The Willow Test: What Reaction to Willow Smith Says About Us

by Tami Winfrey Harris

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.


Fall 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.)

  • http://sparkleandboom.wordpress.com Nina Renee

    I’m proud of Willow for expressing who she is, even if she is only 11. I was “soul-searching” at that age, and I didn’t have half the confidence Willow has at that age. Young Black girls need more messages of self-acceptance like Willow’s.

  • [email protected]

    all i can figure is that much of the backlash should actually be directed at jada and will who are still criticized for pushing these “choices” on their kids. I don’t have an opinion of willow smith for the most part however i do think a tongue ring at 11 YEARS OLD is ricdiculous..but that’s on jada and will not willow in my opinion. I wouldve have tattoos and animals galore if my parents hadn’t stopped my eleven year old self from every request i asked of

  • Camille

    I am sooooo proud of Ms. Willow. The black community is just truly ignorant . Just because a female cuts her “precious hair” does not make her a lesbian. She’s a kid, trying to find herself! And so what she is 11 years old? You hoes and insecure females can learn something from Willow. She has more self love then some grown folks I know. So back off a girl who 1. Doesn’t care what ppl think and 2. Could buy all their lives and their families lives over and over again. So do you Willow people are truly stupid . I know her parents are so proud

  • http://afrikanmami.blogspot.com africanmami12

    I LOVE that song. It is beautiful. Personally, I don’t understand why folks are hell bent on bringing this baby down. She is just a child, a creative wild child whose parents are involved. Now, having said that, I still do NOT advocate for that pseudo tongue ring, she had on. This song should be nominated for a Grammy!

  • http://www.soundcloud.com/sean-rowe DJ Sean

    it’s tragic that you’re damned if you and damned if you don’t as a teen in the U.S. these days. Teens who follow the masses are criticized for not being a leader, standing on their own. Then, if they are brave enough to take a stand, the haters come out of the woodwork, too.

    While I think your write makes a valid point, I’d rather focus on the love Willow is getting from the on- and offline community. Haters are going to hate. Let’s do what we can not to magnify their voice.

  • CJM

    I love the song!! and i totally agree with you everybody should have the right to express themselves however they want to. It should not be labeled a white or black thing because this prevent people from truly being whom they want to be for fear of what others are going to think of them. Listen to Willow BE YOURSELF and YOU WILL BE FREE!!!

  • YB

    “You hoes and insecure females”

    Really? You preach about learning to love oneself and being a secure person in one sentence but then call women “hoes” and females?

    C’mon son.

  • http://naturallingdiva.blogspot.com MissC

    I’m glad Willow is putting a different image out there for young black girls, what are people really saying they would be more comfortable if she threw on a lace front wig and danced around in a skirt? sad….

  • hiphopmommie

    Yes! I think she is great. I like her alternative style and that she is allowed to be herself. My daughter has an alternative style and I love that about her. I try hard not to tell her to conform to the norms, but it is difficult because we are not rich and at some point it maybe an issue for her. Until then I just tell her to be confident and understand herself, if it comes into questions.

  • YB

    I think Willow is an amazing young woman. I think she is breaking down barriers for young black girls and making it acceptable for them to break from the mild and be different.

    People have serious issues when it comes to letting young black girls freely express themselves and see their bodies as their own property. The black community needs to stop policing what black women and girls can and cannot do.

  • who run the world?…GOD

    This child is truly wise beyond her years and I love all that Willow represents. Regardless of generation, so many AA are intimidated by other AA who choose not to buy into the one-dimensional themes of what it means to be black. From the young to the old, we have been blatantly and subliminally taught that we are inferior and those of us who reject these notions and are brave enough to truly “do us” are constantly branded as being weird, “acting like white folk”, etc. Whoever is responsible for placing us in the black box, blacks or whites, is now irrelevant since we are the ones suffering from such low self-image, worth, and esteem.

  • kaya

    She is old before she’s young. She has the liberty of one who is much older, she’s not doing anything crazy and I see nothing wrong with her style but if she hangs out with people older than her (thus normalizing things she does because she sees nothing wrong with it) and everything she does is excuse as a source of liberation/freedom than besides for actually killing someone and maybe drugs there is nothing this girl could possibly do that could be wrong.

  • Blasè

    remarking about an 11yr olds sexuality is rather disturbing and disgusting if you ask me.

    this kid has her own parents. if she’s setting a bad example (and she’s hardly the worst of kids out there – compare her to Drew Barrymore and others at that age) then all these “concerned” people need to focus on raising their own kids right!

    I hope that Willow never gets dulled down or blunted but all this malicious judgement.

  • http://www.aworknprogress.com Diana

    Puts one fist in the air! I have worked in “urban” areas and it really saddens me that African American children are not pushed to be more creative and think outside the box. And if you do, then something is “wrong” with you. I think so many Black folk are quick to critique Willow because they know the power and the courage that comes with saying you are going to be yourself and you don’t care what other people think. And as a grown up, so many of us have let a lot of your dreams die or suppressed our true selves because of fear. Fear of rejection. Fear of ridicule. Fear of what freedom means. We forget that there was a time, as children especially, when we weren’t afraid of much. And then the world tells you how to be and most folks comply. Willow makes us realize how much we miss our former selves and what we had to give up to get what we “have.”

  • HoneeB

    I agree that reactions to this little girl are ridiculous! I would have loved a song with a message like this when I was that age. Funny how everyone was down with her “whipping her hair back and forth” but when she tells you “your validation is not that important to me”, people have a problem…

  • Toppin

    SMH at this comment

  • http://www.clutchmagonline.com DSweetone

    Well said. It bothers me that when Black children are different in their expressions, they are trying to be “white” or some other cockamanny bullsh!*. I seems to be worse when you have some money. I really believe we kill our children’s creativity when we do this. Also, the things that people were tweeting were awful and even more so because they were directed at a child. This type of stuff is driving me away from media . I’m tired of reading all the crap. There is just too much negativity and too many attacks.

  • http://nesheaholic.com LaNeshe

    I love that song so much.

  • http://www.clutchmagonline.com DSweetone

    Thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Right as Rain

    Right. One cannot call another stupid when their argument is based on statements like, “You hoes and insecure females…” and “Could buy all their lives and their families lives over and over again.”

  • d_nicegirl

    Thecomments re: her sexuality are absolutely ridiculous. But I do find it to be a little disingenuous to release a song through a record company with the purpose of making money, with lyrics like “Your validation it’s not just that important to me.” If that statement was true, wouldn’t she just be holding private concerts in her parents’ entertainment room?

  • Anna

    She actually released the video herself. For people to see not through her record label. They aren’t making money off it. It’s completely her.

  • Fa

    Her video was the only moment in that whole sad pre-show that made me smile.

  • http://cupofjo-jo.blogspot.com bk chick

    I do think the criticism was wayy harsh…however my problem with this whole willow smith think is she’s MARKETED to be a controversial figure…and as such the negative reaction comes with a package. The whole thing sets her up to respond to “haters,” which gives her material, cuz it doesn’t seem she had anything to being with. Basically, it comes off as disingenuous. Now, had Willow had been some random star who came up on her own (a la Justin Bieber) and I had no idea who her parents were but she did this because it was her natural calling…then I wouldn’t be mad. But Willow comes from privilege and although it seems like she’s genuinely quirky..it’s clear that she was pushed to create this image of herself. Also, kids don’t just randomly get the opportunity to sign with Roc Nation–Just Sayin…otherwise she’s cute as a button and wish her success on whatever she does

  • Fa Sho

    I personally love this song. 11 is a rough time when your broke going into middle school and dealing with that pre teen thing. It’s extra hard on her becuase she has grown ups telling her she is a lesbian she aint nobody. I feel she has more to say than Waka Flaka. What she is saying is a universal message that all can listen to regardless of age, sexuality, race, and socio-economic status. Just because her parents are rich does not mean she doesn’t have problems. Rumors and viscious hate she reads daily from random posters on blogs and magazines could have her question what she thinks to be true about her loving family and her self. Now she finally has enough courage to realize I am content with what is.

  • http://theaaridan.tumblr.com Africa America Aaricka! (aka TheMuseintheMirror)

    I like Miss Willow because she is truly a breath of fresh air and she is a beautiful little cinnamon girl that looks just like Will. I do like the song too (I’m singing it all the time, because it is pretty catchy) However, my problem with her image and the video, is that she is all by herself; just singing, skateboarding, standing against a graphic wall. There’s not much of anyone else- like kids for instance. A lot of commentors here were stating that it doesn’t matter if she’s a lesbian or not (or in the case of twitter folks, saying that she was a lesbian b/c of her short hairstyle) and they are glad that she is expressing herself at a time when she is trying to find herself.

    Huh? I’m confused. I don’t know if I’m the minority on this one, but when I was 11 years old, I didn’t have much of a care in the world. I played with my friends. I read tons of books. I enjoyed being a kid. I don’t see that with Willow. And that’s scary, because I have an 11 year old brother and just the thought of him thinking with the mind of a 16 year old would just freak me out and bother me.

    I was defiantly quirky, but still a girly girl. I was a complete nerd who loved to read books more than anything. But my sense of freedom came from being able to be a kid. Knowing that I was still in my parent’s household and that I could still get a “woopin” if I acted up.

    Maybe celebrities lives are much different though. That’s what makes me feel sorry for Willow. That she has to go through going up so fast and facing so much criticism.

  • http://beautyandthestreetmag.blogspot.com Amber

    I applaud Willow and her braveness. I too was a quirky teen straight into my 20′s who was black with short curly hair and a tomboyish rock influenced style. I questioned myself often but I came to terms with my uniqueness. Today people just copy! Well said!!

  • DaughteroftheSun

    Black girls should be supported in all of their positive efforts. There are plenty of Black men and white women publicly denigrating Black women, and therefore girls, we as Black women do not need to jump on board. I think it is beautiful and common sense that Black girls and women embrace and rock their natural hair. I also think that calling her a lesbian because of her chosen is aesthetic is very ignorant and disrespectful. The hate Black women has got to stop.

  • Me

    Haven’t read the whole article yet, but just from the video: this would’ve absolutely been my anthem in my tween/teen years. Good for her! And I think she’s exactly the right age for putting this kind of song out–right when you’re wondering who/where to fit in. Cute girl, cute song. Go Willow!

  • GlowBelle

    THIS to the 1,000th power!

  • mluv

    The song is a really nice song. I guess my thing is kids today are very wise beyond their years, smart and conscious. When I was 11 years old I wasn’t having body issues yet, and it just didn’t phase me at the time to have self-acceptance and confidence. I know that I was existing but didn’t start having self-conscious issues until I was about 13; and went into full blown puberty with pimples and all sorts of body issues. Self-acceptance it’s self is such a broad concept that someone even past the tween and teen years can’t fully wrap around until later in life. How does this child already know and understand self-confidence and acceptance? gosh it took me a while to finally understand and have confidence in myself.

  • simplyme

    So true. This is exactly why I’ve always been a supporter. I’d rather have my little cousin listening to her than Nicki Minaj any day. How many positive Black female artists are out there that tween Black girls could relate to in the first place…? Not many.

    It seems they’re turning to Nicki Minaj and atrocious rappers like Lil Wayne and Tyga because “hip hop culture” is all they know. Despite the fact the it basically has their worst interest at heart… I started thinking about this the day she fanned Amber Rose and Kim Kardashian on facebook… Who knew that having a large posterior made someone worthy of having (female) fans?

    Even when I was that age, the people we idolized didn’t seem so purposefully horrible and monolithic. I loved both Destiny’s Child and Linkin Park and some how that was ok… Its becoming harder for kids to do their own thing…. especially when they think certain artists are “representing” them, when that couldn’t be further from the truth.

  • http://twitter.com/AngelinaTherapy Angie Brown-Gladney (@AngelinaTherapy)

    I was later revealed that the tongue ring was fake.

  • Right as Rain

    For whatever reason, her quirkiness seems to turn a lot of people off.
    I assume it is partially because as a Black girl, she does not fit the mold others have created for her. I think people are more comfortable with boys being eccentric than they are girls, because Jaden is just as eccentric as she is, but for whatever reason, people like him more.

    I don’t believe that children today are ‘very wise beyond their years’. They have more access to information, but they aren’t necessarily wise.

    “How does this child already know and understand self-confidence and acceptance?” – With Willow being who she is, she is probably around adults who impart their own knowledge about self-confidence and acceptance onto her.

  • http://Theantifash.blogspot.com TheAntifash

    Love this comment! I am so happy to see Willow just standing up and being herself, despite all the foolishness from urban media. I wish I had a Willow to look to at 11.

  • Apple

    Imsorry to say but I don’t like the new clutch :-( I can’t find the articles as easy as it was before and it’s not mobile user friendly

  • Tami

    I love this song…Go Willow!!! Continue being free regardless as to what others think.

  • choklitgirlwonder

    She’s 11. Period. How is being photographed out skateboarding and tramping around NYC with seemingly no adult supervision “being unique”? Is she logging as much time with a tutor as she is devoting to “being free and unique”? The message in the song isn’t the issue for me. It’s great and kudos to her for putting it out. But if she’s living life this freely at 11 (a CHILD) WTH does she have to look forward to as an adult?

  • ms_teacher

    even if it was fake, what was the point in sporting a tongue ring? how many little girls know that its fake?

  • ms_teacher

    this is her, what, second single and all of a sudden she is “wise and daring?” come on. we don’t know much about this kid at all besides the fact that she dresses out of the norm? so wat? that means nothing. the child just might be tacky. she cut her hair? who cares? for all we know, she could of had really damaged hair and was forced to cut her locs. And from the few articles that I have read over time about this family, Will isn’t to keen on his daughter’s choice of style anyway. so is he a young-independent woman/child basher too? She’s a celebrity, and most celebrities are a bit over the top. Did anyone think that maybe she’s conforming to that odd, “i-rock-whatever-i-want-and-i’m-still-cool image” that a lot of celebs succumb to (i.e. nicki minaj, lady gaga, even Gwen Stefani at times)? However, I could be wrong.
    She’s 11. At this age, half of the Disney channel stars have written a song just like this. its nothing new. stop boosting the child.

  • ms_teacher

    she’s not thinking outside the box! omg. she dresses a little different. who cares! i know plenty of tacky 11 year olds, are they innovative and unique too? goodness!

  • ms_teacher

    good point!

  • http://diaryofasmalltowndiva.blogspot.com/ Petite Diva

    I love this song! People should leave Willow alone, she already has parents (Will & Jada), she doesn’t need the whole world to raise her. I love this song and I hope every little girl gets her message. I can’t get over how much she looks like her father!

  • http://diaryofasmalltowndiva.blogspot.com/ Petite Diva

    Dora the Explorer goes much farther on her own with no supervision :-) lol

  • Nigerian Sistah

    LOL! so true…I like the song, good message for our young girls.

  • Dionne

    Please get a life, you miserable, unhappy fool@ms_teacher

  • Debfa

    Overall I think this is a great article, because we really need to learn to stop getting up in other people’s business. That said, this right here is wrong:

    “If white kids can be goths and punks and skaters and metal heads and jocks and nerds”

    White kids do get hassled for that IRL; I’ve dated plenty of punk boys to know how much shit their families/teachers/peers/etc. give them over it. And in most media when some kid is a goth/punk/etc. they’re either the ‘bad kid’ or the Other, someone to make a joke at the expense of. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of extra racial issues Willow has to face that most white kids won’t (though on the other hand most white kids won’t have the privilege of being born fabulously wealthy). But let’s not pretend that white kids are allowed to be non-conformist without consequence, because you’re not going to convince people who are on the fence if you stumble right out of the gate like that.

  • Lock

    commenting on the rest of these issues would take too long. but it really bothers me that so many people are focused on the tongue ring. it isn’t anyone’s job to police others on how they raise their children. how is this any less acceptable than girls with pierced ears as young as six months? i know that’s when i got mine. this “the tongue ring has got to go!” nonsense is a social prejudice and nothing more. if her parents are okay with it and it makes her happy, why not? if it were an 11-year-old boy here with the same modification NO ONE would be giving a shit. the fact that it’s fake is irrelevant. it would make her no less of a wonderful girl if it were real.

  • Lock

    you’re a moron. how is a tongue ring any different from pierced ears? society is less accepting of them and therefor they’re BAD? no. if you’re really concerned about other girls being “influenced” by something like that, then if you are a parent you need to step back and reevaluate your OWN parenting and what you’re teaching your children about lessons learned from the media. if you don’t have children? shame on you for criticizing a mother whose situation you know nothing about for not making her daughter conform to whatever aesthetic standards you hold. you’re not only completely missing the point of EVERYTHING here by focusing on *cosmetics* instead of the issue at hand, but i have to ask: would you be making the same outcry if it were a boy with the piercing? and if so: again, WHY?

    all of this ignoring the fact that what you think is acceptable for eleven-year-olds and what isn’t is not the universal standard for how children should look and behave. or for what parents should allow.

  • Natalie B

    I wish the people who are so critical of this little girl’s tongue ring would be half as critical about the parents that are NOT raising many of the disrespectful, ignorant and often functionally illliterate children, teenagers and young adults I see not only roaming the streets, but on TV and that I hear on the airways. Get on social media and tell these neglectful parents that the time they are spending criticizing someone else’s daughter, who is obviously well-cared for and nurtured, might be better utilized explaining that people in civil society don’t brag about being in fights, that education is a good thing, and that causal, unprotected sex can bring you more problems that a difficult baby mama/baby daddy.

    I might not be 100% on board with a girl her age having a tongue ring, but it isn’t a mountain to die on, but she isn’t my kid and it’s not my business. I hope the Smiths continue to foster their daughter’s individuality, and encourage her to be creative and positive. God knows as a community we suffer from such group-think it’s nearly impossible to find true originality in entertainment. Good for them and for her for not falling victim to it.

  • Brittany

    She doesn’t actually have a tongue ring. It was a fake! Just one of those magnetic piercings.

  • Doodle

    What I don’t understand is adults using the defense that she’s too young and then invalidate her feelings as an individual and bully her by calling her things that are ignorant. And unless you’re a licensed social worker, working for child services, I don’t think it’s your job to tell her parents how to raise her.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pipersays Elizabeth Elle-Lynn Franks

    God. Can I just take a second to comment on how simply GOOD this song is, and how amazing her voice is? Can’t wait to see what’s next for this chick. She needs to keep it up… haters gonna hate, for sure, but damn. She’s wonderful.

  • luzia

    “You hoes and insecure females”
    had to laugh at that

  • Jameeha

    All I can say is I Love IT! Where was my willow smith while I was growing up. I grew up with kids that didn’t look like me it seems like a never ending quest to find myself. Fast forward I have 2 teen age daughters and I preach to them all the time you are what god made you so embrace and love yourself. You are not define by hair, clothes or material belongings. My own family tries to tell me to how my kids should dress, what’s the best hair style, etc. to me I think that is all an form of expression with boundries of course and dad always gets final approval on clothes. But my kids are free to express Themselves. When I compare my kids to family their age my children seem fearless ready to take on the world while other children seem trapped or content with not trying anything new.

    What I don’t get are the adults passing judgement, not everyone parenting styles are the same and what works for the Smith’s don’t work for the Jone’s.

  • http://twitter.com/raybozz Raybozz (@raybozz)

    I really like the song. Love Willow. She looks so much like her Father.

  • http://chicmodernvintage.wordpress.com chicmodernvintage

    I noticed that too.

  • Myra Gabrino

    She is young and i think trying to find out who she is, but one thing i am sure of is she is gay.

  • http://www.facebook.com/nostalgia4now Brittany Ransom

    Then you’re a dick. I was very much the anti-pink tomboy as a youngster and started liking cisgendered things when I was in my teens. I used to HATE wearing a skirt to school and wearing dresses to church. I am very feminine now at 25 years old. Kids try different things and assumptions about sexuality are assholish.

  • Pingback: Willow Smith’s new “I Am Me” song and video sparks reaction | Beutiful Magazine Online

  • http://gravatar.com/fixingtoshine fixingtoshine

    Who gives a crap if she is gay? Quite frankly, it’s not your place to be sure of anyone’s sexuality but your own. A person’s outward appearance, especially at that age, is never an indicator of their sexuality. And damn you for thinking it is, you are the problem.

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