Any mention of Willow Smith seems to eventually devolve into a discussion of what is “acceptable” black parenting. There’s a myth (heavily fed by the media) that the Smiths are doing something incredibly new and unusual, particularly for black parents. Conversations about their parenting never really touch on the fact that their children are already millionaires in their own right with an even larger inheritance ahead. Willow Smith can shave her head one week and wear an ankle-length wig the next because she’s in an environment where it’s safe for her to explore everything that interests her. There is no need for the Smiths to teach their children the same lessons taught to poor black kids in the inner city, or even those facts of life that middle class black kids in the suburbs might need to learn.
Willow’s situation is unique for a young black girl in America, and the very public nature of her life has a lot to do with the responses to her fashion choices. Those who take issue with lack of boundaries set on her appearance are really reacting to the world in which walking while black can be an invitation for harassment, assault, or death. They live in communities rife with gang violence, police brutality, and institutional racism that would make it impossible for them to have green hair and be gainfully employed. In their minds, the Smiths are allowing Willow to develop habits that could have long-term consequences, and they cannot imagine how these choices could be a good idea.
But this discussion goes beyond the privileged world she lives in, and into those other communities full of kids that are navigating life without privilege. Why aren’t we more concerned that kids in the inner city can’t express themselves safely? Why aren’t we discussing the prejudices that make people afraid for Willow? In every conversation about whether or not her parents should “let” her be herself from her hair color to her attire, there seems to be a resistance to recognizing that Willow is enjoying the freedom that comes with affluence and the relative safety that it creates. When do we discuss the jealous tone of some of the criticism? Or the homophobic thread that seems to work its way into any discussion if it goes on long enough?
For the American black community, respectability politics are rooted in a history that shows us that black people who step outside the lines set by society can end up dead. There is a long well-documented history of individuals being killed, and whole communities being destroyed for being too successful. Yet, America is a country that prides itself on being built by risk takers. Access to the American Dream (definitely something the Smiths are living), requires seekers to go against the grain, to be creative, and relentless in their pursuit of happiness. So how does a modern parent reconcile history like Rosewood, the Red Summer of 1919, and the violence that punctuated the Civil Rights Movement with that dream? How do they prepare their children for a world where institutional racism can still equal death, albeit a death that is more likely to occur at the hands of the police, or someone who claims to be standing their ground?
Me in the 8th grade.
When discussing alternative parenting styles, I have a tendency to contrast the way I am raising my children with the way that I was raised by my grandmother. She was born in 1924, and watched the Civil Rights Movement play out in the same places where her brother was lynched for the crime of being uppity. Her parenting style was rough, but it had to be, as she spent 30 years trying to make sure her family members could survive in Jim Crow America.
We butted heads constantly when I was a teenager, because my fondness for male friends (many of them white) and miniskirts struck her as terrible ideas. I complained about her being old fashioned, but to some extent, even in the 1990s, she was correct about the risks I was taking. She was concerned about me being a young lady because she believed that would protect me from predators. I was concerned with navigating streets where my tomboy toughness made me less of a target.
Does that mean that she was doing the wrong thing? No. There is no correct way to parent; all anyone can do is know the child they love and do their best by them. My sons are being raised in the way I wish I had been reared; from the outside it may appear that I’m spoiling them. I’m not. I’m trying to prepare them for a life that will be drastically different from mine. My grandmother faced a similar challenge. After all, I was a child trying to become independent almost 30 years after the end of segregation. She knew how to respond when I was being harassed by a cop on my walk to school, but she had no frame of reference for a girl with wild clothes and wilder ideas who wanted things it would have been dangerous for her to pursue in the 1940s, or for her children to chase in the 1960s.
So why rush to judge the Smiths for knowing their kids and their situation better than any outsider? Yes, in some neighborhoods Willow Smith would be at risk simply for existing in public as a young black woman, much less one who doesn’t conform to the expectations of outsiders. But she doesn’t live in those neighborhoods. In fact, as many of her supporters will tell you, she’s living the way we wish everyone could live, and frankly that should be the focus of these conversations.
Imagine an America where parents of color are free to let their children explore without having to worry that standing out is more dangerous than blending in. Not every parent will raise their children the way the Smiths are raising Willow, but an America where communities aren’t under attack would still be a better place to grow up.
Any discussion of parenting is a discussion of the future, and at some point we have to stop repeating the mistakes of the past and focus on solutions for the present. There are millions of girls watching Willow, and how many of them will do great things if given half the chance? Even if they have to work in the communities where Willow will never have to go, at least they have hope of being themselves and being rewarded for it. Contrary to popular opinion, no one is being raised by the Huxtables or by Madea — in fact many parents are doing their best to give their kids space to develop while keeping them safe, which requires a flexibility that is rarely recognized.
Stop the gender policing and the concern trolling over whether or not good parenting is telling a child how to wear their hair, and talk about why so many people who aren’t concerned for her well-being feel free to attack her for existing. Talk about why the media narratives that fail to depict the diversity of parenting styles in the black community can harm children of color, and in turn their communities. Talk about anything useful, but stop pretending that Willow Smith’s life is anyone else’s business.