Let me paint you two portraits.
The first involves a twenty-year-old, walking down an unfamiliar DC street at dusk. She’s on her way to a concert at a church and fears she may’ve hopped off the Metro at the wrong stop. The street is deserted for about a block, and the young woman feels increasingly vulnerable. Then, about 100 feet ahead, an old man materializes. She’s relieved, hoping to ask him for directions. But as she parts her lips to speak, he cuts in–making lewd references to her mouth and his genitalia, his eyes hungrily sweeping up and down her body. The whole exchange lasts 15 seconds, and years later, she will not remember his exact words, but she will never forget the eerie, demeaning humiliation of being propositioned on a city street.
This is sexual harassment.
Here is the other image: a nine-year-old boy shows up to his fourth-grade classroom and finds a substitute teacher standing at the front of it. His eyes dance with that childhood light our culture seems so intent on prematurely extinguishing, and he feels something small but powerful unfurl inside him. It is the green, translucent sprout of a crush. When he’s older, he will know plenty of phrases that can describe this sensation. Some will be poignant and flowery, others lewd and blue. But at nine, he knows only one word that captures his feeling about this impermanent, pretty presence standing behind his teacher’s desk. He leans over and whispers the word to a friend. The word is “cute.”
The twenty year old in our first portrait is now the 32-year-old author of this article. She has heard many words used to describe herself and the women she knows that were designed to harass and hypersexualize. Those words have been demeaning, pejorative, and explicit. They are familiar to far more women, young and old, than they should be.
“Cute” is not one of them.
In the context of elementary school, cute is often considered the highest compliment a child can give or receive–and in that pre-pubescent environment, it is the also most innocent, the most benign.
This is what made the suspension of Emanyea Lockett, the boy in our second portrait, so deeply disheartening. Brookside Elementary School in Gastonia, NC barred him from attendance for two days, on the grounds of sexual harassment. In a local news video, Emanyea confessed that he had no idea what sexual harassment meant—nor should he, at nine years old, unless he’s inadvertently committing it.
If his own account of this event is to be believed, he most certainly wasn’t. He wasn’t even skirting an inappropriate line. Sexual harassment involves intimidation, coercion, and unwelcome advances of a sexual or solicitous nature. It can be subtle. It can be unintentional. It can result in misunderstanding. But under no circumstances is the one-time description of a teacher as “cute”—or even as “fine,” as the school’s official letter claims—an example of it.
Now that Emanyea has been told that it is, now that he has been formally accused (and convicted, by way of suspension) of sexual harassment, his elementary school is forcing him to confront language, definitions, and situations from which all nine-year-olds should be insulated. They’ve labeled him a delinquent. And perhaps worst of all, they’ve criminalized that most universal of childhood experiences: a crush.
Post-millennial black boys are having a hard enough time developing healthy and untainted attitudes about love, relationships, and sex. In fact, if the ubiquitous studies and statistics on these matters have any validity, we all are. In an age when, by most accounts, academics, news anchors, and psychologists are routinely stacking the odds against him reaching adulthood with his optimism intact, the last thing Emanyea Lockett needs is his elementary school telling him that it’s dangerous to call someone cute.