Patrisse is 12 years old the first time she is arrested. It is the summer after seventh grade and, despite attending Millikan (the school for gifted children) during the year, she is back in Van Nuys for remedial math and science courses. Unlike Millikan, this school has metal detectors and police. Patrisse smokes marijuana in the bathroom during school one day to cope with the stress, something her peers at Millikan do regularly with no consequences.
The presence of metal detectors and police at a school that is mostly made up of low-income students of color, compared to the lack of security at Patrisse’s majority-white and wealthy school, again suggests that police are being used as a tool to control people of color rather than to keep them safe.
Someone must have told on Patrisse, because two days later, a police officer handcuffs her in front of her class before taking her to the dean’s office and searching her bag and her clothes. Despite having no marijuana on her, she is forced to call her mother and tell her what happened. Patrisse lies, and her mother takes her side. Later, at home, Cherice does not ask her about it, tell her she loves her, or get angry. Patrisse does not judge her for this; her kids are safe, which is enough for her.
Unlike her white peers, Patrisse is handcuffed and taken out of class for smoking marijuana—another example of police disproportionately targeting Black people. Reflecting on her mother’s lack of concern afterward, Patrisse sees how Cherice is doing her best to keep her kids safe. Though she perhaps wishes her mother would be more emotionally involved in her life, she empathizes with the fact that Cherice is a single parent trying to keep her head above water.
Middle school is a culture shock because of race and class differences, but also because, before then, Patrisse had been seen as gifted. Her fourth-grade teacher gave a book about a Black girl traveling through the Jim Crow South and allowed Patrisse to teach the class about the book. Patrisse related to the terror the main character felt—police in full riot gear had recently raided her home, tearing through the house in search of her favorite uncle, who sold drugs. Unlike on television, the police were not kind to her and her young siblings, instead treating them like suspects. Patrisse presented on this book (and others) to her class, wanting her peers to see how their terror was connected to history.
The Jim Crow period in U.S. history (the 1870s through 1965) was marked by laws that mandated racial segregation in the South. Though Patrisse was born after Jim Crow had ended, she sees how Black people are still mistreated today. Like the little girl in the story, she fears being violently attacked because she is Black, not by racist Southerners but by police in LA.
Patrisse can’t take the bus to Millikan, so her mother borrows a car from Cynthia, their 19-year-old neighbor who has a child and is paralyzed from the waist down after being shot in a drive-by shooting. (Cynthia has been involved with Monte and will eventually give birth to Patrisse’s nephew Chase.) Her car is a beaten-up station wagon with no back windows. Being dropped off in that car, surrounded by her peers’ fancy cars, Patrisse is ashamed of her family’s class position for the first time. She asks Cherice to drop her off before the entrance but feels conflicted about it.
Patrisse’s shame about her mother dropping her off in a rundown car shows that, at this age, she believes that being poor means something is wrong with her or her family, rather than indicating that something is wrong with their society (a position that will shift as she heads to high school). By introducing Cynthia, Patrisse starts to tell the stories of Black people with disabilities who experience multiple, intersecting types of oppression.
Patrisse doesn’t fit in with the white kids who smoke marijuana at Millikan or the Black girls who want to be famous. People think she is weird, but she just feels like herself: a Black girl from a Mexican community who loves poetry, reading, and dancing. She befriends a white boy named Mikie and wants to show him her home. Though her mother is ashamed of their home (she grew up middle-class before being disowned by her parents), Patrisse isn’t. When not at Millikan, she feels no shame at all—she loves her community because it’s what she knows. When Mikie visits, he notices the ambulances and peeling paint and says, without malice, “I didn’t think you lived like this.” Patrisse doesn’t respond, and things are different after that.
That it takes a white outsider to draw attention to the ways that Patrisse’s home and community are less than ideal shows how accustomed Patrisse has become to living in subpar conditions—this is how all of the Black and Latinx people she knows live. Again, race is shown to be the differentiating factor in people’s quality of life. Still, Patrisse loves her community despite its flaws; though the world treats her family and neighbors as disposable, she refuses to.
At Millikan, Patrisse feels unsure of herself for the first time. Her grades drop, and she feels like she is on her own, like she has “become a thing to be discarded.” Her brothers learn about their own expendability while being overly policed in the streets, labeled “super-predators” based on their race. Patrisse learns this at school and will not enjoy school again until, as an adult, she pursues a degree in religion in order to become a minister.
Patrisse feeling that she has “become a thing to be discarded” is directly related to being one of the only Black girls at a majority-white school. While police make her brothers feel like their lives do not matter, teachers, administrators, and peers make her feel this way, showing that racism is not just something police perpetuate but something that schools and other institutions do too. The phrase “super-predator” was introduced in legislation in the 1990s to describe particularly violent young people who deserved longer prison sentences; Patrisse believes that the popularization of this term led to an increase in racial profiling.
Research has shown that 12 percent of Black girls in the U.S. receive at least one suspension during their time in school, while white girls are suspended at a rate of 2 percent. This fits with Patrisse’s experience: white people at Millikan use drugs far more than her friends at her neighborhood schools, yet those schools were full of officers in Kevlar and drug-sniffing dogs. News stories about Black girls being thrown from their seats by School Safety Officers and being threatened with expulsion for wearing their hair natural prove that they’re seen as disposable. Like some of these girls, Patrisse learns at 12 years old that “being Black and poor defined me more than being bright and hopeful and ready.” Tamir Rice was also 12 when a police officer only hesitated for two seconds before killing him.
Black female students are disproportionately punished for behavior that white female students also engage in, which Patrisse uses as evidence of the pervasiveness of institutional racism. Patrisse intentionally shares statistics about Black girls to raise awareness of the fact that it’s not just Black boys and men who are unjustly punished. In stating that being Black and poor defined her more than being hopeful and ready, Patrisse challenges the idea of personal responsibility—her experience of struggling in school was less about her work ethic or preparedness and more about her marginalized identities. Patrisse learns this at the young age of 12, the same age Tamir Rice was in 2014, when he was killed while playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park.