boy, but deep down inside, my wife and I believed that we would have a girl.

As expectant parents, we didn’t worry about whether we received pink or blue clothing but about what it would mean to raise a Black girl or Black boy in today’s world. How would we parent in a world where Black boys and girls are equally but uniquely dehumanized, idolized, devalued, and commodified? A world where Black children's needs are seemingly invisible and often unmet?

But to be completely honest, I was more fearful of having a son than a daughter.

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Each day in my work at the Open Society Foundation's advancing Black male achievement, I am confronted by the statistics that continue to place Black males at the very bottom of every indicator of success. Yet I know that there are millions of successful Black men and boys and a great deal of opportunity and hope for them. Like the many men and women who have been working on this issue, I am excited by the potential of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative for reversing the negative trends for young men of color in education, incarceration, health, and their own self-worth.

The women in my life affirm that expanding opportunities for their sons, brothers, fathers, uncles, husbands, boyfriends, and other men helps everyone in our community and country and is worth dedicating my life to. My wife, mother, great-grandmother, mother-in-law, sisters, aunties, close sister-friends, and my daughter guide me in every aspect of my life. Because of them, I take seriously questions like, “What about Black women and girls?” “What about Latinas?” “What about Asians?” “What about Native Americans?” And, “What about poor whites?”

The answer is not a simple one. There is no blanket solution for every group suffering from entrenched poverty, discrimination, and social inequality in America. But the work to improve the life outcomes for young men of color doesn’t preclude the need to invest in other populations. And most certainly doesn’t obviate the need to invest in Black women.

I have spent my career working toward the creation and promise of a national initiative like My Brother’s Keeper. I truly believe that the effort will allow for a long needed discussion about the intersections of race and gender, and ultimately serve to lift up all young men and women in our country. To achieve this, we must ensure that this initiative works in collaboration with those working to support young women of color—particularly Black women and girls.

"Let’s not only hear it for the boys. Let’s also hear it, see it, feel it, and speak it for the girls.”

Black women and girls, like their Black male counterparts, suffer striking racial disparities in education and income compared to their White peers. To a greater degree, young sisters are also too often barraged with the harrowing hurdles of teen pregnancy, dating violence, incest and sexual abuse, over-incarceration, and over-suspension, add to that obesity, high rates of HIV and AIDS, negative images suggesting they are over-sexualized and belligerent, as well an increase in gang involvement, and even self-mutilating through cutting. So while I had fears of having a son, I now live with trepidation for my daughter and other Black girls navigating the minefield of challenges on their path in life.

When a Black girl is killed there is rarely national news coverage or massive community outrage. My daughter is growing up in a world where a Black woman is facing 60 years for firing warning shots in the air for fear of her life from an abusive partner. We simply must not forget this.

Dr. Monique Morris, a Soros Justice Fellow and co-founder of the National Black Women’s Justice Institute, shows in her research that the crisis and challenges facing Black boys are similar for Black girls. In her report Race, Gender and the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Expanding Our Discussion to Include Black Girls, she writes, “Engendering the school to prison pathways discussion allows for an expanded appreciation for the similarities and differences between females and males that can inform responses to interrupt the school to prison pathways for all Black youth. In other words, when it comes to the promise of quality education and justice—let’s not only hear it for the boys. Let’s also hear it, see it, feel it, and speak it for the girls.”

My daughter, now two-and-a-half years old, is a beam of light for my wife and I. She is smart, energetic, funny, and strong-willed. We want her to have every opportunity, yet we have already begun to agonize about what will happen when we send her off to school. As our daughter nears enrollment in preschool and kindergarten, we recall images of a 5-year-old-girl in Florida and a 6-year-old in Georgia being handcuffed and arrested for throwing tantrums. What will happen when our daughter upsets someone, or throws a tantrum, and we are not there to talk her through the frustration of not being able to fully communicate her needs?

My hope is that my baby–like every child regardless of what they look like or where they come from–would be consoled, comforted, and cared for in her moments of challenge; that just as we are concerned for Black boys; that just as we are our brother's keepers, that we are forever equally our sister's keepers, too.

Rashid Shabazz is a program officer with the Open Society Foundations' Campaign for Black Male Achievement and lives in New York with his wife, artist and curator Rashida Bumbray and their daughter.