Can We Stop Making Fun of Black Children’s Prom Dresses?

May 13, 2015  |  

It’s prom season again. And you know what that means: time to make fun of young adults because deep down, we are all horrible and unhappy people.

Okay, that may not be entirely accurate. But each year, websites dedicated mostly to Black celebrity gossip and even thought, contribute at least one slideshow to what folks deem as the unrefined or “ratchet” prom attire. These slideshows regularly feature pictures of young teens, usually young Black girls, decked out in everything from revealing dresses with open backs, stomachs, and high slits; long tuxedo trains that look like something Blade would wear; outfits made out of fake Louis Vuitton prints; and teens in dresses made out of old Doritos, Ramen noodles bags and whatever the hell these two have on…

For many folks who indulge in this sort of mockery, the clowning of prom attire has become almost like a sport, with folks debating and even competing over who had the most ratchet outfit of them all. But I never quite understood the enjoyment we get, particularly as grown ass adults, sharing pictures and laughing at what are essentially children – albeit awkwardly dressed children, but still children.

For one, there is obviously a class distinction at play within all of this mockery. In most instances, these are pictures of teens who hail from communities, which are often too poor to shop at high-end boutiques or even rental places for more “suitable” attire. They “splurge” the best they can to have the experience, which by most standards is the crux of normal teenagehood. And when they can’t splurge financially, they use their best creativity to come up with something unique and personal to them in the hopes of making their special nights memorable.  That includes commissioning that one aunt who says she can sew, but ends up turning that sky blue faux leather alligator print material you saved up for weeks to buy into something that resembles a turtle shell and not the tailored vest that you had actually envisioned. Now, I’m not saying any full names, but my poor baby brother Eric looked like the disenfranchised Black member of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for his prom…

But outside the class distinctions, there is something even more ugly about our mockery of the attire of these kids that bothers me. While we are laughing and sharing these photos for others to laugh at, we forget we are actually sharing pictures of young adults, if not minors. And we are often doing it without their expressed permission. And I can’t emphasize enough “the children” aspect of all of it.

Sure, these pictures are likely snatched from some young and dumb kid’s Instagram, who didn’t have the sense to set their account to private. But that’s the thing: these are young and dumb kids entitled to make young and dumb mistakes like we all did at their age. Meanwhile, the folks sharing these pictures are adults who are supposed to know and behave a little better in life. But obviously, we don’t.

Worse, we forget that behind what we deem as bad dresses and suits, are indeed children with stories, aspirations, hopes, fears, angst, and yes, insecurities of their own. Young adults and children, who were looking to have a good time and possibly feel good about themselves at least for one night. Young adults and children, who felt good about themselves in the attire they had selected, suddenly being the butt of the entire Black blogosphere. Again, young adults and children.

Now, you may not see them as children, and that is understandable considering most of society has a hard time seeing Black kids as actual kids. I’m not bullshitting you here. There are actual studies about this. In particular, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a study last year, which suggested that Black boys in particular “may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their White peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime.”

And the same sort of dehumanization happens with our girls. How could we forget last year’s scandal involving GOP staffer Elizabeth Lauten, who had to resign from her post after making disparaging comments about Sasha and Malia Obama’s short skirts, which they wore to the White House’s annual Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon ceremony? Despite the Black blogosphere being in an uproar over the dehumanizing treatment of our first daughters, the truth of the matter is that we engage in the same sort of dehumanization with other less protected Black daughters – and sons – each time we share and mock their prom pictures.

I’m not trying to shame anyone (too much) who both passes around and laughs at images of these young people’s prom attire; but I hope I have inspired some folks to think about what we are actually doing when we do share and mock these photos. There are enough people in this world waiting to harm our children. And because they are Black, they will have a lifetime of people making them feel inferior. So why do we, as grown Black adults, need to compound that? In short, our children deserve way more protection and respect than this.

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