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.