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6 things I wish I knew as a young black woman

If you told 14-year-old Laurise what my life would be like when I was 24, I wouldn’t have believed you. But here I am today, living in an adorable apartment in New York City with my very best friend. I’m working at my dream job. I’m dating the sweetest guy. I’m happy—with my life, with my body, with myself.

But here’s the thing: I grew up in a small community—a place where a lot of people never venture beyond the town where they attended high school. My daddy’s a mechanic, and my mom cleans houses. I’m the first person in my family to go to college—heck, I’m the first person in my family to live outside the state.

Growing up, I always dreamed of working in the glamorous media world, but it felt so unrealistic. I simply didn’t see many Black women becoming top stylists or high-level editors—and I certainly didn’t actually know any.

The closest thing I could find was my high school yearbook and newspaper. Working on those led me to my community college magazine. That experience gave me the foundation I needed to land internships at places like MTV and Elle.

Later, I finally got my foot in the door at Refinery29, a top digital media platform, as a community manager. I put in the work—and was eventually promoted to social content strategist. Now, I manage an Instagram-based platform called @r29unbothered. It’s dedicated to empowering WOC (meaning “women of color”) and creating a safe, inspiring space to celebrate our culture. 

My experiences in this community have taught me how precious Black girlhood and womanhood really is. Working on @r29unbothered makes me believe in myself more—and now I’m a thousand years (and a million smiles) wiser. Ahead, six secrets about #blackgirlmagic that I think *every* teen girl needs to know…

1. There are millions of other black girls out there who know how it feels to be the only black girl.

I’ve felt like “the token Black girl” at *all* different stages throughout my life.
In high school, I felt self-conscious because no matter how nice or fun I was, I still stuck out as The Only Black Girl.

I’ll never forget the day at field hockey practice when a teammate poured Gatorade all over my head just a few days after I got brand new braids. I was furious—and she couldn’t understand why.
She didn’t know that I don’t wash my hair as often as she does. That box braids take *forever* to get done. That 8 ounces of liquid had just cost me five hours of sitting still—not to mention about $100.
I had to explain it all.

In many of the academic and work experiences that followed, I’d often end up being the only Black person in the room—and the responsibility of decoding and explaining Black culture would often fall on me. While I’m always happy to inform and enlighten, it’s also a problematic situation: I was looked at as the poster child for every Black woman on the planet, but in reality I can only speak for myself. And any time a group of people is generalized, it is reduced to a stereotype.

When I landed at Refinery29, it was one of the first times I’ve had the benefit of being in a truly diverse workspace—and I stopped feeling like “the only one.”

Know that if you’re feeling like the “only” of something, your tribe is out there. You will find them. Digital communities can connect you to your people regardless of where you live. And reach out in person, too! Now, I always make it a point to introduce myself to new Black girls in the building—like, “Welcome, sis.”

2. The way your body looks is nobody's business but your own.

OK, it’s your doctor’s business, too (keeping up with your personal health is crucial!), but to all those bullies on social media or the creeps who call at girls from their cars? YOUR OPINION ISN’T WELCOME HERE.

One time in middle school, I was hanging out with a group of friends when two grown men whistled at us. My girls said they had to be whistling at me, though—not our whole group.

I felt confused and ashamed: I had grown breasts and hips by that time, but my white girlfriends were developing as well…so why was it all on me? It wasn’t until much later that I started understanding what had happened.

The roots of this issue are complex, but a groundbreaking 2017 study from Georgetown Law confirmed what I already knew to be true: Adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than our white peers, especially between the ages of 5 to 14.

So even though those guys decided I looked old enough to be hollered at, I still felt like a kid because I was a kid. Now that I’m 24, I know that I didn’t deserve to be called out for having larger breasts and wider hips. I deserved to enjoy girlhood for as long as possible—and, regardless of race, we *all* do.

3. Your first love isn't the only person out there for you—even though it might feel that way.

Dating as a Black girl can feel extra scary because the media (movies, TV shows, YA novels, everything) rarely tell the story of the little Black girl finding her happily ever after. In my own experience, dating as the Black girl felt very much like being picked last for kickball: It seemed like white guys only liked white girls...and Black guys also liked white girls.

So when I finally got a boyfriend in 10th grade, I held on tight. I stayed with him all through high school and college. He was nice, but he never took life (or our relationship) seriously. Still, I didn’t let go—because what if he was the *only* guy who would ever really care about me?

But by holding onto something out of fear, I was missing out on other relationships and activities that could have made me happier. When I finally moved to NYC after college, I broke up with that guy and spent time solo instead. Before I knew it, a smart and dreamy new dude swept me off my feet—and became the living, breathing proof that the grass is greener outside of your comfort zone.

4. You need to stop using so much heat on your hair.

I once spent countless hours (and dollars) damaging my locks in the pursuit of straight hair. I wish I could scream at my younger self in the mirror, You’ll never have hair like your white girlfriends! But one day you’ll realize how luscious, versatile and unique your *own* hair texture is.

For me, that day came when I saw my little sister go natural. She was able to do braids, ’fros, updos—and it was gorgeous. I put the heat tools away, and my hair finally grew. It was shinier. Bouncier!
It became a physical representation of the real me.

Today, we have so many mane role models to look to for afro-inspiration. I have a saved board on my Instagram called “Naturalistas” where I stash fun braid looks and curly-girl styling ideas. It keeps me creative—and reminds me that my hair is irreplaceable.

5. It's true: you really *do* have to work harder than everyone else.

My dad always told me that, as an African American, I’d have to work twice as hard. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered I actually have to work about three times as hard because I’m not just Black—I’m a Black woman. A double minority.

For many Black girls, there will be times in life when you feel like society’s defense of “women” isn’t always looking out for you. There will be days when your own Black community will make you feel like your gender makes you unworthy of being heard. It isn’t fair, but you must remember you’re smart, strong, beautiful and worthy. You will have haters—but your dreams are 100% possible. I am proof of that.

My best tips for living unbothered? Curate the energy around you. It’s okay to unfollow or take space from anyone who makes you feel bad about yourself.

6. Sisterhood is everything.

Growing up, it seemed like every cool-girl group had room for just one Black girl. Take the Spice Girls, for example: White girls could be Ginger, Baby, Sporty or Posh—but Black girls were *always* Scary. Or turn on any ’90s teen flick and if there was a Black girl in the cool clique—like Dionne in Clueless—then she’d certainly be solo.

But there is space for more than one Black girl at the table—whether it’s the in-crowd of a high school or the boardroom of a company. And we don’t need to compete for that space: We should be pulling up more chairs and making more room for each other.

When you see another girl struggling, help her out. Ask how she’s doing, invite her to sit with you at lunch. Building a bond with other Black girls will lift everyone up. And that sisterhood only makes *all* of us stronger.

This content originally appeared in the June/July 2019 issue of Girls' Life magazine.

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by Laurise McMillian | 7/15/2019
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