Trigger warning: sexual harassment, groping, erasure of victims/ survivors.
I have two beautiful children in my life, whom I enthusiastically co-parent. I am not partnered with either parent of these children. Instead, I am called their Auntie, because calling me Miss [name redacted] is way too formal. It’s a nuanced relationship — I am an authority figure, sponsor of fun time, shoulder to cry on, homework helper, and food exploration specialist. I’m what Patricia Hill Collins would call an “other-mother.” The eldest of the two, Brianna (not her real name, I won’t be using real names here), is thirteen. Her baby brother, Patrick, is three. Because Brianna is so much older than her brother, she often lives a drastically different life than he does. She goes to and from school by herself, has a course of study at her magnet school in NYC, and is beginning to explore the world around her in ways that Patrick cannot/ doesn’t. Because of her age, I’m always pondering how Brianna processes media and various experiences that she has. She’s a black girl in a huge city where it’s easy to become invisible, for a million different reasons. I worry. I ponder.
A few weeks ago when I went to visit Brianna and Patrick at home, Brianna told me that she’d just come back from one of those send-the-poor-brown-kids-to-the-mountains-for-a-week camp program things. I asked her if it was fun, if she missed her brother, mother, or stepfather. She said that she missed her brother, but was glad to get away, and then she exclaimed. “Auntie, I got really tan! And I swam and played in the sun. I had a good time for the most part . . . But they called the cops on me yesterday on the way home.” I shit you not, my head almost exploded. I asked Brianna to repeat herself and explain the circumstances to me.
Brianna said that there was this kid about nine or ten years old at camp, Michael, who had been bugging her all week. She said that it began with hits and pinches, pokes and staring. The usual bullshit that I think most kids are exposed to. But, she said that his behavior escalated. That Michael began saying things about her growing breasts and her ass — and that when she spoke to her group leader (an adult), she simply told Brianna to “Tell him to stop it.” No action was taken by this adult. Brianna said that she felt bad that nobody stepped in — but the excuse of her group leader was that Brianna is “older and bigger” than this other child. So, he chilled for a bit once he knew that there was an adult watching him. On the last day of camp, as the kids piled onto a bus to come back into the city, the harassment resumed. This time, Michael decided that he was going to touch the parts he’d been commenting on. Brianna warned him, shoved him away and told this same adult — who was supervising this bus trip — what happened. The woman told Michael to leave her alone, and did nothing else. Brianna told this woman, “I’m gonna beat him up if he touches my chest again.”
He did it again; she socked him square in the face. The group leader rushed to this boy’s aid and called the police, citing Brianna’s age and size as reasons why she should not have hit Michael. The adult had the bus driver pull over, and she called the fucking cops. On a thirteen-year-old who acted in her own defense. Thankfully, the police never came. But: this woman did not follow camp procedure (no incident report, she did not contact Brianna’s mother or the other child’s primary caregiver). She called the fucking police. Who, thankfully, never came.
I was livid. I began to think of all the ways Brianna’s needs for safety and protection had been invalidated by someone to whom her care was entrusted. I thought about all of the possible points of contention. Here we had a white adult and a large group of children of color in a setting that is more or less based on the assumption that these are Kids Who’ve Never Been Anywhere or Seen Anything Worthwhile. The fact that this woman did not address the core issue — the continual, escalating aggression of this little boy — is not lost on me, nor is the fact that she left Brianna to handle it herself. Reading the urban child of color as “tough” is typical, even when a person of color is the one doing the reading. It’s the same kind of thinking that causes folks to treat the reports of missing and/ or assaulted women of color differently than they do white women’s reports.* And the rush to involve police with two children of color — do I even need to go into that? Black folks and police have not ever been the best of friends. Why do that to either of them, but especially to Brianna who was defending herself from unwanted advances? What did this teach her? She said that she understood the actions of the adult in this situation as less than ideal. She said she didn’t expect support, but that she was shocked that this woman called the police.
To realize that Brianna had already internalized the idea that she was not worthy of protection (even by her own means) was absolutely heartbreaking for me. Already? She already knows nobody will give enough of a fuck? I felt betrayed. I felt all of the rage from my own experiences with street harassment and groping. I identify all forms of unwanted touching, especially in what I call the bathing suit areas, as sexual assault. And sometimes I forget that not everyone does. But, whether you think of these actions in a particular way or not, I have to ask: WHAT THE FUCK? Why make the child responsible when they’ve come to the clear realization that adult intervention is needed? Isn’t that your job as a fucking camp counselor or group leader or whatever title you’ve got?
I’m still processing this. Brianna and I did have a talk where I affirmed her choices to stand up, and I did not question or cast doubt on her narrative. I believe her. She deserves (a) to be believed, (b) to be affirmed in her feelings, thoughts and actions, and (c) to have the assistance she requested when she requested it. I made sure she knew that, and I offered my empathy for her having been mistreated so. She thanked me, though I had nothing to do with any of it.
I’m proud of her. Proud as hell. It doesn’t remove the sting, though. I hate that I feel so helpless, that I literally cannot jump in and fix it. But, that’s part of parenting and loving. I’ve got to roll with it.