Yesterday BET aired the 5th annual Black Girls Rock! awards. The ceremony is held annually to celebrate Black women’s achievements and contributions to society, and it’s always a spectacle of Black excellence. Tracee Ellis Ross and Regina King hosted the show jointly this year. Erykah Badu, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Ava DuVernay, and Cicely Tyson were among the celebrity honorees. But Black Girls Rock! also honors everyday people for their work in their communities. Nadia Lopez was recognized with the Social Humanitarian Award, Dr. Helen D. Gayle received the Change Agent Award, and Chentel Song-Bembry (a freshman at HBCU Hampton University), Gabrielle Jordan, and Kaya Thomas were recognized for their work as well. First Lady Michelle Obama was the most esteemed guest in attendance. She delivered a speech in which she reminded Black girls that, despite societal voices that may tell them they are not good enough, they are. “No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, you are beautiful, you are brilliant” she proclaimed. “Black girls rock! We rock!”
But even before the show aired Sunday, the First Lady caught flack for her appearance at the ceremony. Last week, when the show was recorded and news of her appearance broke, articles surfaced online slamming both her and the show as racist and exclusionary. The Twitter hashtag #whitegirlsrock emerged in response to the show’s title, under which users made such claims as “If there were a White Girls Rock! it would be a whole different story,” and “How come Black people get a Black Girls Rock! but we don’t get a White Girls Rock?”
How they missed the memo, I don’t know. But, clearly, some people don’t recognize that we live in one giant White Girls Rock! ceremony. White women’s beauty and achievements are celebrated constantly in mainstream media and culture.
White girls rock on the covers of Vogue, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, People, and endless fashion and beauty magazines. They rock in the majority of lead and supporting women’s roles on TV and in film and on most commercials featuring women. They rock as heroines, superheroes, and princesses on screen and in books. They rock in the best actress categories at the Oscars, Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards, and the Tony Awards. They rock at the Grammys, American Music Awards, VMAs, and the Teen Choice Awards. Among elected officials in Congress, state legislatures, and mayoral and gubernatorial offices, and first ladies, White women compose the bulk of women that hold these positions. White women constitute the majority of all women in medicine, law, business, academia and the professions.
My point? White girls have the privilege of constant affirmation in mainstream culture. As a result, They know they rock. They know they are beautiful. They know they can achieve. The purpose of Black Girls Rock! is to affirm the same for Black girls, many of whom do not recognize such of themselves. It serves to affirm Black girls’ worth in a society in which their image is not the standard of beauty, where they do not see many positive images with which they can identify, where the contributions and achievements of people who look like them often go unrecognized, and where even Black social movements like Black Lives Matter center Black men over women. It is so necessary at a time when rampant police brutality against Black bodies reminds us all that Black lives are considered disposable in the mainstream. Asserting that Black girls rock is not to assert that girls of other races don’t. Black Girls Rock! is not exclusionary. It is inclusionary of Black girls and women who are all too often excluded. So I applaud the First Lady for attending and recognizing the importance of Black girls – of Black people – seeing the First Lady of the United States affirm their Blackness, and for reminding Black girls that they, too, are stars. Lord knows how many of her advisers told her not to.
Yet, despite the abundance of affirming images that White women see on a daily basis, many of them reject the idea of Black Girls Rock! They made that clear in their #whitegirlsrock tweets. The conversations that emerged under the hashtag, the articles that were written in response to the show, did not seek to affirm the value of White women. They did not sing White women’s praises, as many people claimed to want to see happen. Instead, the conversations sought nearly exclusively to denigrate Black women’s celebration of themselves. They derided Black Girls’ Rock! And this kind of response appears as a recurring theme among White people’s reactions to Black self-empowerment. Whether it be the slogan “All Lives Matter,” White Out Day (which White people held on social media in response to last month’s Black Out Day, during which Black people shared selfies of themselves and other Black people on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr in affirmation and celebration of their beauty), or the hashtag #whitegirslrock, initiatives such as these are never about self-empowerment and affirmation, though White people like to claim that they are. They never materialize on their own merit or out of forced necessity. They occur in response to exercises in Black self-empowerment. In fact, as you can see, the titles White people ascribe to their initiatives are literal plays on the titles Black people give to ours.
The backlash against Black Girls Rock! is not about racism in the show, just like the call “All Lives Matter” is not about racist exclusivity in the Black Lives Matter movement and White Out Day is not about mean Black people posting selfies. It’s about the fragility of White people’s racist superiority complex. In mainstream American culture, Whiteness is always centered. So many White people cannot handle when Black people affirm or celebrate Blackness independently of Whiteness because they are no longer the focus of the discourse (“All Lives Matter” is okay, for example, because it includes White people). White people are so rarely excluded from the conversation that they feel the need to reassert their presence when they are. #Whitegirlsrock and the now trending #allgirlsrock are symptoms of this compulsive need to be acknowledged. They are not efforts by well-meaning people to affirm all marginalized women. They are temper tantrums thrown by privileged White women who demand the spotlight.
Yes, all girls do rock. But, no, all girls don’t get the same shine. Last night, Black girls got theirs. And it was well deserved.
Brandon Ellington Patterson is a senior Sociology major at Howard University in Washington, DC. He was formerly Chairman of the Political Action Committee for the NAACP Howard Chapter. He currently writes for NBCBLK and Politic365 and is an aspiring journalist. Follow him on Twitter @myblackmindd.