Politics and Promposals—how isms and phobias influence who gets asked to the dance

In May, 17-year-old Priscilla Samey’s interesting high school story made rounds throughout social media. This happened not because of her impressive achievement of gaining admission into seven out of eight Ivy League institutions, but rather for escorting one of her admission letters––Harvard’s––to her senior prom. While many lauded her for such a “bold” move, others in comment feeds described her as “lame,” and even suggested that the very act of substituting her acceptance letter for a prom date revealed enough about her personality to understand why no one asked her to begin with.

The small Minnesota town where Ms. Samey went to high school is home to only a handful of other folks who look like her; only .04 percent of the population in Champlin Park, Minnesota is Black. Although there may have been numerous reasons why Ms. Samey was not asked or did not feel comfortable asking a peer to the dance, like most things, race cannot ruled out so easily.

Though the topic of race, dating, and attraction is a messy one, it is not hard to see how misogynoir may have been at work in the fact that no one––no one––asked this highly intelligent Black girl to prom. One can only hope that her chocolate skin, wide nose, and full lips were looked upon with admiration, but in a society that is yet to expand its conventional understandings of beauty to include Black women, particularly those of a darker hue, that may just be wishful thinking.

Did anyone look at her achievements and think, “I’d like to spend more time with her?” Hard to believe, as that same society that hesitates to recognize the beauty of women who look like her simultaneously perpetuates the misogynoiristic tropes that deem such accomplished and self-assured Back women “hysterical” and “intimidating.”

But rather than launch a commission into who was or was not infatuated with Priscilla Samey and why, my aim in discussing her story seeks instead to focus on the event itself: high school prom. Though seemingly trivial, the complexities surrounding prom, race, and gender are anything but—they matter for a variety of reasons.

To put it frankly, prom is a big deal for most young people. With its elaborate gowns, rented tuxedos, fancy cars and ritzy venues, this one night is the closest many people—especially those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder— will get to a red carpet event. A quick search on Pinterest will reveal just how much thought and planning an average teen puts into an event that lasts roughly four hours.

As innocent as it may seem, prom culture has absorbed almost all of the politics and prejudices that exist within society-at-large.

Along with anti-blackness, colorism, and misogynoir, beneath the veneer of high school fanfare lies the issue of the lack of acceptance of queer individuals within these spaces. Like clockwork, each year the months between February and June bring numerous stories of gay and lesbian teens either being forbade from attending prom with same-gender dates, or banned outright.

Therefore, who gets asked to the prom (or rather, who doesn’t) is a reflection of all of those ‘isms’ that perpetuate various forms of discrimination and social inequity.

In fact, the ACLU has devoted an entire section of their website to advising LGBTQIA youth on how to legally respond to such incidents of discrimination.

Aside from the rules that are (or aren’t) set in stone, there remain many unspoken boundaries and anxieties: can they kiss or dance on the dancefloor without fear of violence from homophobic classmates? Will there be drama over which bathroom they use? At the very least, can they enjoy the evening free from hostile stares and reactions? Why does their youthfulness and joy become something to fear and contain when they decide to embrace their full selves?

Then, of course, comes the fatphobia. Whether it manifests itself in the fitting rooms of the dress boutiques, or through internet reactions to the ever-scrutinized “prom photos,” larger bodies aren’t quite welcomed at prom with open arms, if at all.

And speaking of “open,” the issue of accessibility—both financial and physical—is often excluded from the conversation altogether. The most recent estimate of the average cost of prom hovers around $600.

That figure may even be on the lower end, as more and more teens are opting for hand-made gowns and pricey, luxury hair extensions. This is partly because, for some, prom truly might be the happiest, most elaborate night of their lives. And in the parts of the country where funerals have become more common than weddings or baby showers, one can better understand the urge to go over-the-top.

But where do poor teens fit into the equation?

Particularly the kids whose parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins don’t have the money to spare on a single evening of dress up? Do they attend anyway, bearing the mental weight of knowing that, due to circumstances outside of their control, they did not have the resources to #slay like the others around them did? Or do they just not attend at all?

Those who have physical disabilities have to go even further to ensure that they can even enter prom venues and transportation, as they are often relegated to forgotten-thought status by many of those responsible for organizing the festivities.

Even further, the trend known as “promposals”—defined by the Oxford Dictionary as an “elaborately staged request to be someone’s date to a prom”—has been criticized by some disabled individuals as being insulting and exploitative to members of their community. While the many views garnered by videos that show able-bodied teens pulling out all of the stops to ask their developmentally disabled or wheelchair bound classmates to prom can be considered heartwarming, they tiptoe along the lines of “pity porn”—just another way for those who do not have disabilities to pat themselves on the back for ‘being nice’ to someone who does.

So where does that leave us? How do we respond? Do we #shutpromdown until we can figure out what’s going on? Do we attempt to decolonize it? Do we pursue the separate but equal approach and do prom our way, making sure to center the Black, the queer, the poor, and the disabled?

I won’t attempt to prescribe an answer. After all, at its core, prom is young folks’ business, and far be it for me to tell the next generation how to live their lives and shape their world. But we fail those same young folks when those of us who know better fail to do better, or, at the very least, speak up on their behalf.

One seemingly harmless, de-politicized night is a crude reminder of centuries-long systemic harm directed towards our society’s most vulnerable. And that has consequences.

It’s time to rethink what we allow young marginalized folks to be exposed to completely. And if prom is an entry point into those reconsiderations, let us use it for something productive.

INTERVIEW: Fight trans homelessness with J. Skyler Robinson

There are at least 1.4 million trans adults and around 150,000 trans youth living in the United States today. Although they only make up .6 and .7 percent of their respective populations, trans people in the U.S. are much more likely to face astounding levels of interpersonal violence, lack of healthcare, and homelessness. The latter is often a function of various manifestations of discrimination and family rejection.

J. Skyler Robinson aims to tackle the issue of trans homelessness head on.

Black Youth Project sat down with the Black, genderqueer transwoman to discuss their plans to create a transitional living home to support especially vulnerable trans people.

How did you decided to start mobilizing to create this transitional living home?

“I used to live in a Los Angeles gay and lesbian transitional living program for youth. I was there for a two year period. Since this was something that I’ve actually lived through, I know how beneficial it is. So that’s what led me to try and start up my own version of it. However the biggest difference is that it’s specifically for the transgender community.”

What is it that you hope trans people will be able to experience during their time in the transitional living home?

“My biggest hope is that trans people have a safe space to stay, and time to recuperate from whatever troubles they were experiencing before, to re-enter regular society and the workforce. Trans people face a myriad of violence: interpersonal, economic––so much. So having an area to rest and recuperate, I think, is so important.”

How crucial is that area of reprieve––especially in the current political climate?

“It’s definitely been compounded by the Trump Administration. Even Ben Carson, the new HUD Secretary, stated that he didn’t want [public housing] to be comfortable for homeless people, because he thinks people would never want to leave. I think that’s very misguided, and really unethical, even more so with the specific situation trans people face.”

Would you say Trump administration’s views about poor Black people are even more dangerous when one adds trans people in the mix?

“Most definitely. The current administration has demonstrated no understanding of transgender issues and ignorance often leads to death. Black trans women already account for the highest homicide rate among all LGBT people in the US. Employment, housing and healthcare discrimination (which are structural) all contribute to our deaths. I don’t see any reason to think the 45th or anyone in his cabinet would do anything to change this.”

“Where would the transitional living home be located? Do you plan on opening up more around the country?”

“I hope to build this facility in Las Vegas. I live in California, but I travel back and forth between LA and Las Vegas. We didn’t want to build it in California because of the economic situation––California is very crowded and the cost of living is extraordinarily high. So I think Vegas would be the next best step. The trade-off is that California does have the best legal protections of any state for trans people. Nevada is very close on a number of points, but my main concern was for those exiting the program who might be looking for work and housing. So I think this location would make it a bit easier.”

What stage is the project in now?

“We’ve already handled the articles of incorporation, but we’re not tax exempt yet. When you incorporate an office, the first stage is actually getting the Employer Identification Number, but filing for tax exempt status is a completely separate process… But we’ve filed that paperwork already.”

How much overall do you think you’d need to raise?

“So far, our goal is set at $500,000. That cost right now is primarily to be able to buy land to build the facility, and hire an executive staff to work on the project. But within the next 5 years, I’d like to have a volunteer board of directors and a fully compensated executive staff who would guide the entire project. So the current goal would go to those two things.”

What message would you like people to take away as they learn more about your project and the dire situation many trans people are currently facing?

“We have a lot of people looking out for themselves and literally no one else. That selfishness is apparent across all marginalized groups living in the United States right now, so whatever we can do to pull together and ensure that the people who are most vulnerable are taken care of, I think that’s where a great deal of our focus should be. I know the end goal for this facility is at least a few years away, but what can definitely happen right now is getting the ball rolling so we can get to the next stage.”

You can donate to J. Skyler’s transitional living home project here.

More Than a Token: Parting reflections on being Black at the University of Chicago

This article was originally published in the Chicago Maroon.

“If I were you, I would just go to whatever state school you’ve already been accepted to. The University of Chicago is really a tough institution, and I’m not quite sure you’d do well there, if we’re being honest.”

I felt my heart beating fast, my mouth getting dry, and the tears welling up first in my right eye, and then my left. The man facing me was my alumni interviewer. He spent no more than one minute looking at the information College Admissions had given him about me. He spent no more than five asking about my background, the area of Dallas/Ft. Worth I lived in, and what my family situation was like.

Why The #BlackAndTraveling Movement Must Confront Its Classism

A few months ago, as I was scrolling through the ‘Explore’ page on Instagram, I came across the page of an up-and-coming Black travel group. As someone who is keen on snatching grant money and leaving the country for weeks, if not months at a time, in the name of research and scholarship (plus photo ops), I gobbled up all of the beautiful photos of young Black people getting their entire lives in places like Laos, Madrid, Rio, Capetown, and many more. Aside from the warmth of seeing myself represented in countries and experiences that I might not otherwise be, I share the point of view that to be Black and traveling out of one’s own volition is a radical act.

For Karen Smith And Other Black Women Who Seek Freedom When The Misogynoir Is Enough

On an average day in an average month, the presence of misogynoir, even if frequent, is little more than irritating. The typical manifestations—mainly incidents in which a man of virtually any racial background gives disparaging remarks about Black women à la Bill O’Reilly—often make for an interesting, yet brief, groupchat-worthy discussion chock full of eyerolls. But in the last three weeks, the violent displays of misogynoir have become overwhelming and fear-inducing.

California Wants to Repeal Felony HIV Criminalization Laws. No, That Does Not Deserve Backlash.

Recently, California legislators took the first steps towards combatting HIV criminalization by introducing a bill that would downgrade the charge for failing to disclose positive status to sexual partners from a felony to a misdemeanor. The bill would also apply to penalties against non-disclosure to blood banks.

Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, And The Normalization of Slave Rape Narratives

I am not the same person now as I was when I was 14—and thank God for that. I was remarkably naive and unbearably insecure, and stuck in an environment that did nothing but exacerbate those complex internal struggles that are so typical of adolescence.

So imagine my outrage upon being continuously confronted with articles that insist on describing the affairs between Thomas Jefferson and a fourteen year-old enslaved Sally Hemings (simultaneously his slave and wife’s half-sister) as a ‘relationship.’ I cannot fathom, at fourteen, being denied the liberty to reject the sexual advances of a 44 year-old man (and not just any man, but a man who would become the President of the United States) only to have historians and writers skip over the imbalanced power dynamics and categorize it as a ‘relationship.’

Base To Dems: Get With It Or Get Lost

What do you call a party that refuses to represent the interests of its base in an increasingly critical time in U.S. politics?

Soon to be over.

Since the beginning of this decade, the Democratic Party has continuously grown more and more out of touch with their base. We saw it in the 2014 midterms, when the decision to swing to the center and distance themselves from Obama resulted in sound defeat in Congressional races. We saw it in the heavily contested Democratic primary, as more and more traditionally left-leaning people began to critique, if not outright reject, the political establishment.

‘We Need To Be Rethinking Our Response To This’: An Interview with dream hampton

Days after clinching the U.S. presidency in November, Donald Trump appointed Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as his pick for Attorney General of the U.S. Department of Justice. From stating he was once “okay with the Ku Klux Klan” until he learned they smoked marijuana, to prosecuting Black activists in the decades following the fall of Jim Crow for registering people to vote, Sessions’ past, like Trump’s, is filled with controversial, biased and racially-charged rhetoric and action.

Civil rights groups around the country have begun mobilizing against his confirmation and urging senators to reject him. I spoke with longtime filmmaker and activist dream hampton about her efforts, in tandem with the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, to block Sessions’ confirmation as U.S. Attorney General.

‘Hidden Figures’ Represents Black Women’s Continued Quest For Dignity and Recognition

I remember the first time I had my intelligence questioned by a peer like it was yesterday; I had just won the regional spelling bee when a classmate, a non-Black person of color, started a rumor that my accomplishments were simply a result of me smoking marijuana.

I was 14, and had never smoked a day in my life.