As a young black woman, I am accustomed to social systems failing me. The education system was one of the first to subtly inform me that my race and gender would render me invisible to the academic imagination. I had believed that from the centuries’ long oppression suffered by those of my race and gender, I was lucky to even have the opportunity to get an education no matter how exclusionary the curriculum was.
I attended a predominantly white secondary school in South Africa and the invisible feeling I dreaded lurked in almost every textbook I read and in the eyes of the teachers who conveniently ‘didn’t see race’. Every class I attended glorified the best and brightest minds that were suspiciously never black but somehow alright because ‘the blacks’ in this country hadn’t contributed a single thing to society except cheap labour. Of course no one said this aloud but even then as a child I could sense how black and white bodies were polarized and existed in different social spheres.
So, like all the other black girls and boys at my school, I learned my lessons diligently and ignored the racial micro-aggressions. Having since graduated, I thought it would be easy to unlearn the inferiority complex that my school curriculum drummed into me and let go of all the negative memories but I was wrong. Watching my younger sisters go through the same school system triggered a rage that I had fought hard to swallow when I was their age.
My 11 year old sister shyly told me about her first Sex Ed lesson at school and I started probing her with questions to check if she had really listened and learned. What was meant to be a light sisterly discussion turned into an interrogation as I urged her to detail the ‘types’ of bodies they used to explain the proverbial ‘Birds & the Bees’.
I don’t know why I was putting her through this questioning, I already knew the answers. I realized I was about to waste a perfect opportunity to connect with my sister, share my black girl experience and hopefully encourage her to healthily problematize how racial erasure effects the way she related to her Sex Ed lesson.
So, having calmed down, I reminisced and told my sister that my experience was adorably overwhelming: some of us giggled hysterically at how babies are made while others fainted when they found out how babies are born. But what really shook the blissful childhood innocence out of me was the hour of discussing sexually transmitted infections and diseases.
I remember panic seized my breathing as I listened to horror story-like case studies of HIV/AIDS, syphilis, gonorrhoea, chlamydia, herpes and hepatitis. I panicked not because they used scarring scare tactics to promote abstinence. I could stomach the fact that my teachers bombarded our young eyes with images of genitalia marred by blisters, rashes, puss sores, warts and every curse in hell imaginable. I was paranoid as to how I, a healthy little girl of color imagining an older version of herself, was supposed to tell when it was time to pay the doctor a visit.
I never understood why I walked out of that harrowing talk stressed out while my white peers did not seem to be worried. The Sex Ed lesson was heavily laced with white privilege because white personhood was used as the standard representative for sexual health. My insecurity lay in the fact that I was told that this information could potentially save my life yet I was shown diagrams and video clips of white bodies in every sexual health related circumstance. If I was naïve enough to take my Sex Ed lesson to heart then I would’ve believed that only straight, white, able-bodied people have sex.
Black children have to live in a double consciousness: at one level we learn as our peers do but then we must re-imagine, for ourselves, what the black experience of this specific social phenomenon is. Sex Ed should be about self-discovery and personal exploration but with the introduction I was given, I felt like my body was alien to my knowledge. My teachers read out statistics to drive their point home about the prevalence of sexually contracted diseases in our society such as HIV, or impotence, although there are male enhancement pills which help with this last one. The bar graphs, pie charts and percentages dissected the social groups and proclaimed that young, black women disproportionally suffered the most.
I didn’t want my sister to experience the same bodily disassociation I did but I also didn’t know how to address it. I wanted to counter the covertly white washed educational narrative my sister was fed by her teachers but I came up with more questions than answers. Where are these black women if they are not on the educational diagrams representing standard sexual health? Why our bodies are only used to represent high rates of STDs/STIs contraction? Why do black women’s bodies exclusively represent the consequences of being sexually active?
The limited and negative representation of black womanhood in relation to sexual health messes with our perception of ourselves and our bodies as black women when our sexuality is established in a sense of anxiety. We need to see all the bodies, or as many as possible, in a variety of situations, conditions and stages because our different lived experiences rightfully deserves validation. Black girls need to learn that black womanhood and sexual health are diverse, complex and beautifully their own to claim.