The Bias Against Black Girls in America’s Schools Needs to End

The National Women’s Law Center has produced an excellent video* about how black girls are denied their right to education by being subjected to a potent combination of racism plus sexism in schools.  In short, black girls shoulder some of the greatest burdens that come with both race and sex because we, as a collective society, have not gotten our shit together.  Bias against black girls in America’s schools is real, and it is deeply unfair.

The video is a part of their larger project to bring awareness to the reality that girls of color are frequently punished  harshly for their conduct and appearance in ways that their white peers are not.  The facts are disheartening:

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from the #LetHerLearn Toolkit

Columbia and UCLA law professor, Executive Director of the African-American Policy Forum, and all-around incredible thinker Kimberle Crenshaw pushed this issue to the forefront in 2015 when she published “Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected” as a part of the AAPF’s #BlackGirlsMatter initiative.  As a part of the launch, AAPF also published an incredible webinar — below — to go over the major findings of the report and to discuss the issue at length with some of the leading voices in the field on this issue.

For those of you with school-aged children or with a special interest in education, I recommend finding the hour and a half to watch and really digest the video.  For those of you with less time, the NWLC has created a toolkit which anyone can use to examine their own school and also can be provided to school principals in order to help them weed out the unconscious (and potentially conscious) biases that can give rise to unfair learning conditions.

How does bias against black girls infect schools?

Unconscious biases often play out in (1) dress codes (and other appearance-based restrictions like hair and makeup rules), (2) punishments for “attitude” rather than conduct, and (3) punishments for sexual conduct.  This is because the racist and sexist infrastructures that we have to fight in workplaces, political arenas and on the streets don’t evaporate and the school-house doors.

For example, pervasive stereotypes sexualize women of color (e.g. Latina women are fiery and passionate, Asian women are submissive and available, Black women are promiscuous and immodest) and valorize white women (e.g. white women are pure, chaste and innocent) color the way that teachers and administrators view and assess the students in their schools.  Similarly, racist stereotypes and tropes (e.g. black women are angry, uppity and disrespectful) infect how teachers and administrators think about and process negative, neutral and positive interactions with young women.   So when teachers can discipline students for their “attitude” rather than their conduct, they are more likely to see problems with black girls than with white girls.  When teachers police sexual mores, they are more likely to punish girls — especially black girls.

This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be rules regarding the choices, verbal and physical, that students make.  There should.  But there is a difference between a student being written up for saying something objectively inappropriate (the student said “F@*# you, f#*@ this class and f$(@ your rules”) and for saying something in a way that was subjectively objectionable (the student’s tone, demeanor, facial expressions). And, while this should be obvious, there shouldn’t be steeper punishments for students who say, dress or act in similar ways but happen to be female or black.

And remember, the stakes here are high.  Bias against black girls in America’s schools doesn’t just put their educational opportunities at risk; the stress from encountering bias like this has long-lasting health effects for themselves and for any babies they may one day carry.

I get the theory, but does this really happen?  In real life?

As a former teacher and teacher trainer, I personally can attest to how often students (mine and other) — virtually all of them — expressed displeasure or unhappiness with an assignment, a project, me or their day/week/life.  Kids do this stuff.  The problem is that in schools that don’t affirmatively check their biases, normal kid stuff is policed very differently.   If Sally is white, when she sighs, slouches and rolls her eyes, the teacher may shoot a disapproving look and move on with the lesson or, if time permits and there seems to be an underlying emotional issue that day, engages with understanding and empathy to figure out what is going on with the student.  If Sally is black, when she sighs, slouches, and rolls her eyes, the teacher escalates — imposing correction and discipline for the “bad attitude.”  This isn’t just bad teaching strategy (it is); it is also racist.

One more example.  Imagine that a group of students — boys and girls — come into the classroom one morning, practicing a dance to a new, popular song.  The ways our biases shape how teachers experience that conduct can be quite stark.  The boys may be quickly told to quit “horsing around” and told to get to their seats.  The experience of their conduct is through the lens that boys are active and full of energy.  The girls have an added layer of sex policing, and the conduct is imbued with additional meaning.  As such, the teacher may view this as dangerous sexualized behavior.  For white girls, this may result in a private or semi-private admonishment about age-appropriate conduct and protecting themselves from predators.  But for black girls, this may result in something more.  They may be viewed and punished as ringleaders for introducing inappropriate and promiscuous behavior, written up for sexualizing the schoolroom, etc.  And this isn’t just conjecture; this is something I saw play out in classrooms more than once.  Again, that’s not just bad teaching; that’s teaching everyone in the room that racism and sexism have a rightful place in our society.

* It is currently in the running for the best non-profit video award from doGooder, and you can go vote for it if you are so inclined.



Katherine Kimpel

Kate Kimpel is the Senior Editor of Shattering the Ceiling and is also an accomplished civil rights lawyer. She represents women and people of color in discrimination cases (and other kinds of employment and civil rights matters).  When not lawyering, she likely is bragging about her hound dog Ulysses, inventing cocktails to serve at her next dinner party, or convincing her husband to watch reruns of a Joss Whedon television show (any of them will do). 

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