A 15-year-old girl was recently pummeled by six young women at a McDonald’s in Brooklyn. The six girls pulled at her hair and clothes and threw a steady barrage of punches until her body finally collapsed onto the floor. The large crowd of bystanders appeared to watch the entire fight, never once jumping in to break it up. Only after her body went limp did someone intervene. Some of those watching were also cheering. Of course, someone recorded a video of the fight—and it went viral.
In response, the young victim allegedly bragged about being “famous” on her Facebook page.
And then came the labels. A New York-based newspaper called one of the girls a “brute” and “hell-raiser,” noting a history of violence that those who work with troubled youth might instantly recognize as the profile of a child in pain, of a child who has learned that the solution to conflict is violence. That one of the girls was allegedly affiliated with the “Young Savages” gang might signal the extent to which these girls have believed the hype about their own dehumanization.
They are not the only ones who might believe it. Five of the six girls are in police custody, and a number of the girls—still too young to vote—will likely be tried as adults.
Very little appears to be working as it should.
Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe wrote that, “Until the lions have their own historian, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” That is a powerful framework for understanding the value of perspective. But what about the fly on the lion’s tail? What about the antelope who are watching the hunt? Are they not impacted by the hunt?
Of course, they are.
We’re all affected by this violence. If we’re watching and sharing these fights for entertainment, we’re all throwing the punches, and we’re all culpable to a degree. By spreading these videos, laughing at them, and honoring girls who fight in this way, we become a virtual cheering section for the destruction of these girls’ futures.
According to Isis Sapp-Grant, Founder of Blossom, a program that has worked with gang-involved girls in New York, we need to look beyond the video in order to explore the past victimization history of girls who are involved in public displays of violence like the one at that Brooklyn McDonald’s.
“[When you’re fighting], your mind just clicks off when you have that cheering crowd. It’s the group that will chant you into killing somebody and you don’t even know what you’ve done,” Sapp-Grant told EBONY. “When this dies down, what are we going to learn about these girls and how many times they were at the bottom of the pile? Empathy is missing because it hasn’t been taught. [These girls] really don’t know it. They can’t afford it. It doesn’t work in the environment they’re in.”
This problem is obviously bigger than the seven girls involved in the brawl in McDonald’s, or even the collection of bystanders who did nothing to interrupt the beating. But how do we change an environment wherein a Google search of “Black Girl Fights” can yield more than 15 million results in less than one minute?
Choosing a Different Path: First, we stop treating girls’ fights as entertainment. The public interest in watching girls fight one another has long been a perverse pleasure. One of the most important observations noted in the African American Policy Forum’s report, Black Girls Matter, was that girls believe people treat their fights as entertainment.
The other problem is the public debate that follows high profile incidents like the one in New York. Instead of being portrayed as a “normal weird kid” (words that were used to describe the Sandy Hook shooter), Black girls are almost immediately labeled as “brutes,” “hoes,” and “savages.” In other words, there is a tendency to dehumanize Black children who make mistakes, to render them as “throw-away” children, and to lower our tolerance and expectation that they can learn from their mistakes.
As a community, we can teach our girls that while fighting is a way to be seen, it is not a way to earn respect. As it stands, many of our girls—and adult members of our communities—confuse the two; and this is doing our community a disservice.
After overcoming her own addiction to violence and working with girls walking similar paths, Isis Sapp-Grant has developed an appreciation for the time it takes to fully see what lies beneath the surface.
“The simple answer is that it’s not simple,” Sapp-Grant told EBONY. “It takes time. It’s when people leave it alone and those girls are still left silently with what happened that the real work will begin.”
Toward the goal of teaching our girls to reject the elevation of social status through violence, here are three things (which don’t require additional resources) that we—as their community of concerned adults—can do immediately:
See them: Our racial justice agenda has failed to fully integrate the conditions of girls, and as a result, they are left to deal with their pain in silence, and through violence. We can begin to shape a healing-informed lens by including Black girls in our ongoing efforts to improve conditions in our communities.
Trigger their “Oppositional Gaze”: bell hooks invited us to think critically about the public images that reduce Black femininity to stereotypes. We can help our girls recognize their inherent beauty by helping them develop a critique of these images and free themselves from the bondage of oppressive memes that undermine their wellbeing.
Teach our girls how to communicate through nonviolence: Invite our girls to tell their stories—the right way. Fighting is one way to tell a story, usually one of anger, fear, disrespect, and neglect. We can find ways for girls to center their stories and communicate with tools that will give them the capacity to be genuinely empowered, rather than temporarily feared.
But we cannot reduce the power of Black femininity to the strength of a punch. Nor can we allow the public consciousness to dehumanize and objectify our girls for the sake of entertainment. Our girls are so much more. Let’s help them recognize themselves.
10 Programs that Uplift Black Girls:
Black Girls Code, Nationwide
Delta GEMS Program, Nationwide
A Long Walk Home, Chicago, IL
Center for Young Women’s Development, San Francisco, CA
Eve’s Circle, Montgomery, AL
Girl Power Rocks!, Miami, FL
Lead4Life, Baltimore, MD
MISSSEY, Oakland, CA
Rise, Sister Rise, Columbus, OH
Sisters of Tomorrow & Today, Atlanta, GA or New Haven, CT
Monique W. Morris, Ed.D. is a social justice scholar, and author of Black Stats: African Americans by the Numbers in the Twenty-First Century and a forthcoming book on the criminalization of Black girls in schools. Follow Dr. Morris on Twitter @MoniqueWMorris.