More role models for Black boys in school won’t fix anything if we continue to overlook Black girls
Black boys don’t live in a vacuum. Black girls are here too, dealing with the same problems and more.
By Brittani McNeill
It is common knowledge that Black children are on the low end of an ever widening racial achievement gap in this country. It’s even becoming more widely acknowledged that systemic problems and institutional neglect, as opposed to simply personal or even parental shortcomings, lead to this problem. An examination of this achievement gap has lead to years of research and commentary. But too often, a large group is left out of these conversations—Black girls.
A recent article in the Education Post highlighted the idea that Black boys don’t need more discipline, they need mentors, specifically mentors who look like them. Another recent article addressed the need for Black boys to have Black male teachers. While I agree wholeheartedly with these assessments (although I’d substitute the word “punishment” for “discipline” in the case of the former), I couldn’t help but wonder why Black girls were, again, left out of these conversations.
Nothing in these articles was specific to boys—the latter even used research that included all Black students and all Black teachers, regardless of gender. So why not make the conversation about all Black kids?
Black girls are punished and suspended at sky-high rates, not pushed or guided to reach their full academic potential by teachers and guidance counselors (who often focus on grooming them socially, if focusing on them at all), and are often labeled as having an attitude as opposed to having their needs and struggles identified and addressed. Even conversations and initiatives to help Black children sometimes label Black girls as the problem—for example, blaming when Black boys act out on teenage mothers—while offering no intervention or assistance to those girls.
If indeed young mothers were the root of the problems Black boys face [fun fact: they aren’t], wouldn’t the girl children of these mothers need help too? What are we saying to the young men who are creating these children when we treat them as victims of their own behavior [and don’t treat girls the same way]? What about their impact on the lives of the young ladies they impregnate? What about their role in the lives of the children they leave behind, including the girls? Ironically, girls and women are simultaneously blamed and ignored, then left behind to figure out how to survive and thrive on their own.
Do Black boys need, and deserve, intervention? Absolutely. But Black girls are just as much [if not more] in need of mentorship – including male mentorship – as Black boys.
As an educator, I have seen firsthand how easily Black girls are stereotyped and isolated, and worse, forgotten. Discarded. I’ve worked in programs in which white and Hispanic girls were outright bullies, and punishment for their behavior never escalated beyond my classroom, while Black girls, with known family issues and trauma, were completely removed from the program for similar behavior and fewer incidents. Research proves that my observations aren’t isolated. Black students are continually disciplined more often, and more harshly, than their white peers for similar behavior. And this pattern is the same regardless of diversity in schools, socioeconomic status, and gender.
Research in a 2014 study showed that “Black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.” This extends to Black girls. While people generally view Black boys as older and less innocent starting at age 10, a report entitled “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood” similarly revealed that American adults think Black girls know more about adult topics and sex than white girls of the same age, starting at age five. This “adultification” leads to Black girls being disciplined much more often and more severely than white girls, in schools and in the juvenile justice system. Black girls are also suspended at higher rates than girls of any race and most boys. The authors of the report called for additional study as well as support for Black girls to combat adults’ negative stereotypes.
We perpetuate the denial of childhood innocence within the Black community when we label even little girls as “grown” for minor things, such as wearing their hair straight [as opposed to styles thought to be more “appropriate,” like pigtails or cornrows]. This continues through their teenage years as they discover their voices, their sexuality, and all the things that make them human. All things that white girls are able to do without being forever labeled or discarded.
According to Special Education Specialist Karissa V. Garmon, M.A. Ed.H.D., who authored a report entitled Inequitable and Anti-Racist Discipline Practices, Zero Tolerance, and Teacher Bias: Criminalizing Black Girls in Urban School Settings, Black girls in urban school settings are impacted by racist and discriminatory discipline policies and practices that “criminalizes them and too often strips them of an innocence they far too frequently aren’t given permission to have… This creates spaces (physical and emotional) that aren’t safe for school aged Black girls to grow and learn at an equitable rate as their White and Latina counterparts.” Her research backs this up. Black girls are suspended at a twelve percent higher rate than white and Latina girls.
Black boys don’t live in a vacuum. Black girls are here too, dealing with the same problems and more. Black girls live with the same violence and trauma that Black boys do, in addition to the fear and vulnerability of being female in a patriarchal society. We often forget that the #metoo movement was started for Black girls. If Black boys in urban environments deal with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of exposure to violence, we must consider that Black girls carry this and the weight of being silenced, sexualized, sexually harassed, and sexually abused throughout their childhoods.
It is the intersection of Blackness and femaleness that creates a unique, and often terrifying, experience for Black girls.
Garman notes in her report:
In March of 2015, Diverse Issues in Higher Education published an article entitled ‘Black Girls Matter’ and it introduced the notion that Black girls often face circumstances in the form of trauma, sexual assault and violence in the home at much higher rates than other girls in their age and grade bracket. Cooper [the author] went on to explain how in many cases, Black girls are caretakers in their home and those pressures often manifest in the classroom as well.
But even one of the most prominent campaigns aimed at helping young people of color overlooked these issues and purposely ignored and excluded young women. The Obama administration received criticism about its “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative which targeted boys and young men of color. In response, the administration suggested that any concerns for young women could be handled under the White House Council on Women and Girls, ignoring the fact that initiatives targeting women and girls also lack intersectionality and the focus needed to address issues that non-white girls and young women face. The program, which was already flawed for its bootstraps rhetoric and focus on personal choices rather than systemic barriers, perpetuated stereotypes that Black girls and women don’t need the same investment and opportunity as Black boys and men.
I’m not here to compete in the oppression olympics, but this erasure of Black girls is too common and too harmful to continue to ignore. These attitudes follow Black kids into adulthood. When Black girls are labeled as problems for Black boys—both as partners and as parents—and not seen as whole people who also deserve attention and intervention, then Black girls become disposable.
This allows Black boys and men to be absolved of any responsibility for their behavior toward Black girls, making Black girls more vulnerable. A commitment to real restorative justice [not just lip service]—and further, a commitment to ending the criminalization of Black children—in our schools and our communities is admirable. But if we are to protect and empower our children, and in turn strengthen Black communities, we must remedy the fact that these conversations leave out the needs of Black girls.
It was encouraging to see a Black man address the need to steer our boys clear of toxic masculinity in the Education Post article. Even attempting to get men to admit that toxic masculinity exists can be an exercise in futility, so imagining a generation of Black boys that are taught healthy ways to process their experiences and express their feelings is exciting, even if difficult. As exciting was the suggestion that educators receive therapeutic support as part of their jobs.
Imagine healthy and whole adults helping children navigate difficult environments and circumstances. Imagine Black kids with access to role models who are invested, energetic, and supported by their administration, school boards, and communities. We would live in a different world! And we know that Black students perform better when they have Black teachers and mentors. So in no way should we take our focus away from attaining this kind of reality for Black boys. There’s just no reason for our efforts to exclude Black girls.
Brittani McNeill is a writer and musician currently based in Baltimore, Maryland. She holds degrees in journalism and voice performance from East Carolina University, Morgan State University, and Peabody Conservatory (Johns Hopkins University).