I first heard the term “girl” used as a phrase of praise around my kitchen table. Long after I was supposed to be asleep, my mother and her tribe would gather around one Saturday night of every month for their book club. I heard my mother and my honorary aunties toss the word into the room and it danced around as if it were another member of their clique.
They used it in agreement, in scolding, with exaggeration, with affirmation.
They used it in endearment.
As I grew up, that word, in all its forms became something I used too – letting it float off my tongue almost as if it was a right of passage.
Now, “girl” escapes from my lips to the ears of own tribe members quite often. When I need their words, when I have a story to tell, when I have shade to throw or tea to spill, when I just want to tell them I love them–I use the word because I can.
For some reason, the word “girl” operates like a secret language with layers of Black girl magic passed down from mothers and daughters, aunties and sisters, friends and strangers. The simple four-letter word holds a power that extends beyond age and occupation; it blankets Black women in a comfort that conveys all these different emotions that requires nothing else be said at all.
But some days, I don’t hear it come from the women who look like me, not of my melanin or even in a slight variation.
I hear it thrown in my direction without the familiarity that I observed as a child or practice now as an adult. In fact, when I hear it sometimes I feel more belittled than anything else because it doesn’t affirm and understand my existence in the same way.
Sometimes, it’ll come from the mouth of a white person and my heart breaks a little because it just doesn’t feel right.
Not too long ago, “girl” was hurled at my ancestors as they broke their backs as enslaved people. Their given name, robbed and stripped from them, was replaced with something else and even that seemed to be too much of an inconvenience for some to remember.
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So please, don’t call me “girl.”
Before the dogs and water hoses were released on those who marched for my freedoms through cities like Selma, Montgomery and Atlanta, before my people were able to dine, shop and sit in public places with more than just the peers who shared their hue, the word was launched in their faces like a warning shot fired into the night sky.
So please, don’t call me “girl.”
The same way boy is used to belittle Black men, I get a feeling of uncomfortably and unspoken rage that I just don’t know how to shake. It feels like an appropriation of the cultural language I’ve known since birth that you decided was cool to say because you heard it on television.
So please, don’t call me “girl”
I hear “girl” in the hair salon from women I’ll probably never see again but they know me like I know them. For at least two hours, we are one with deep conditioner in our hair, perm on our edges, rollers around our coils. We talk the ups and downs, the pop culture and the politics. They can call me “girl.”
I hear “girl” on subway platforms and street corners, the sound resonates through restaurants and bars—the word oozes from the mouths of complete strangers who look like me, who have had experiences like mine and it always feels like home coming from them.
Acknowledging me by my given name is required. Calling me “girl” is a privilege.
It is not for everyone.
So dear white people, please don’t call me girl.