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Opinion: Stop Policing Black Joy in Senior Prom Send-Offs

In a society where Black youth are not celebrated, families are entitled to splurge sometimes to make them feel special.
Image: Teenagers in a limousine
Teenagers in a limousineHill Street Studios / Getty Images/Blend Images

It’s senior prom send-off season again. For many Black families this ritual is a way to turn a ceremonial moment in their high schooler’s life into a community celebration.

In neighborhoods across the country, you can expect to see cookouts, elaborate red carpet roll-outs, rented luxury cars and more as people honor a Black youth’s unofficial transition into adulthood.

Last weekend social media debated one mother’s decision to throw her son a rather expensive and unusual prom send-off in North Philly.

The “Dubai-to-Philly” themed send-off featured a ton of real sand, a camel, 3 rented foreign sports cars, and other expenses that cost her whopping $25,000.

Although, I personally felt the theme was borderline offensive (The holy Quran being turned into a cake, the son having three female dates to accessorize his three outfit changes), the intent behind her choice to celebrate her son isn’t -- but some online spectators weren’t having it.

My social media timeline was filled with folks critiquing her spending habits online and proposing better ways she could have spent her hard earned money. Some tried to argue that this plays into the stereotype that Blacks are conspicuous consumers. But there is a blatant double standard when it comes to scrutinizing how Black families celebrate their children in comparison to other cultures.

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The first time I ever wore a tuxedo was for my prom. My family hosted a dope prom send-off celebration that included mocktails, fancy hors d'oeuvres, and a new Mercedes Benz they rented as nearby neighbors cheered me on for an evening I would never forget.

Although I grew up in a lower-middle class background, my family saved up so that I could have this special moment. It was one way to further encourage me in a world that often did not. I was the senior class president and valedictorian of my high school and they made it a point to not let an opportunity to celebrate such Black excellence go unnoticed.

Years later, I automatically get excited to see images of Black youth dressing up and just exulting pure joy. In my neighborhood, I make it a point to come out and cheer these kids on for simply surviving and thriving in spaces where they are often criminalized and discouraged.

A prom-send off symbolizes a moment when Black neighborhoods can look to the future and temporarily escape the burdens of their everyday struggles. Too often, such communities are coming together to mourn a loss or something more devastating. But a prom send-off is a rare occasion to break this cycle of trauma and uplift community.

Unfortunately, some people just can’t seem to understand that. Somehow we forget to notice the cultural double standards we set for Black families in comparison to others.

For example, when Jewish families throw elaborate Bar Mitzvahs for their sons -- we often don’t see a huge fuss about the financial decisions made by them to put together such a pricey affair.

The same can be said for when white people break the bank for Sweet 16 bashes -- we were amazed so much by this phenomenon that we allowed it to air as a television series.

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But as Latinos put on huge Quinceañeras for teenager girls that go unnoticed by mainstream media, Black families get the brunt of criticism publicly for embracing their children.

This is why I don’t take the critiques of prom send-offs seriously because they are a form of racial paternalism that dates back to slavery. Black people are always being told how to walk, talk, dress, act, and spend their money in a world that oppresses us no matter how much we play by the rules.

A prom send-off will not further Black poverty, unaddressed systems of financial inequity continuing will. Black parents occasionally splurging on their children just as much as other cultures do is not a sign that their priorities are uneven -- but that they are just as human as anyone.

Black joy shouldn’t be policed to just appeal to others’ rigid standards of respectability.

Translation: let Black people live, joyfully.

Ernest Owens is an award-winning multimedia journalist and editor for Philadelphia Magazine's G Philly. The National Association of Black Journalists will be awarding Owens their 2017 Emerging Journalist of the Year award. Chat with him on Twitter @MrErnestOwens.

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