The activists discussed the pressures of being young, black, and female at Harvard's Vision and Justice conference last week.
When she was just 11 years old, Naomi Wadler’s eloquent words at the March for Our Lives rally in 2018 had a profound impact on the way young black girls should be acknowledged in the United States. “I am here to acknowledge and represent the African American girls whose stories don’t make the front page of every national newspaper, whose stories don’t lead on the evening news,” Wadler said. “I represent the African American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential.”
Like Wadler, Blackish and Grown-ish actress Yara Shahidi also wants young people to realize that they have a voice. The Harvard sophomore founded Eighteen x 18, a voter registration initiative that aims to encourage younger voters to harness the power they have behind the voting booth.
Wadler, who is now 12, and 19-year-old Shahidi joined Harvard professor Robin Bernstein at the Vision & Justice conference last week at Harvard for a discussion titled “Race, Childhood, and Inequality in the Political Realm,” in which they talked about the pressures of being young, black, and female in the United States.
Both the Alexandria, Virginia-based Wadler and Cambridge-based Shahidi grew up in households that openly talked about race and current events. “I always had parents who had very open, honest conversations with me about race,” said Wadler. “And I knew that when all these tragedies happened, such as the riot in Charlottesville, I really wanted to do something about it.” Shahidi added, “I come from a family that has always had that conversation in the household, being half-black and half-Iranian, what I appreciate is that I have a very global perspective from a very young age, and the expectation that you understand and appreciate your cultural heritage as well as extend the same empathies and sympathies that we had for our own communities, to other communities.”
Then came the topic of adultification of black girls by American society, where they are perceived as being older than their actual age. “Studies show that black girls are seen as adults at age five,” said Wadler. “They’re disciplined more harshly, and they’re seen as less innocent. They’re expected to act as adults, even though they’re children. I don’t think that it’s really affected my platform, but I am aware of that is a very real thing. And I like to talk about it, and raise awareness about it, because it’s just not okay.”
Shahidi cited society’s tendency to adultify black youth when it’s convenient. One example is in Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old black child who was murdered by a white police officer for holding a toy gun in the air. “You see this with the killing of black boys and black girls, and when it turns to our ability to then stand up for ourselves, we’re not given the same rights,” said Shahidi
Shahidi recounted a time when a publication wanted to make her the voice of all minorities in a roundtable discussion on gender inclusion on television. The actress, activist, and student politely declined after seeing that the other actresses resembled one another because she thought “it would be reductive if I was the face of every other identity you could think of—me being the face of Gen Z, of the global conversation, and the black conversation, and the female conversation all in one.”
Shahidi also recalled how at 13, her favorite book was J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye—a choice that she now looks back on with dismay. “It really struck me and just my familiarity with mainstream culture in which there’s been no familiarness with myself,” she said, citing the lack of narratives featuring characters of her own likeness, and white males having the privilege to just be. “The fact that I can watch you do nothing but just exist,” she said. “And so many times [for people of color] narratives, and we’ve talked about the confines of being an artist of color, but so many times it has to be about something.”
When Bernstein asked Wadler how the voices of black girls could be amplified, Wadler responded, “People could recognize their struggles. A big part of the problem is that you have a lot of older white people saying that they understand and they don’t understand and they need to take the time to learn and acknowledge they will never fully understand, but that they can try and help. Even without the full knowledge, they can listen, and they can hear. And they can recognize that they could be better.”