Nandi is a Junior, English major, student staff at the Women’s Center, and member of the Retriever Poets slam poetry team
(Still from Girlhood (2014))
Picture this: It is 7:25AM in your high school. You are a student there again (I know, bare with me). You are barely awake, as is the natural order of things. Then, from the stupor of the morning a voice rings out clear as the lunch bell, “GIRL BYE, YOU PLAY TOO MUCH. SEE YOU, BESTIE”. She strolls into homeroom, late like every day, in pajama pants with an Arizona iced tea firmly in hand. You wonder how she can muster up the will to socialize outside of polite grunts at this hour, and you decide that you’ll just never get it. She is extremely friendly with the teacher while she expertly swoops her baby hairs into little parabolas. Everyone in the room seems on edge. She is so outside of the norm that nobody quite knows how to handle her, so most just settle on annoyance. But really, what makes her so different? Perhaps it is the fact that on a girl who already operates at about a 7-9, darker skin just seems to turn everything up to 11.
Navigating the school system as Black and Brown girls is no easy task. Especially at a predominantly white institution (PWI) that seldom gives you the space to express yourself fully. Seizing the little opportunities that you get to be yourself is so crucial to staying afloat in a system that, due to varying forms of segregation in most places, was built specifically to exclude you. For a lot of girls, and women, that may look like having your favorite snack in your bag, doing beauty rituals every day, or laughing as loud as you possibly can whenever the mood strikes. But again, you are at a PWI so how is all of this being filtered through the white gaze?
Recently on Tik-Tok, the latest video format social media app, teens have been making a barrage of memes about the “Hot Cheeto Girls” at their schools. The jokes range from harmless self-roasts reliant on the Hot Cheeto Girl as a framing device, to downright racist depictions by white teens. Now, memes are memes, but examining the origins of our humor opens us up to exploring our internal biases and unspoken beliefs. The beliefs presented here are somewhat obvious and representative of known implicit biases in the school system. People feel that Hot Cheeto Girls are extraordinarily loud, which is underscored by the belief that these young women should be quiet. Classmates find them mean and abrasive, and we know that Black and Brown women are consistently seen as far more aggressive than their white counterparts. Hot Cheeto Girls are stereotyped as “ghetto”, which places them right in the cross-hairs of ALL the violent discrimination that the term evokes.
Being up against all of this racism, misogyny, and misogynoir and still choosing to be your authentic self takes a lot of confidence. The double-edged sword here is the fact that expressing this confidence daily renders these young women hypervisible. Hypervisibility is the way that people of color are subjected to higher levels of surveillance and judgement, which results in more focus on their shortcomings and failures. Constantly being under the microscope in this way is damaging because it carries over into other areas of life. Being conditioned by the school system and their peers to see themselves as too loud, too disruptive, too aggressive, and deviant just by way of existing in their bodies contributes to lower self-esteem overall. In short, it just isn’t fair to be the butt of everyone’s joke.
(from @whorati0 on TikTok)
I think that there should be more jokes in praise of the Hot Cheeto Girl. I think that we should recognize their inherent joy and infectious laughter. I think that working to cultivate more genuine self-expression in schools at every level is something that we should do more. This world, so wrapped up in oppressive, normative fallacies, would be far more equitable and inclusive if people took the time to challenge their biases before making fun of what is strange to them. Recognizing women of color’s voices, especially when they are loud and excitable, as valuable and vibrant is a small step that all of us in academia can take to realize this goal.