Review of My Girls: The Power of Friendship in a Poor Neighborhood By Jasmin Sandelson, Oakland CA: University of California Press. 2023. 311 pp.

Reviewed Book

My Girls: The Power of Friendship in a Poor Neighborhood By Jasmin Sandelson, Oakland CA: University of California Press. 2023. 311 pp.

Cover of My Girls (2023)

Erin V. Moore

The Ohio State University

As an ethnographer who has spent over a decade working with teenage women in Kampala, Uganda, I was excited to read Jasmin Sandelson’s My Girls: The Power of Friendship in a Poor Neighborhood. Based on fieldwork conducted over 4 years in the mid-2010s, My Girls follows a group of teenage women as they progress through high school in North Cambridge, Massachusetts. Most of the young women are Black, most are immigrants or daughters of immigrants, and all but one reside in public housing. Race, immigrant status, and poverty shape these young women’s worlds. At the same time, like teenagers seemingly anywhere, the women in My Girls move in and out of romances, fret over college applications, experiment with drinking and drugs, and form the extra-familial social bonds—friendships—through which, according to classical theories of developmental psychology, they become autonomous adults.

In this sense, My Girls joins a rich tradition of coming-of-age ethnography. If, through its depiction of young women’s sexual awakening, Coming of Age in Samoa taught us that the turbulence of adolescence is hardly universal, My Girls shows us that the transition to womanhood must now be understood, at least in part, by how it unfolds online. The ethnography tacks between theatrically rendered vignettes, drawn from participant observations and research subjects’ retellings of events, and presentations of Tweets and Facebook posts. In a post-conclusion chapter on research and writing, Sandelson describes her use of social media as both methodological tool, used for developing relationships with interlocutors, and cultural artifact, used as evidence of young women’s social networks and inner worlds. These reflections on social media may be useful for those helping students develop toolkits for digital ethnography.

A recent college graduate herself when she began her fieldwork, Sandelson trained in sociology at Harvard, which is important to mention for its relevance to her various positionalities as a researcher. For example, for much of her PhD program, Sandelson lived across the street from the housing project where her interlocutors resided in North Cambridge. It is also important to mention because My Girls engages nearly exclusively with sociological literatures and methodologies.

My Girls key argument is with a body of sociological work published mostly in the early 1990s that sees teenage peer groups as dangerous, as networks of contagion for “risk behaviors.” My Girls, by contrast, argues that friendships offer unparalleled social and material support for Black young women in poor neighborhoods. Drawing upon the writing of bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins, My Girls further theorizes Black girls’ friendships as political, as resources for managing and responding to the traumas of anti-Black misogyny.

This argument would have been even more exciting if the text had departed from sociology to engage with the strong and growing field of Black girlhood studies. At least two generations of scholars since hooks and Collins have brought Black feminist theory to bear on the everyday lives (and online worlds) of Black girls in the United States and beyond; key volumes include: The Black Girlhood Studies Collection (edited by Aria S. Halliday, Canadian Scholars Press, 2019) and The Global History of Black Girlhood (edited by Corinne T. Field and LaKisha Michelle Simmons, University of Illinois Press, 2022). While the existence of a “well established field of girlhood studies” is mentioned in a footnote, My Girls claims to be responding to a “dearth” of scholarship on urban Black girls (228–9, n. 28). But engaging with Black girlhood studies scholars, who have theorized how Black girls defy categorizations, imagine futures, and make place for themselves, would have made arguments about the power of Black girls’ friendships even stronger.

Another key argument in My Girls will appeal to those interested in adolescent mental health in the digital era. To widespread evidence of social media’s detrimental effects for young people, My Girls offers a rejoinder: the young women in its pages used public posts on Twitter and Facebook to praise and support one another, building each other’s self-confidence and feelings of solidarity within the friend group. One particularly moving case for the benefits of social media involves a young woman who found space online to grieve the untimely death of her brother, especially as the IRL world seemed to continue apace around her. As Sandelson notes, however, she concluded her fieldwork before Instagram, and before TikTok, so the empowering components of social media she identified may be tied to a now-bygone digital era. I also wondered about young women, and men, who may have been ostracized online, or simply had different online experiences than dozen or so women in the study. In her chapter on research and writing, Sandelson notes that her “close focus on a small number of participants also left me unable to compare social dynamics among the NC girls with those among other teens” (211). While the idea that a “small-N” precludes comparison may be accepted by qualitative sociologists, contextualizing data collected among small groups of people is of course, fundamental to anthropological claim-making. Some more generalized framing of social media experiences among young people, either in North Cambridge or North America, may have helped to situate and strengthen the book’s claims about social media’s benefits for teenagers.

So too would have asking young people to reflect upon their use, understanding, and experience of social media. Would they have agreed that Facebook and Twitter “gave young women space and voice” and were “revolutionary for women marginalized by racism and sexism,” as Sandelson argues (189)? Perhaps. But social media are not necessarily archives of human actors’ inner feelings, nor are they transparent representations of actors’ intentions—they are curated. Sandelson describes one young woman who, after declaring newfound sobriety in person, posted photos sipping liquor online. This seeming duplicity should raise further questions: which audiences does this young woman envision for her contradictory self-presentations, and why? My Girls puts forward the provocative counterpoint that social media benefits young women, but it also shows the importance for more nuanced ethnographic interpretation to understand how and why they use it.

For those interested in the education trajectories of minoritized youth, most compelling in My Girls are Sandelson’s descriptions of what happens when her interlocutors go on to colleges that are not set up to support them socially (Part 3, “After Graduation”). With careful detail and compassion, Sandelson shows how the turns these young women’s lives take have dire consequences for their studies. These turns are not dissimilar from those of their middle-class, white classmates: they miss their friends; their romantic relationships at home break up; they lose loved ones; their homework is harder than they had anticipated. But, when these social adjustments are compounded by feelings of alienation—being the only Black woman in a dorm of white students, for example—and often explicit experiences of racism, their mental health and thus academic performance suffers immensely. Comparing her several case studies with national statistics that show young people of color start college but struggle to stay enrolled and finish undergraduate degrees, Sandelson makes a strong case for the need for college programs and policies that attend to the social health of students of color. It would be interesting to compare these findings with those in sociologist Micere Keels’s book, Campus Counterspaces (2020, Cornell University Press). Keels found a sharp contrast between narratives about the vulnerability of marginalized students and students’ claims for “counterspaces,” safe spaces where they could both validate and challenge dominant representations of their marginalized identities.