By Nichole Guillory - Mothering in Color
My very first Mothering in Color post was written in the beginning months of the Trump Presidency, in 2017, which seems so long ago now. It was entitled “What’s a Mom to Do in the Age of Trump.”
In that post, I credited Donald Trump with making me a better mother to my son Nicholas. I wrote that even though the Obama Presidency did not yield the kind of systemic change we hoped for, the representational politics of his presidency was important to our family.
I wrote also that during the Obama Presidency my mothering was much easier (and more passive) in comparison to the much more difficult (and agentic) mothering I had to do because of the Trump administration.
I write this post on the day we learned that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the 2020 election. Many of us waited patiently for four years for this result, that the Trump Presidency would not continue for more than one term.
From that first post to this one, I have learned so much (and yet not nearly enough) about raising a Black boy in a nation that would make Trump president in 2016 and come close to reelecting him in 2020.
But I don’t write this post to point out the obvious: that this country is exactly what Black folks have known it to be for many more generations than ours and that it will continue to be for many generations to come. Go read any critical race theorist but especially Derrick Bell (Faces at the Bottom of the Well, as one example) for theorizing on the permanence of racism in the United States.
I write to celebrate the election outcome that ends the Trump administration sooner rather than later.
And, most importantly, I write to record for Nicholas what this moment really means to/for our family.
First, we must continue to expose the popular liberal myth that Trump is not a reflection of America and that his win in the 2016 election was an anomaly in U.S. history. The 2008 and 2012 elections were the aberration, not this one.
While Trumpism took a hit with a Biden-Harris victory, it is very much alive as evidenced in the 70+ million individual votes cast for him in this election. Some of us are not okay with this election result even if we are celebrating a win and breathing a sigh of relief.
This is a familiar story to a lot of Black people in this country though, isn’t it?
To have to hold contradictory tensions simultaneously in order to survive and to reconcile them in order to thrive. To be both happy and sad at the same time. To sit with anger and calm at the same time. To live with hope and despair at the same time.
We know that this moment is not a reset for this country; instead, we understand it as an important step (among so many before and many to come) in the long arc of our freedom story in this country.
Second, this election was a master class in the beauty and resolve of Black folx.
While this election had its fair share of doomscroIling-worthy moments for me, I am thankful for our many expressions of unapologetic Black joy. From our spontaneous Cupid shuffles in long and (COVID-spreading) dangerous voting lines, to our placards reminding the American public that Black lives (and voters) matter, to Kamala Harris’s choice for her walk-on song to be Mary J. Blige’s “Work That” before she delivered her historic speech, to a countless number of “Bye, Felicia/Betsy DeVos” memes on social media.
All of these were reminders about why I love being Black as well as the transformative power of Black joy. It bubbled up into my own family’s spontaneous embodied expression, which I hope Nicholas never forgets even though he called his dad and me “embarrassing” as we made him dance with us in a family circle, all three of us holding hands, twirling around and laughing with pure jubilation, my husband and I trying to keep up with the rhythm of my favorite song, Bill Wither’s “Lovely Day.” Our dancing was the release we needed to lift our spirits.
Finally, we must remember that this election is neither a beginning nor an end, but another teachable moment that signals to us (again) why social justice work on multiple fronts continues to be necessary.
For me, that work is in the form of my Black feminist mothering and social justice teaching that recognizes the true heroes of this election—a multitude of Black women—some we know like Stacy Abrams, Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm, Alicia Garza, Patrice Khan-Cullors, and Opal Tometi but so many we may not know, all of our mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers. Their abiding love and sacrifice are why we can celebrate today.
I hope always to honor their legacy by helping to engender in students a critical lens for understanding the world and by making sure my son knows he matters in it.
By Nichole Guillory - Mothering in Color
It had already been a difficult month. Hell, every month in 2020 has been difficult, but this one was extra. Extra extra.
Another police shooting of an unarmed Black man caught on tape, this time the victim was Jacob Blake, a father from Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot seven times in the back while his children watched. We entered into yet another seemingly unending news cycle where violence against Black folx is on display for the world to consume as it sips morning coffee and reads the latest headline.
Then if we were not traumatized enough, video footage surfaced of police in Kenosha allegedly giving a bottled water to Kyle Rittenhouse, the White seventeen-year-old who later shot and killed two men, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, at the protests in Kenosha, and injured a third man Gaige Grosskreutz.
That was the same week of the Republican National Convention, where we saw…well, need I say anything except the COVID-19 death toll clicker continued to climb and barely received a mention during the entire convention.
By the end of the week, I was off any forms of media, afraid that one more thing that reminded me that Black lives really do not matter would send me into a downward spiral, which has happened often enough this year.
On Saturday morning, a friend’s text alerted me to the August 28th passing of Chadwick Boseman. I am not a fan of Hollywood actors (except maybe for Viola Davis and everyone in Queen Sugar!), so I knew very little about him before his death though I saw all of his blockbuster films including 42, Get On Up, Marshall, and of course, Black Panther.
So when I learned of his death, I was shocked by my reaction. Thankfully, my son and partner were out of the house for most of the day and did not witness the sobbing mess I was.
I am thankful to the universe for telling me I needed to turn on the television to MSNBC’s AM Joy, which I don’t ordinarily do on a Saturday morning. It brought me some relief to learn that I was not alone in marking Mr. Boseman’s passing with such sorrow. Through my own tears, I saw a tearful Brittney Cooper describing the impact of his death on Black people in this moment. She reminded audiences of the power of representation for Black folx who are bombarded daily with images and stories that clearly communicate that we do not matter in this country.
She explained that Mr. Boseman’s movies were not just movies to us and instead were “cultural experiences that affirm the depths and possibility of our humanity.” These experiences are important symbolic counternarratives that remind us of the beauty, strength, and resilience of Black folx. T-Challa was our superhero, and Wakanda was our cinematic utopia, a fictional—yet aspirational—place that connected us to Black greatness, to Black genius, to a Black collective across the African Diaspora.
What I have since come to realize about my feelings around this loss was that it was not just about Mr. Boseman’s passing, which in and of itself is tragic, but about our collective loss in this moment. I shed tears because I am exhausted thinking about how familiar his story is to Black folx and just how often we mask our pain—physically, emotionally, and spiritual—because we have to show up. Show up to work. Show up in our parenting. Show up for our families and friends. Show up in protests. The list is endless, right?
I shed tears when I learned about Mr. Boseman’s fight against Marvel not to present Africa through a colonized linguistic lens, to make sure T-Challa’s accent reflected an African (Xhosa) dialect because he wanted to connect us to our African roots.
I shed tears to think about the pain he must have fought through because he wanted to give us beautiful reflections of our fully human selves during a U.S. Presidency that continues to incite violence against Black bodies and our allies and our theoretical frameworks.
I shed tears because I know Wakanda will never be the same, its utopic essence compromised forever.
While I hope to see a future Wakanda under womxn’s leadership, I shed tears because at some point, we will have to bury T-Challa and all he represents. His burial will remind us again—and I don’t know how many more reminders we can take—how fragile Black life really is.
Nichole Guillory, PhD, is Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Kennesaw State University. She publishes on the experiences of women of color in the academy, including WellAcademic's Mothering in Color series. She is mom to Nicholas, the love of her life.
By Roxanne Donovan - Organization; Wellness; Writing
If you’re working remotely this fall, I suspect you're experiencing a mix of gratitude, since it's an option many don't have, and apprehension. You’ve probably asked yourself some version of the question: How in the world am I going to get ANY work done in the middle of this dumpster fire called 2020?
Our forced work-from-home experiment of the last months has taught us a painful truth: it’s hard, really hard. Hard to stay focused on work, hard to manage Zoom fatigue, hard to get (and stay) organized, hard to set boundaries between work and life, hard to find connection.
And home-work (see what I did there) will be exponentially harder this fall for those with children who are learning from home either because their school district has gone 100% online, as with our son, or because you’ve opted for remote versus in-person learning when given the choice, as we did with our daughter.
But there is still time to set yourself up for success or at least survival. To help, here are six strategies for managing a remote fall semester without sacrificing your health or sanity, even in the current context.
1. Lower expectations of yourself (and others) like you’ve never lowered them before.
Seriously, whatever you think you’re capable of doing while working from home this fall, reduce it by 75% or even 90% if you must manage remote learning for your kids.
This strategy requires letting go of the idea that there is some formula that will enable you to simultaneously work more, sleep more, parent more, exercise more, care more, love more, connect more, do more, be more right now.
Too much of our emotional energy must go toward coping with the tremendous stress and fear and loss and pain the viral and racial pandemics are producing.
And please don’t point me to social media personalities who say they’re living their best lives right now and you can too. They’re probably selling you some bogus self-help thing or have ridiculous intersecting race, class, cis-hetero privilege that gives them access to said life possibilities or are in complete denial. Whatever the reason, ignore them at all costs. Better yet, preemptively block them out.
I’m not saying growth isn’t possible. I firmly believe in post-traumatic growth. But that comes after trauma, not when we’re knee deep in it.
2. Create a home workspace geared toward productivity and health.
Squeezing the most out of the limited hours you can work from home healthily requires a dedicated workspace where everything you need is setup and easy to find and where distraction is limited.
This may seem obvious, but I can’t tell you the number of people I know who lose time reconstructing their office daily or managing continuous interruptions from others in their household because their “office” is their kitchen counter, dining room table, or living room couch. These places can suffice for occasional work tasks, but not for a months-long work-from-home future.
A dedicated home office with a desk, file cabinets, bookshelves, windows, and a door that locks from the inside is ideal. If that’s not in the cards, commandeer whatever space you can with some privacy and natural light.
If possible, situate your desk so you’re facing a window with a wall behind you. The natural light will help you look amazing on Zoom calls (light at your back shrouds you in shadows) and can lower your stress and improve your mood, creativity, and sleep. The wall ensures your webcam doesn’t pick up anyone wondering into your office space, including half-dressed spouses and curious toddlers.
Note: Finding a decent workspace is complicated if you, like me, have kids and a spouse who also need their own dedicated work areas. In such cases, prioritize your and your spouse’s needs then get creative about your kids’ needs.
I, for example, repurposed our barely used dining room into our daughter’s school area. The dining table is now her desk where she can spread out and the bench is now her “bookcase.” Not ideal, but better than having my spouse or me work at the dining table or having her work at the kitchen table where we have all our meals.
3. Set clear boundaries around when you work.
Home-work creates diffuseness between the professional and the personal which means you can easily find yourself working longer and longer hours to the detriment of your health and relationships. You know you’re in trouble when you’re working early in the morning, into the night, or through meals without planning to do so.
Setting a work schedule and sticking to it mitigates this work creep. Make sure to allot time for regular breaks to maximize focus and ward off fatigue.
As an extra layer of containment, commit to working only in your dedicated workspace. Beware, though, of smartphones and tablets that can keep you tethered to work even when not at your desk. Block all notifications or remove email apps altogether if managing these devices is a struggle.
4. Look up from your screen periodically.
Eye strain, neck/back pain, and headaches can arise from staring at a digital screen for long periods. Focusing on distant objects for at least 20 seconds at a time throughout the day can mitigate these problems. Timers that alert you to look up from your screen at least hourly are helpful.
5. Get the best tech and internet access you can afford.
Home-work can be frustrating enough in this context; don’t make it more so by using outdated equipment or slow internet if you have the means to upgrade.
I say this as a person who holds on to tech long after a replacement is warranted. But even I was moved to get a new computer after my 10-year old desktop proved unfit for my new work-home life. The final straw: not having enough hard drive space to download Zoom after deleting everything imaginable.
I’m still shocked at how much more productive and efficient I am now that I don’t have to wait endlessly for my computer to boot up or have to troubleshoot why it froze or randomly turned off again.
Same goes for the numerous benefits I’ve gotten from upgrading to super-fast internet with money saved from cutting the cable company cord.
6: Work in community with others.
The isolation inherent in home-work where social distancing is required has been especially challenging for many in our WellAcademic community. One way to buttress connection is through what I call socializing work communities. These are groups of colleagues or friends that meet via Zoom or some other videoconferencing platform to complete work and to connect socially.
The success of these communities hinges on having a set schedule (e.g., meet every Tuesday from 1-2 PM), regular attendees (three to six works well), an agreed-upon structure that includes at least 30 minutes of social time, and a shared purpose such as writing, grading, or course prep.
My writing group, which started post-shutdown, is a great example of a socializing work community. We meet via Zoom most Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 11 AM to 2 PM. We catch up for about 30 minutes to start and then write in 30-minute blocks with breaks and check-ins disbursed throughout.
The care, compassionate accountability, and connection this group imbues has been critical to helping each participant find moments of joy and creativity in a time filled with its fair share of frustration and stress.
The group has been so meaningful to me that I created Focus Fridays in its image as an offering to WellAcademic members searching for their own socializing work community. I invite you to build your own community if you don’t have one already or join me for Focus Fridays.
Have other ways to get work done healthily from home in the fall? Please post them in the comments below. We need to support each other now more than ever so we can all make it to the other side of this moment with some semblance of wholeness and health.
In peace and solidarity,
Roxanne A. Donovan, PhD, is co-founder and CEO of WellAcademic, a licensed psychologist in GA, and Professor of Psychological Science and Interdisciplinary Studies at Kennesaw State University. She writes and teaches about health and wellness. For more reflections, follow Roxanne on Twitter or sign up for WellAcademic's newsletter.
By Joycelyn Moody - JMoody's Musings
I’m lucky I enjoy fiction. From childhood, I’ve steadily immersed myself in the lives of others, living and traveling vicariously, feeling admiration for heroines like Lauren Wilkinson’s title character in American Spy, and contempt for the Macon Deads of the world.
From ages 8-18, I even worked as a Junior Page at our neighborhood’s branch of the Public Library. I learned more from Mrs. Virginia Smith and Ms Tillie Earle than from my beloved grandmother, since I saw them hours at a time each week for over 10 years, considerably more than I could see my Grandmama, who lived farther away.
Under these devoted librarians’ tutelage, I read everything from Dr. Seuss and kid detective stories to an ocean of teenage romances plus plays by James Baldwin, novels by Chaim Potok and James Michener, and all the Black Arts poetry I could inhale.
In the summer I was 8 or 9, I read Gone With the Wind during my family’s road trip to Atlanta to visit our former minister and his wife. While everyone else was thrilled about the Braves game at the center of the visit, I remember pleading to see one more Peachtree Street landmark or tourist trap.
I had plunged into Scarlett’s obsessions with romance and free enterprise, her determination to live an extraordinary life, before we left Mobile, and I happily had many chapters left to consume on the drive home a week later. Gone With the Wind was my prepubescent refuge from 3 rowdy brothers and all the adults in our midst. It peopled my dreamscape when the landscape outside our station wagon went lackluster.
But this blog isn’t the essay I might someday write about the impact (damage) of Mitchell’s Scarlett, owner of Mammy and Tara’s docile butler and nameless hundreds of other enslaved people, on a brown-skinned precocious southern girl. This is not that piece.
My rapture in the fictions I read in youth—from If Beale Street Could Talk to The Exorcist, from Maud Martha to Funnyhouse of a Negro—fed my imagination with ferocity, but, again, this blog is more than reminiscences of my life as a young reader.
Instead, my point is I’m lucky to enjoy fiction. Of course, I’ve read a lot of literature throughout my career. Reading literature is my career. But last week, researching help during a crippling bout of procrastination, I learned an overlooked advantage of reading fiction: a skill psychologists call emotion differentiation, or emotional granularity. This skill can be learned; when applied, it helps lessen emotional distress and even disrupts the fierce grip of perfectionism. It can quell the emotions behind harmful behaviors like TV-binging and anxiety eating.
Turns out, the heart of emotion differentiation involves naming emotions precisely, that is, the skill of the greatest fiction writers, poets, and playwrights. The more refined a person’s emotion vocabulary, the more clearly—granularly--they can state and understand their embodied experiences. And, of course, our emotions always affect our bodies, and vice versa.
As an example, an advantage of a high degree of emotional granularity includes distinguishing between, say, resentment one is asked to volunteer to engage in months of restorative justice exercises with faculty colleagues, and hopelessness about the efficacy of restorative justice processes.
Naming resentment as an uppermost feeling positions one in a passive role. First, let’s acknowledge how complex emotions are and that it’s possible, typical, to feel both negative/unpleasant and positive / pleasant emotions at the same time. Definitely, it’s natural to feel resentful being lied to. The bosses are straight up dissembling to say participation in their restorative justice process is voluntary. They haven’t revealed the consequences to non-participants, but, c’mon, everyone knows there will be consequences for not towing the line. The unknowns fuel the resentment. Not participating feels so risky, the choice not to participate doesn’t feel genuine.
Second, however, and crucially, the costs of not participating only seem unbearable. I mean, I can and I will bear restorative justice, and I know on a deeper level it benefits me to participate. Yes, I’m “the one” in this case: my unit at work has the so-called opportunity to engage in restorative justice.
When I pause to apply emotion differentiation, when I explore the utility of resentment as an emotion I’m feeling, I come up empty. That is, I realize the potent energy I feel when I even think the words “I resent ___!” is much more powerful than what I find when I unpack my feelings. Because then I name my emotion as hopelessness, and, realizing that, I now feel miserable.
Thank goodness, though, I’m not blue very long.
After practicing emotion differentiation and perceiving hopelessness as the more granular feeling I have about the department’s restorative justice work, I recognize I have a greater degree of power over my feelings. I can mindfully regulate them. Not only that, but I also have power over the degree to which I participate in anything life flings at me. Options and equanimity: what’s not to love?
It’s true I can’t force anyone else’s participation in restorative justice—not that of the problematic faculty who have incited it--any more than our bosses can literally require us to show up and do the right thing (for real, Spike Lee). But seeing I have control over the degree of hope I bring to the process—not naivete but mature, thoughtful expectations of the paradigm’s scope and limits—that level of control soothes me. Even better, it fundamentally evaporates my initial resentment.
Oh, trust me: I don’t expect much. But I know the fullness of my participation is up to me, so I have a role to play to in the outcome. Nothing to resent about control over my own behavior.
Besides, if I’m gonna waste any of my time left on this earth, I’d sooner do it with a good book.
Until next time,
By Nichole Guillory - Mothering in Color
I have tried many times to write this post. For weeks, I have wrestled with what to write to make sense of everything that has happened over the last three months (that go back 400 years).
I am terrified. There’s just no other way to say it. The confluence of so many traumas, each on its own difficult to get through, has been too much all at once. Death did not take its time getting here. It crashed full speed into our lives.
The pandemic hit first. We stayed home and watched the death toll climb and climb to unbelievable numbers, and now we continue to re-open as if the deaths of 120, 000+ people in this country mean nothing. Grocery stores and restaurants and gyms and barber shops and nail salons in my community are teeming with unmasked people.
Because I fear bringing a deadly virus home to my immunocompromised son, simple grocery store runs are now fraught with so much emotionality and time-consuming disinfection protocols that they too are exhausting. The unmasked—who have access to the same death toll counter as I do—communicate a clear message that we do not matter.
While emotionally exhausted, we are among the privileged. My son is well, we don’t have immediate family or friends who have contracted the virus, our monthly paychecks have continued, and we have medical benefits in case we get sick.
By slowing down our lives, the pandemic left us no choice but to bear witness to even more death descending into our living spaces through our televisions and social media feeds. Bear witness to the public murders of Black men. Bear witness to the unseen murders of Black women. Bear witness to Black mothers crying new tears for their recently murdered children. Bear witness to other Black mothers crying old tears for lingering injustice because their children’s murderers are still walking free. Free to murder again. As painful as our bearing witness has been, let me be very clear in acknowledging that my child is still alive and I am not mothering her child’s legacy instead of his future.
What do you write in this context? I sit reluctantly at my computer trying to find the right words to make sense of this moment not only for myself, but mostly for my 12-year-old son. I have rehearsed late at night what I’m going to say to him tomorrow, how I’m going to circle back to explain something I didn’t get quite right the first time, to answer his many questions about all that is taking place.
I have discussed with him the superficial mainstreaming of “Black Lives Matter” in the public sphere alongside the hundreds of years of Black lives not mattering in this country, and I have reminded him that young Black queer women built his generation’s Movement for Black Lives. I have had to answer the most painful question he has ever asked his father and me, whether he mattered in this country—all of this has been some of the most exhausting, high-stakes mothering I have ever done. He seems so much older to me this summer in comparison to last year, when our most difficult discussions centered around the implications of his decision to grow out his hair.
Now he and I trace the origins of police violence and anti-Blackness, not because I want to, but because I have to. This mothering moment epitomizes the impossible line between protecting my son’s innocence and saving his life. The impossible line between making sure he isn’t walking around naïvely about how Black boys are often perceived in this country while at the same time insisting that he define himself on his own terms.
The impossible line between how much to reveal so that he isn’t walking around in his body terrified to live while at the same time preparing him for a possible encounter with the police. No mother should have to walk such impossible lines. Parenting across these intersections for Black mothers means we have to make hard choices between nurturing our children’s innocence and resisting our own adultification of them because raising our children is a matter of life and death. Literally.
I wish I could end this post on a hopeful note, but that would be disingenuous. White supremacy will rage on, I’m sure of that. I take each day as it comes, trying to be present for my family and resisting my tendency to time travel to my son’s future. I continue to connect—virtually—with a very small circle of friends who remind me that I am not alone and who allow me to show up exactly as I am, no matter how good, bad, or ugly the day has been. I write in my gratitude journal every day thanking the universe for the small wins, remembering that the small wins become the support structure for wins yet to come. And finally, I remind myself to just breathe, and when I do, I call on the ancestors to protect all who are fighting for justice on behalf of those who no longer can.
Nichole Guillory, PhD, is Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Kennesaw State University. She publishes on the experiences of women of color in the academy, including WellAcademic's Mothering in Color series. She is mom to Nicholas, the love of her life.
By Roxanne Donovan - Wellness
I've experienced rage, sadness, overwhelm, gratitude, connection, and love...all in the last hour. This emotional whiplash is not my norm. Annoyingly optimistic and grounded is more my lane.
But we're not in normal times. Not me, not you, not anyone. We're in a calamitous pandemic that's shuttered us indoors away from our routines, our friends, our community. Expecting some level of normalcy in how we feel or how we work and parent, sleep and eat, act and think IS. A. SETUP. On the other side of which lies a mess of shame, guilt, and frustration.
And being mad at our natural reactions to an unimaginable crisis only increases suffering. So let's not do that.
Instead, why don't we all commit to accepting our reactions? Let's turn toward whatever shows up with curiosity and gentleness. Name our experiences. Note any bodily reactions we're having. Anchor ourselves in the present by taking several deep, slow breaths if our feelings are intense. Journal our responses. Most importantly, share what we're going through with empathic friends and family and receive others' sharing with compassion and love. We need each other now more than ever.
In peace and solidarity,
Roxanne A. Donovan, PhD, is co-founder of WellAcademic, a licensed psychologist in GA, and Professor of Psychological Science and Interdisciplinary Studies at Kennesaw State University. She writes and teaches about health and wellness. For more reflections, follow Roxanne on Twitter or sign up for WellAcademic's newsletter.
Nichole Guillory, PhD - Mothering in Color
I am thankful that you made the hard decision to release the video footage of two police officers arresting six- year-old Kaia at her charter school, the Emma and Lucious Nixon Academy, in Orlando, Florida. As a mom who is raising a Black child in the South, I can only imagine the great risk you took in making the decision to release the video of what I’m sure is the most traumatic moment in young Kaia’s life. The site of the arrest, specifically that it took place at Kaia’s school, is what compels me to write.
I have been an educator since 1993, first as an English teacher and now as a teacher educator, and as such, I have spent much of my adult life in schools as well as studying them. Being a teacher educator has afforded me the opportunity to work in a variety of schools: big and small, private and public, well-resourced and under-resourced, child-centered and teacher-centered, career prep and college prep, and the list continues. I know schools well. Watching the arrest, which would have been horrifying in any setting, I cannot help but think that in the one place where adults are always ethically and legally bound to keep children safe, we failed miserably.
Yes, I use “we” on purpose here. While I am not the teacher who called the administrator who called the police officer who arrested your daughter, I am a teacher educator who understands that my work is tied to a village of educators, which as I see it, makes us all collectively responsible for providing (y)our child a safe school environment. Our village failed Kaia and you.
For those unfamiliar with events surrounding Kaia’s arrest, I offer here a detailed account culled from the many news reports I reviewed, and while these news reports do not capture exactly what happened to Kaia that awful day, I offer this account in hopes that the adults reading my open letter—especially teachers—will see just how many times adults who were entrusted by Kaia’s family to keep her safe at school not only failed to protect her, but also continued throughout the day to inflict psychological and physical harm.
I am intentionally repeating Kaia’s name and her age often because I hope to remind readers of her humanity, that she is someone’s precious child, sister, niece, cousin, or granddaughter, because all too frequently these days, it seems that some of us continue to ignore that school-aged Black girls are children, that Black girls are human beings. That I feel it necessary to write that last statement and it’s worth repeating—Black girls are human beings--shows just how hopeless I feel some days as a Black mom during these troubled and troubling times. To have to remind law enforcement that a six-year-old baby should never be escorted out of her school in handcuffs is bad enough, but to feel a need to remind that child’s teachers and principals that they did not treat Kaia like one of their own children, like an important and deserving member of our village, is even worse.
Kaia isn’t the nameless “Six-Year-Old First Grader Arrested” that has populated news headlines. Kaia is a baby—and I don’t mean that description figuratively. Kaia was six years old at the time of her arrest in September 2019. This is the same age that my own son learned how to tie his own shoelaces well enough that they did not come untied throughout the day.
Before Kaia’s arrest, she allegedly engaged in behavior described as “kicking and screaming.” School officials’ statements say that on the morning of the arrest (around 8 am), Kaia wanted to wear sunglasses and was “screaming and pulling on her classroom door,” which was reportedly witnessed by the assistant principal. News reports indicate that the assistant principal and two staff members then took Kaia to the office. In her statement, the assistant principal says that Kaia “hit her in the stomach and chest area” and was “aggressive.” Multiple news outlets report uncertainty about who was responsible for calling in a school resource officer to intervene. An excerpt from the official school statement says that no one at the school asked that Kaia be arrested.
The police bodycam video shows us what happened later that school day. The video shows a school staff member reading a story to Kaia, who is clearly not kicking, screaming, punching, or yelling. Noticing the officers, Kaia asks why they are there and what the zip ties were. When one of the officers tells her that they are for her, she begins to cry. She begs and pleads with them not to handcuff her and to give her a “second chance.” S. Ramos, one of the police officers who is visible in the video, then zip ties Kaia’s wrists together behind her back and (perp) walks her to the backseat of a police SUV.
In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Kaia’s grandmother says that Kaia was initially charged with misdemeanor battery and fingerprinted and photographed, and because she was not tall enough to reach camera height, Kaia had to use a step stool. In a clip from a local news station, Kaia’s grandmother said she reminded school administrators of Kaia’s sleep apnea, which she says the school was aware of and which she connected to her granddaughter’s temper tantrums.
Several news stories indicate Dennis Turner, the other officer who arrested Kaia and was serving as a school resource officer, went back to the school and bragged that Kaia broke his arrest record of youngest offenders, that his youngest arrest before Kaia was seven years old. News stories also report that this officer—who is a Black man—arrested a six-year-old boy the same day of Kaia’s arrest.
The Orlando Police Department has since apologized to you, and they report Dennis Turner, who was already retired, was fired from the school resource officer pool. S. Ramos, the officer who handcuffed and walked Kaia out of school, was cleared of all charges because the police department says he followed protocol in calling a supervisor to get approval for the arrest of a child younger than twelve years old.
I could use the remainder of this letter to reflect on the horrific actions of the two police officers, or more importantly, Florida law that would even allow a six-year-old to be arrested in the first place. Or perhaps you’re hoping I discuss the systemic dimension of racism and how an already complicated arrest of a Black girl student is made even more complicated because the arresting police officer is a Black man. These are all worthy of serious discussion.
However, as an educator, I am most appalled by the actions of other state actors also culpable in the violence perpetrated against Kaia: school administrators at Emma and Lucious Nixon Academy who called a resource (police) officer in to settle a situation with a six-year-old child that did not warrant intervention by law enforcement. I saw at least one member of the school office staff telling Kaia she had to go with the police officers and that the handcuffs would not hurt; this is the same staff member who was reading a story to Kaia when the police officers arrived. The video also shows at least one other adult at her desk, sitting in silence while Kaia begged for help as the policemen walked her out of the front office.
I’m well aware that perhaps these two women were not administrators at the school and remained silent because they had to in order to keep their jobs. However, because I have spent a good amount of time in schools, I also know it is not too big of a leap to assume at least one school administrator was also likely present in the school main office—even if not visible on the police bodycam video—and within earshot of Kaia’s plaintive pleas for help and to be “let go.” I understand school administrators have a responsibility to keep everyone safe in their buildings, but what danger did six-year-old Kaia really present to school staff and students?
I fear what is more likely is that the adults responsible for her arrest wanted to teach young Kaia (and all the mostly Black students in the school) a lesson in control and submission, to teach Kaia that her Black girl body was out of control and had to be tamed, that non-compliance was unacceptable. Kaia had to become less human—less Black person, less girl—to all adults responsible for her arrest. Otherwise, how do you explain the many chances adults had to intervene, to reverse bad decision-making before it became harmful to Kaia (and her classmates), to stop inflicting violence on a child who needed help not handcuffs?
I want my teacher colleagues to know Kaia is not the first six-year-old Black girl to be arrested and handcuffed in U.S. schools, nor is she the youngest. The list of Black girl students to be policed and overdisciplined in schools is too long. See, for example, the case of eight-year-old Jmiyha Rickman in Alton, Illinois. AND six-year-old Salecia Johnson in Milledgeville, Georgia. AND five-year-old Ja’eisha Scott in St. Petersburg, Florida. AND six-year-old Desre'e Watson in Avon, Florida. I urge all teachers to read Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected, by the African American Policy Forum, and Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, by Monique W. Morris. These books are some of the best research on the school to prison pipeline for Black girls, but, sadly, there is much to study and much that has been studied.
In moving forward from that awful day, your family had the added burden of finding (and paying for) a private school that does not have a police officer on site. Kaia deserves to be in a school with adults she can trust, who see her particular brilliance, who can bring some safety and normalcy back to her school life. You have visited Florida House Representatives to urge state legislators to pass the Kaia Rolle Act, which requires Florida schools and law enforcement agencies to have a policy in place against the arrest of children under 10 years of age. We know you wanted the original bills that—if they had made it out of committee—would have prevented the arrest of children under 12 years old.
I write to make you a promise, no matter how small an act this might be. I promise I will never forget Kaia Rolle. She will forever be at the forefront of the work I do as an educator. I feel a renewed purpose for building more classrooms where Black girls in particular are shown care and love such that they cannot help but love and care for themselves and each other. From this point forward, I will remind the teachers I work with that we are a village with a communal responsibility to recognize the humanity of Black girls, that they belong to a family and a community who love them more than life and in whom all their hope is bound. I sincerely hope Kaia is in a classroom where she will learn how to dream again and build into existence the future she imagines for herself.
Nichole Guillory, PhD, is Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Kennesaw State University. She publishes on the experiences of women of color in the academy. She is mom to Nicholas, the love of her life. We couldn't be happier that she has agreed to pen the Mothering in Color series for WellAcademic.