TW: racial slurs
"How do I tell people I barely know that I'm angry and sad, but also embarrassed? That I feel that anger along my spine, holding up the very shape of me, and in my fingertips like a curled first. That the sadness is like a dull ache, heavy in the muscles fighting to keep my head up. That I feel ashamed that black people are both the agents and the victims of this chaos, and I don't want to be thought of like that. But I'm also ashamed of myself for thinking I'm somehow better. The shame I feel in my guts, pulsing, spiraling; but also everything feels very far away. I'm black, but my black is different from that of those rioters on TV."
What happens when Black suburban kids realize, as a result of a racialized event, that assimilating into their white school is futile? For better or for worse, pop culture explores this “too white for the Black kids, too Black for the white kids" trope frequently (i.e. Luce, The Hate U Give, Dear White People). I have my qualms about this trope for many reasons.
Yet, The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed was not bad. Set during the 1992 Rodney King riots, the book explores how Black children navigate being “othered” in white school institutions, especially when racial tensions rise in the world around them.
March 1991: Rodney King is nearly beaten to death by four L.A.P.D. officers during a traffic stop and fifteen-year-old Black Latasha Harlins is killed by Korean-American store owner Soon Ja Du who suspected Harlins of stealing orange juice. When the four cops are acquitted in 1992, people take to the streets to protest.
Seventeen-year-old Ashley Bennett is the daughter of upper-middle-class Black parents who can afford luxuries like an in-house Guatemalan housekeeper named Lucia and a house in an expensive, white Los Angeles neighborhood. at her high school, Ashley is a senior, well-liked and smart cheerleader with three best friends, Heather, Courtney, and Kimberly, and two guy friends, Trevor and Michael (all of them white). Ashley doesn't hang out with the Black kids at her school – until the riots start to alienate her from her white friends.
Ashley is the Black girl who lets things slide. She lets it slide when Heather, the white feminist of the group, tells her that “Women is the nigger of the world.” She lets it slide when Courtney copies her homework. She lets it slide when Kimberly says Ashley’s “got it made” when it comes to college admissions because she is Black. She lets it slide when her white friends are silent about Rodney King.
There are small unfulfilling resistances from Ashley – like hooking up with Michael (Kimberly’s boyfriend) in secret. But Ashley is unable to verbalize to her friends that their treatment of her is wrong. Ashley’s excuse is that “Courtney, Kimberly, and Heather are my first friends, my gold. So maybe that’s why I make excuses for them even when I know I shouldn’t.”
As tensions continue in Los Angeles, Ashley can’t help but feel more connected to the protests. Against their parents’ wishes, Ashley’s conscious older sister Jo is involving herself with the protests, passing out flyers and spraying graffiti on walls. Jo tells Ashley over the phone: “Capitalism doesn’t work, Ash. This country isn’t taking care of all its people.” Additionally, Ashley’s grandmother’s vacuum store, run by her Uncle Ronnie, is at risk of being looted. Her father and Uncle Ronnie were raised on the income their mother made from the store and the store holds sentimental value for the family.
Distance between the four friends grows, the final split between them occurring when Kimberly finds out at prom that Ashley has been hanging out with Michael behind her back. Kimberly pushes Ashley into the hotel pool and calls her a “nigger” in front of their peers. And later that night, leaving prom, Ashley and LaShawn, the Black golden boy attending their school on a basketball scholarship, are yelled at by the police to get on the ground when they are suspected of breaking into a home.
Series of events lead Ashley to pivot in the final part of the book. now at lunch, she’s sitting with the Black kids at her school, making friends and coming into her own as a soon-to-be Black woman.
This book wasn’t my favorite – and that’s okay. I thought it was genius that it was set during the Rodney King riots. It made me think about younger Black teens in middle school and high school right now that are probably feeling similar stress on their friendships. That is an important story to tell.
Separate from whether the book was good or bad, let’s talk about Ashley’s character for a moment.
In the beginning, Ashley self-segregates from the other Black kids because she can’t relate to them – in part due to her class privilege. Ashley describes being “found out” by the other Black kids when Tarrell and Julie joke about eating off-brand cereal and cheese. Being friendly, Tarrell says to Ashley “Girl, I know you know what I’m talking about!”
Internally, Ashley tells the reader “I didn’t, but it was nice feeling like I belonged, so I laughed even harder.” In another scene, Ashley practices using Black vernacular and saying the n-word, abandoning it when words come out “clumsy and awkward and nonnative.”
Ashley used these instances to explain her isolation. I might have sympathized with her character. But it’s unforgivable when Ashley randomly tells her white friends a lie insinuating that LaShawn got his new shoes from looting a store during the riots. This rumor spreads and LaShawn gets suspended. It’s one thing to not resist harm, but to actively inflict it?
When Ashley tells the reader, “there’s so very much to care about...sometimes I don’t want to feel any of it at all” – I get it. It makes sense that Ashley would be exhausted at racism. But in my opinion, Ashley displayed high levels of internalized anti-Blackness and self-hatred that she projected on to other Black students.
I’d love to hear from people what they thought about Ashley’s character. Did people feel like Ashley’s actions and thoughts were relatable? In some ways, they were. definitely, there will be Black people you can’t relate to. And definitely as a young Black person, you internalize whiteness. But I grew up in white suburbia and had close Black friends. Was there not one Black kid that Ashley could have given a chance? Does some class privilege have to manifest in self-hatred like this?
It’s kinda weird that it takes an officer to level a gun at Ashley and LaShawn for her to realize that the Black kids at her school are not that bad.