The Stuff of Childhood: Microaggressions, Predators, and other breaks from Play

I’ve been stewing on this blog since the start of 2019, and more explicitly since viewing Surviving R Kelly. There are competing storylines welling up in me.

I’ve found myself ruminating as well as identifying, and not with likely or expected narrators.

I’ve found myself unsurprised as well as demoralized, and it’s led me into an emotional hangover.

My freshman year of high school, a good friend of mine was taking a photography class. She’d been given an assignment to prepare a photo journal on her topic of stereotypes, and she asked for my help. Help involved letting her take scantily clad photos of me to be presented under the label of slut. I’d never actually seen the photos until five years later when she’d moved back to the area and I received a photo. A boy sent me a photo of a photo, one of me hung on her bedroom wall. Neither the boy, my friend nor I really ever discussed the photos, but we all had seen them, and we knew better than to peel back that layer further. Now that I am closer to thirty than twenty a barrage of bad outcomes that could have materialized play in my mind still, as I’m left wondering how to understand this decision I made against the choices I didn’t make that came after, and the labels assigned to them.

I’ve had a lot of time since leaving my job to observe children playing together. I’ve probably been to every playground and indoor play place in a fifty-mile radius, observing and intervening when necessary. Two times this week I was halted by the anger I felt towards children’s treatment of each other, and adult indifference to what we were witnessing. I watched little boy aggression make calculated decisions about who to target. I watched white children practice colorism in their choice of playmates. I watched children who were targets of aggressive comments and actions tearfully share their experiences with adults only to be told that nothing had happened and they were fine. I watched children repeatedly engage in the same bullying directed at the same targets with halfhearted interventions or timeouts to follow. I watched children carefully go through their rolodex of tools: walking away, using their words, seeking allies, seeking adults. I absorbed the intentional if not conscious behaviors and interpretations of those behaviors, removed from labels like bullying, taunting, violent or malicious, and yet characterized by that same umbrella of power-based violence and rampant bias.

It brought up a lot of memories and opinions that I nurse tenderly, and it made me sit in the slight delirium I wanted to sink into. The one where this feels more outlier than average, the exception to the rule versus the rule that even children are astute in following. The one where indifference does not wash your hands of what happens next, whether or not you can anticipate it or be convinced of its evidence. That story line is magnified in Surviving R Kelly as the role of community grooming is amplified as a tactic of violence and its continuation and escalation. The impact of being less credible because of your youth and in spite of your youth, because of your race and because of R Kelly’s race, because of your aspirations, and because of his talent, because of profit and the announcement of an awaited reckoning. The impact of knowing how you’re viewed, rejecting it, being vilified for it, and not seeing yourself in the proposed reflections. The impact of accepting those reflections that your community hoards and reproduces. The unsafety that leaves more indifferent than able to respond supportively.

If you listen to the rhetoric throughout the docuseries, and the exact language of the trigger warnings, you will see the distinction drawn between child sexual abuse and sex with someone under age. You will note subconsciously two tiers of sexual acts, and the illusion of downplaying age as important. You will note the sex appeal, the motif instilled, the intimacy ascribed. The will see the hallmarks of a master manipulator whose targets include us, and even start with us. Us being white America. Us being adult perception. Us being existing denial of the rates of intraracial sexual violence. Us being rape apologists. Us believing that we get to determine whether or not harm has happened, and happened intentionally. Us compromised by our own childhood experiences and related grooming.

It made me think of Monica Lewinsky and the punchline she was turned into for a very long time. She wrote a piece this past February on the twentieth anniversary of the Starr Investigation of Bill Clinton and the making of her into a household name. I think about the community grooming used to convince a generation of teenagers that oral sex isn’t sex. I think about what it is to be labeled a victim of a predator before you yourself label your experience as violence. I think about the parsing of words used to separate and make more or less wrong two actions in our mind, in this case consent versus an abuse of power. I think about the toxic quality of trying to restore your sense of safety while your judgment is mocked and your story retold and analyzed and commented on. I think about it taking twenty years to directly comment on that narrative that took on a life of its own, and describing it still at “arm’s length”, or not told by you even to you. I even think about the image of Jada King frozen on national tv after the #CounterJadapose campaign launched in support of her. Jada, a black teenager whose sexual assault was posted online and mobilized advocates to come to her support over social media. Being clearly implicated by a pattern of someone’s behavior, and yet not having caught up to the forming lens for how to process what has happened to you. Of not really being asked what would feel supportive for you, and not sure if your feelings are your own or the result of gas lighting that still influences you. There are so many survivors whose voices have not commented on their own behalf, and yet whose names and stories have been shared publicly. There’s an internal experience denied room to be processed, juxtaposed with patterns of violence continuing to escalate and yet not taken seriously enough to work to end.

For advocacy, there is an essential expectation of neutrality. It has led us to create criteria and privileges for advocates that hinge on being able to have no agenda but the survivor’s whom you are supporting. And yet activism has a very different foundation for approaching support, and it is built on a stated platform. Coming to terms with serial acts of violence calls for advocacy and activism, and yet sometimes those perspectives single each other out. Many of us find ourselves swirling amidst storylines that cast us in varied roles and perspectives: as children, as teenagers, as individuals working on our healing, as adult bystanders, as secondary survivors, as partners, as consumers, as complicit in deep seated pathologies of violence bigger than any one example of it. It is unequivocally required that we prioritize harm stopping above any other value, and that in doing so black and brown women and girls finally hear us say that we believe them, they are not disposable, we were wrong, and you needed us. And it is important that we confront the biases still influencing our approaches to how we make harm visible, how we out predators, how and when we believe survivors, and how much time we give people to process their experiences without labeling them.

The thing is that childhood flows into adolescence and into adulthood without breaks for us to process all that we are accumulating as lessons and wounds, and pauses to process don’t come as breaks. More accurately, trying to process and gain perspective is characterized by clutter, and by sifting through choices in narration that can’t all remain internalized. The areas of emotional ambiguity are informed by both our community grooming, and our different experiences of rejecting and embracing those alignments. Public discourse hasn’t waited for survivors, and it’s unclear if it’s capable of that now.

I close my eyes and see myself group my experiences into tiers that I don’t believe in because community grooming is that powerful, and yet I hold my tongue and try to reach for self-talk that can shed the lessons I don’t consciously claim. In one view I am a cynical, white advocate who can’t fully get away from the racism I am comprised of. In another I am a fourteen-year-old being photographed in a sexual manner. In another I am an adult with fifteen years of therapy under my belt. In another I am a six-year-old being groomed to be compliant. In another I am an eleven-year-old attracting master manipulators as friends, building a culture that would follow me. In another I am holding onto children’s self determination in as much as I want to protect them. In another I am these voices talking to each other, but not in any of my direct voices or words. Time helps us process to a point, and then something happens that threatens what we have processed and come to understand a certain way. That process is as continuous or narrow as we want it to be, or as broad as we’ve been allowed to label it.