These are some of the people who’ve claimed my daughters as friends: flight attendants, strangers in the grocery store, a barista at Starbucks, their pediatrician, random mothers at the park, and the Family Court judge presiding over the baby’s adoption. All of these white people developed such fast intimacy with my 6-year-old and 6-month-old that they call them their Girlfriend. Sometimes they even add a little sassy lilt to their voice. Z snaps for everyone!
I want to first make clear that I believe all of the above folks approached my beautiful girls with warmth in their hearts. Intentions matter. But so too does language, and the carelessness with which we use it in relation to people of a different race. At the grocery store, at the park, at Family Court, I don’t hear all of the same kind people addressing little white girls as their Girlfriends. They don’t assume the flip tone so frequently deployed between the woefully few African American characters depicted on screen.
They ask white children their names and use them.
When I’ve mentioned how I cringe when I hear folks getting in my daughters’ faces and calling them “Girlfriend!” some of my white friends have resisted. Why overthink this? Why get uptight? One friend said she’s always had habit of referring to girls, regardless of their race, as “Mamacita.” That doesn’t make her racist, does it?
I’m not trying to make people feel defensive about their specific habits or quirks of language. I’m not talking about isolated incidences, but a suburban plague. I guarantee you that if you ask a mother of black girls how many times her daughter was called a “Girlfriend” by a stranger that week she’ll run out of fingers on her hands. So is it any wonder that it gets to a point where a mother just wants to hold up her hand and say Stop?
Besides being hopelessly goofy and borderline lame, the jocular claim of Girlfriend—”Can I hold you Girlfriend?” “Can I have a fist bump Girlfriend?”—is harmless in a vacuum, but dangerously demeaning in our social context. Calling someone your Girlfriend suggests a relationship you don’t yet have the right to with my child (or with black adult women you barely know for that matter). It skips all kinds of necessary steps it takes to build the trust and intimacy of actual friends. It overlooks boundaries, or denies someone her natural right to them.
It’s the equivalent of carelessly fetishizing a black woman’s hair to the point where it wouldn’t occur to you what a careless leap through boundaries it is to lay hands on another’s head. And meanwhile my daughters are taught not to exercise their own right to boundaries and to accept strangers’ familiarity and touch, instead of practicing the crucial exercise of saying No.
So let me practice for them. Stop.
I know you mean no harm, and that you’re trying to endear yourself to my child, and that you’d probably in fact love to be friends with her. I don’t blame you. But I’m asking you to pause and consider how you address her, and how you address other children who don’t look like her. Call my child by her name. And if you don’t know it, it’s because you don’t know her. You’re not friends yet, and you won’t ever be if you don’t learn to first see her as human being rather than a Girlfriend.