On the Use of “Honor Student”: Phylicia Barnes’ Disappearance
A gifted student from North Carolina who was visiting family in Baltimore over the holidays, Barnes was scheduled to graduate early from high school. She did not have a history of running away or being a troubled child.
The Phylicia Simone Barnes’ story is one of profound sadness and injustice on many levels. We know that when our brown and black children go missing they go missing without any national attention from the media. We also know that courageous black parents keep the search alive through their sheer determination to find their children. We also know that there is both a racialized and gendered media double standard.
We know these things.
But, do we know how to write a story—a news article—about black women’s and black girls’ disappearances or stories of violence without having to highlight how good they are, how perfect of a mother they are, how good of a student they are, and how good of a wife they are? I ask this question because for the past couple of weeks I have been following the Phylicia Barnes’ story and everything I read online both black and non-black media sources lead with the phrasing “Honor Student Missing.” The use of this phrase to spotlight a missing child is not necessarily a bad thing especially when you are trying to spotlight one missing child among many missing children. However, when it is consciously or often times unconsciously used to single out why we should care about this black girl over that troubled black girl a part of me cringes. Here are some of the titles that use “Honor Student”—Case of missing N.C. honor student still a mystery after 2 weeks,Missing NC honor student case baffles Md. police, Massive Search Underway for Missing California Honor Student, Honor student missing since Dec. 28, and Case of Missing Honor Student Still a Mystery After 2 Weeks.
I inwardly cringe because I know that these types of phrasings helps a little to get people to pay attention to black women’s and girls’ stories of violence. However, I also know how this phrasing gets translated in our racial, gendered, and class societal constructions of who is worthy of being found that people will see this phrasing and say unto themselves, “She is an honor student who will graduate early who has done everything right (devoid of racial identity) and deserves to be found while just plain-ole-average black girls —unwed teen moms, diploma having only black girls, unwed teen moms on welfare, black girls who catch the bus, pink collar black girls, unwed teen moms on welfare who does drug, violent gang member, promiscuous black girls, video black girls (i.e. Karrine Steffan and Kat Stacks), and lazy black girls—are undeserving because they cannot wipe away the taint of their blackness, their gender, their class, and their sexuality easily. And not that being an honor student wipes away these things automatically, but it does prompt people to read the story especially when the race of the child is not said in the title of the article.
And so I ask the question, “Do we know how to write a black girl’s story of violence that will not restrict mobilization efforts of non-perfect black mothers, non-perfect black students, non-perfect black daughters, and non-perfect black wives?”
And, to be honest, I do not think we do. And if we did, I do not think the society that we live in will allow us to do so.
In general, I say all of this not to silence the usage of “honor student” when bringing national attention to Phylicia Barnes’ disappearance because I think we must do all that we can to get our children back safely. However, what I am pushing us to do is think critically about how we frame new stories about black women and girls and how our choice of framing can either help or hurt the next young black woman that goes missing who may not be an honor student.
This past week we honored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We remembered all the sacrifices people gave for the movement of freedom. We remember how Rosa Parks took a seat at the front of the bus. We know how that helped to spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But, do we know of Claudette Colvin? Do we know that she was the first woman to be arrested for sitting in the front of a Montgomery’s bus? No, many of us may not know her because she was found by the civil rights leadership to be an unacceptable image to mobilize around because she became pregnant at fifteen by a married man. I know many of you are saying, “What does this has to do with using the phrase “honor student” to bring attention to the disappearance of Phylicia Barnes?” And my response is simply this, it shows that we as a society are not comfortable with telling the stories of average black women and girls who bleed, love, hate, lust, and sometimes fail. We are not comfortable with simply saying that a young black woman is missing and needs to be found because on some level we know many young black girls go missing daily and to find them all would require tremendous resources that we are not willing to sacrifice and it would also require that we reassess how we devalue women of color in our society.
You see everyday black women’s and girls’ stories are not worthy. They do not pull us or society at large from internalized black images of blame and deviancy. For the most part, most of us do not have a collective consciousness that will allow us to see the everyday pain, abuse, kidnapping, disappearing, and murdering of everyday black women. We don’t see it.
You see, there is something about the confluence of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and poverty that restricts us from telling and embracing stories of everyday black women and by extension telling the stories of non-honor student black girls who go missing.