I chose to make the first installment of this blog series about changing the Black girl narrative when it comes to education. With the current political and social climate in our country, it’s essential that we begin taking the initiative to change the narrative of future Black girls everywhere from an early age; where these narratives often start. It is at this young age where opinions and thoughts of oneself begin to emerge, and far too often we witness the adverse effects of inequality start during the school years.
It should go without saying, that racism and intolerance are things that are taught. Children are born free of feelings of superiority or inferiority, these are learned through the example of their parents or caregivers. It’s not in a child’s nature to be hateful or prejudiced, rather a learned behavior that goes against our natural ability to be “good.” When children reach school age, about five, for the most part, they’ve shaped some sort of opinion of themselves and the world around them, based off of various experiences and interactions.
The Black Girl Narrative
When children enter school, it’s a real test of the values that have been instilled at home. Here is where the narrative differs for young Black girls. Where one girl of a different ethnicity may be encouraged to speak her mind at school, a young Black girl might be told to not “talk back.” Why is this? Is it because the parents of the Black girl don’t believe that their daughter should have a voice? No, of course not! Most likely, these parents themselves were raised in a similar school system, and they understand the challenge that their young daughter is about to face.
I’m sure we’re all familiar with the derogatory term “angry Black woman.” This term is an ugly box that too many Black women get put in every day. Why? Because she spoke her mind. Serena Williams was labeled an “angry Black woman” when she stood up for herself last year at the U.S. Open final. Maxine Waters, a U.S. House representative, was called “crazy” by President Trump for speaking out against him. Former and forever First Lady Michelle Obama spoke on being called an “angry Black woman” while on the campaign trail.
All of us that get put in this angry, uncivilized box didn’t start out as angry Black women – no, we began by being labeled angry Black GIRLS. This box exists from the moment we are able to think and speak for ourselves. Young Black girls are put in this box when they are told they’re “talking back,” “have an attitude,” or are even labeled as aggressive.
This notion that Black girls are hyper-aggressive can be seen in the way that schools discipline these girls. In the U.S. According to U.S. News, Black girls are twice more likely to be suspended than any other ethnic group in every state. This higher rate of suspension begins as early as pre-school, with Black girls making up 20% of students, but 54% of suspensions. These shocking statistics aren’t a result of Black girls being less well-behaved than their classmates, but as a report from the National Women’s Law Center states: “this uneven discipline is often the result of deeply ingrained racist and sexist stereotypes that push Black girls out of school.”
The Effect of a Broken System
There it is. The effect of this uneven discipline – it “pushes Black girls out of school.” Now I’m not saying that every Black girl that faces unfairness drops out of school, but this experience leaves a lifelong impression in the minds of these girls and future women. This treatment can leave the impression that “my mind doesn’t matter,” “my thoughts, opinions, and feelings don’t matter,” and that “I don’t matter.” These feelings can cause erode confidence and can hinder motivation and self-worth, creating a ripple effect for the rest of the lives of these women.
These experiences don’t throw everyone off track, in fact, for some, it can serve as motivation. My mother, so graciously handed down her mindset that we (Black women) have to work twice as hard as everyone else. Numerous successful Black women have used their struggles with inequality as motivation, shattering glass ceilings in education and in their careers. Black women are now one of the most educated ethnic groups in the U.S., and we’re seeing political, social, and corporate positions being filled by women of color at an extraordinary rate. This, in itself, is a significant accomplishment and is to be considered a win on behalf of these hard-working women and Black women everywhere.
But there still remains the group of girls that took these experiences a different way and as a result are struggling as adult women. Their children are subjected to the effects of the mistreatment that their mothers endured, thus continuing the wretched cycle that has trapped so many in our community, women who didn’t have the support or opportunity to reach their full potential.
It’s easy for us to sit back and simply feel bad about those who are imprisoned in this cycle, but what’s easy isn’t always what’s right. So many of us are winning but so many of us aren’t, and it’s vital that we lift each other up, so everybody wins. As much as we’d like to rally for reform in schools, it’s key to remember that while we can’t control the world around us, we can “be the change, you wish to see in the world” and become proactive in changing the narrative.
Changing the narrative that Black girls experience is something we can be proactive in by simply encouraging dialogue among ourselves and our girls. Giving our girls tools and setting a strong and confident foundation outside of a school setting will help these girls navigate and conquer a world where we have to work twice as hard. By providing emotional support to these girls, they won’t feel like they are alone and out of choices. We can also change the narrative by changing the things we tell our girls. Instead of giving warnings about “talking back” encourage them to speak their mind in a dignified and respectful manner and if they receive any unfair discipline because of it, be their warrior and talk to the administration on their behalf.
This is just a tip of the iceberg on all the things we can do to change the narrative that Black girls experience. Please comment and share suggestions, experiences, and anything you feel like contributing to this much larger conversation.
“Education is transformational. It changes lives. That is why people work so hard to become educated and why education has always been the key to the American Dream, the force that erases arbitrary divisions of race and class and culture and unlocks every person’s God-given potential.”