I once had a white man tell me that he was disappointed in me for teaching my students about slavery. According to his logic, my little lesson plans were singlehandedly stopping the nation from progressing towards becoming a unified society that doesn’t see color. Not the system of racism upon which this nation was founded, but my middle school lesson plans.
According to him, systemic racism does not exist and “we’re all granted the same opportunities.” That’s a particularly interesting stance considering study after study continues to confirm the very existence of systemic racism and its impact on the oppressed. Of course, racists love to ignore statistics and facts that don’t support their narratives, but that’s a discussion for another day.
In 2017, a report showed racism and bias are literally robbing Black girls of their childhoods. Sadly, the study, which was conducted by the Initiative on Gender Justice and Opportunity at Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, found that not even classrooms were a safe haven for Black and brown girls against the phenomenon known as “adultification bias.” The report’s findings showed Black girls as young as 5 years of age are viewed as less innocent and needing less support than their white counterparts. This erasure of Black girlhood ultimately leads those in authority — teachers, principals, law enforcement — to treat Black girls as if they are older than they are.
Furthermore, discussions with the study’s participants revealed a common trend: “When Black girls express strong or contrary views, adults view them as challenging authority or, more fundamentally, simply assume a girl’s character is just plain ‘bad.’” The girls confessed to often being accused of having “attitudes” or being “aggressive” when simply trying to communicate their point of view to authority figures.
“It’s really striking that in the context of childhood, which is the epitome of innocence, Black girls are not getting the benefits of being viewed as innocent,” Rebecca Epstein, the executive director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, told Vox.
“Black women and girls really attributed the source of this to the historical roots of slavery and the intersectionality of being Black and a woman,” added Jamilia Blake, a Texas A&M professor and a co-author of the report. “These issues didn’t come out of the blue.”
“Bad Black Child”
While there has not been extensive research on the mental and emotional impacts of adultification bias on Black girls, we can presume that the impacts are damaging. Simply talking to the Black girls in your life might reveal onion-like layers of trauma and anxiety stemming from how they’re perceived at school. Take Kate of The Motherie Blog, for example. A recent check-in with her 7-year-old daughter, Lei, uncovered angst about the upcoming school year due to fears of not wanting to be viewed as a “bad Black child.”
While watching cartoons, she asked, “Am I being good today mommy?” Kate admitted to MadameNoire that she was taken aback by the question.
“I said, ‘Yes, but why are you asking me this?’ I was very confused,” the mom blogger explained. “She flat out told me she was worried about her behavior from last school year, and that she doesn’t want to be a bad Black child. She also told me she doesn’t want to go to in-school detention.”
As with many seven-year-olds, Lei — who attends a school with a diverse student body — struggled with managing big emotions last school year. This led to disciplinary action against her and several parent-teacher conferences regarding her conduct, which teachers referred to as both “disruptive” and “troubling.” Interestingly, the outbursts were often in response to other students misbehaving and taunting Lei.
“She’d tell me how they would make funny faces or stick out their tongues and how it upset her. When she would react, she’d get into trouble then would blow up even more after getting into trouble,” Kate explained. “The teacher would call me in, and when I would arrive, it’s the same story of how she was redirected by a teacher and had a tantrum because she reacted to being bothered or she just didn’t follow instruction. This happened frequently.”
While Lei said neither of her teachers had directly referred to her as a “bad Black child,” it’s particularly troubling that a child so young is already hyper-aware of how she is being perceived in proximity to race. Additionally, a minority teacher from Lei’s school pulled Kate aside to let her know that —though students of all ethnicities had tantrums — white staff members were often fearful of Black student tantrums.
As an educator, I believe firm discipline systems are absolutely necessary to maintain order in schools. In fact, I refuse to work at schools that don’t have strong behavioral systems in place. However, I can also attest to the point that fear of Black students often leads to abuse of these disciplinary systems. I’m always particularly perplexed by Caucasian educators — primarily women — who come into Black neighborhoods to teach children whom they’re afraid of. This fear often leads to intolerance and harsh discipline of these students at the slightest demonstration of emotion.
Most educators do not set out with the intention of mistreating children of any race, but unchecked biases and fear can very well lead to an abuse of power.
Statistics show Black girls are nearly six times more likely to be suspended from school than their white counterparts and receive harsher penalties for similar infractions. They are also more likely to be suspended multiple times than students of any other gender or race, according to the African American Policy Forum and Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies. Though Black girls account for a small percentage of the nation’s student population, they make up nearly 40 percent of girls who had multiple out-of-school suspensions during the 2011-2012 school year.
The impact of these biases and heavy-handed consequences are far-reaching. Research has proven that frequent out-of-school suspensions have been linked to lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and fewer college acceptances. This, in turn, can result in fewer job prospects and lower earning potential for Black women, thus continuing cycles of poverty.
“Across all systems, this can have a negative impact,” Blake said. “The individuals who are making these decisions are making high-stakes decisions, if they’re operating under this bias and they’re in decision-making positions, that can have a significant impact on Black girls and, eventually, Black women.”
What Can Parents Do?
There’s no magic pill that will end systemic racism. However, there are measures that can be taken to protect your Black girl against this deeply broken system. For one, frequent check-ins, such as the ones Kate has with Lei, will help to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening at school and how your daughter is coping emotionally. Next, parental involvement in schools goes a long way. It’s always interesting to see the small but relevant differences in the treatment of students with parents who are actively involved in their education in comparison to students with parents who are more passive. Active involvement does not have to look like baking cookies for the next PTA meeting. It can simply mean remaining in correspondence with your child’s teachers on a frequent basis. Most teachers want to partner with you. Lastly, get to know the hierarchical structure of your child’s school district. Who are the people making decisions concerning your Black child? Are these elected positions? When is the next election? Who do these decision-makers report to? What is the appeal process if you don’t stand in agreement with particularly harsh disciplinary action that is taken against your child? Knowing the answers to these questions will place you in a position of empowerment.