You aren’t you all the time, no one is. Trayvon Martin was a teenager interested in aeronautical science to those who knew him. But to George Zimmerman, he was a potential criminal. To the world, Aaliyah was a 15-year-old aspiring singer in 1994. In that same token, unfortunately, she was seen as a potential wife to a 27-year-old R. Kelly. In The Chi, this insidious manipulation of one’s true identity and their public perception is the bedrock of some of the saddest parts of this week’s episode.
In an act that’s repulsive in its brazenness, Ricky (Levenix Riddle), the adult track coach dating the underage Keisha, shows up to Sonny’s fried chicken restaurant with another teenage girl under his arm and smug confidence soiling his face. It’s when Emmett tells Rick that the track coach appears to be used to playing with kids and games—all from behind the counter taking his order—that we get a glimpse into the source of his confidence in taking an underage girl on a date in a popular public restaurant. After Ricky sends the young girl away, he tells Emmett, “Whatever you think this is, it’s not,” affirming that he dates underage girls in public based on how much he can control public perception, and he’s partially right.
When Emmett points out the situation to Sonny, Sonny gets furious and is ready to call the police while Ricky is still in the restaurant because “you’re supposed to when you see a crime in progress.” Although Sonny’s reaction is noble, when Emmett tells him the girl his date is probably no older than 15, Sonny incredulously responds by saying “she looks older than my 19-year-old granddaughter.” So, before Emmett told Sonny anything, the young girl’s appearance made Sonny believe she was old enough to be around a man like Ricky without it being suspicious.
As is true for most of the story arcs on The Chi, this mirrors a reality many have lived in Chicago. Gerald Gaddy, former track coach at Chicago high school Simeon Career Academy, was convicted in 2016 of sexually assaulting two girls on the school’s track team, ages 16 and 17, at the school. Similar to Ricky, Gaddy hid his illegal acts in plain sight under a duplicitous public image. Gaddy was referred to as Coach Babyface by students and would walk around the halls holding hands with one of the young girls. He was so confident that while sharing an office with a wrestling coach at the school he would not lock his office door when engaging in his sexual abuse, even in the presence of other coaches. It’s hard to believe men like Gaddy and Ricky could flaunt their ephebophilia in public without repercussions solely based on the image they presented to the world and not also the public’s perception of young black girls.
Young black girls have historically had their identities inextricable from the perception of others. The Center on Poverty and Inequality and Professor Jamilia J. Blake of Texas A&M University surveyed 325 adults from different racial, ethnic, educational backgrounds, and localities about their perception of black and white girls. The study concluded that black girls are viewed by adults as “less innocent and more adult-like than white girls of the same age, especially between 5-14 years old.” During that period of time, at the age of seven, black girls are also more than twice as likely to develop breasts than their white counterparts, according to a nine-year study of 444 girls from the San Francisco Bay area between the ages 6-8 conducted by Dr. Julianna Deardorff and Dr. Louise Greenspan.
This misperception of their maturity is likely why there have been black girls in elementary schools who have been handcuffed and removed from class by police for throwing temper tantrums, like kindergartner Salecia Johnson in 2012. Based on Sonny’s surprise at the age of Ricky’s companion, it’s likely the early physical development of black girls, compared to most girls from other racial backgrounds, prompts even well-intentioned people like Sonny to deem them adults in their mind. Consequently, this public misperception black girls’ age and maturity allows predators like Ricky in The Chi and Gaddy in real life to feel confident in their actions.
In this episode, we don’t get to see the effects Ricky’s sexual abuse has on the young girls outside of a few discomforted facial expressions from Keisha after she tells Emmett that Ricky and her broke up. But The Chi being so inextricable from the reality it draws inspiration from makes it difficult not to draw parallels. To the shock of her family, one of the girls Gaddy sexually abused considered committing suicide. Her appearance may have belied a dark trauma burrowed deep inside her that almost manifested in her taking her life; perhaps one that Keisha, who had an emotional breakdown following the death of her father, may be harboring.
Brandon and Kevin also deal with their own battles between who they really are and who they show the world. Brandon learns of his connection with the 63rd Street Mob in last week’s episode and is adamant about not being a willing participant of the gang. Yet, when Emmett asks him for help with Ricky, he connects him with one of the gang’s leaders, Reg, to scare Ricky away from dating underage girls. Similarly, Kevin reveals that he refuses to go to the prestigious Chicago North Side Academy because he doesn’t want to be perceived as a sell-out. What results from Brandon’s actions may come later. For Kevin, those consequences came thunderously from a leather belt on his backside courtesy of his mother, in his principal’s office, after the young man told her wasn’t “f**king going” to the school.
While watching Kevin walk out of that butt whooping sore and rubbing his backside is one of the few sources of levity in this episode, it’s safe to assume that a number of The Chi characters’ public appearances and personal identities will clash, with potentially irreparable effects, in the season’s finale next week.