I collect black rag dolls. Some of them have been generous gifts from students who know I love them. Most have been finds at yard sales or flea markets from the United States to Ghana. My most precious one is the ragdoll my grandmother made when I was just a child. I remember still my wonder and awe that a few scraps of fabric could become an actual doll. Just like the ones at the store, Grandma? Just wait and see, little one….
Over the years I have sewn my fair share of black rag dolls. And I have gifted quite a few to small visitors to my home, whose chubby little hands close possessively around a new precious friend they don’t want to let go. None of these dolls, I assure their mothers, are valuable. They are just cherished by someone who remembers with love those brown hands that stitched together both the pieces of my life as well as my very first doll.
This week, when I watched the brutal assault of a young black girl in her Spring Valley High School classroom by a South Carolina police officer, I was left stunned and speechless. The girl is placed in a chokehold; flipped over while still in her chair; and then flung across the room, slamming into a wall. It is not only the escalating violence of the scene which makes it horrific to watch, but the physical ease at which this man, who can allegedly squat a whopping 940 pounds and bench press at least 600 pounds, throws this young girl across her classroom. Yes, he flings her like a ragdoll.
I thought about my collection of dolls that have been loved and cherished; dolls that have been handled with care by two generations of black girls. Ragdolls are not rigid; they made with stuffing and are pliable, flexible, and can withstand the “enthusiastic” love of children. But a teenage girl is not a ragdoll. She does not deserve to be brutalized, tossed, and flung as if she is an inanimate object without a spine. She does not deserve to be treated as if her precious internal organs and bones can easily withstand the force of a chokehold and a chair flip. She does not deserve to be assaulted, humiliated, battered, and broken…for any reason, by anyone.
Immediately after the video of this terrible crime went viral, people responded by asking: “what did she do?” The first questions I heard asked about the incident included: “what happened before the video of the assault started,” or “what did she do to bring this on herself,” or “what trouble was she in that brought the police to the classroom?” If your first response to this video is about what this young girl did, rather than the brutality and violence of the white police officer who harmed her, you have been steeped in white supremacist thinking. If you are more concerned with whether she “obeyed” or “complied,” than you are with an almost 300lb. man tossing a child across the room, you have been steeped in white supremacist thinking.
White supremacy assumes that if you are being beaten and abused, you must have done something to warrant the punishment…just wait until we find out about her past and that will prove the police officer was right to assault her. White supremacy finds this child immediately guilty of some unknown crime simply because of the presence of a brutalizing authority…the police would not be there if she hadn’t wasn’t a problem case. White supremacy assumes that authority is always rightful, always to be obeyed, always to be heeded…if she had just done what he asked, he wouldn’t have to hurt her.
But when you are courageous enough to cast aside the shackles of white supremacist thinking, you discover that the punishment does not always fit the “crime,” and that far too many communities at the margins are overpoliced and still left underprotected. When you abandon white supremacist thinking, you learn that black girls face disproportionately more punishment in schools not because they commit more violations, but because blackness is automatically seen and labeled as a threat. And if you are willing to free your mind of white supremacist thinking, you learn that obedience to “authority” may not only fail to protect you, but it may make you even more subject to abuse, brutality, and violence.
I have no way to reach out to the child in this video. And what is even more disturbing are all those other black and brown girls whose abuse is never recorded and remains unknown; those whose violent confrontations with “authority” never go viral. But I want to wrap all of them in warm and loving hands and let me know that there is nothing they could have done to warrant being treated like this. I want our nation to care enough about black and brown girls that we find it absolutely unacceptable and unconscionable for them to be treated worse than animals. I want all the people who claim to be pro-life to care about the lives of black and brown girls who are catching hell right now, right here. I want us to cast aside white supremacist thinking so that instead of asking, “what did she do wrong,” we ask each other “how can we prevent this from ever happening again?” May God humble us enough to ask how can we stitch together the pieces of lives we have so painfully wronged.