On Being A Little Black Girl

Female student reading in the library

Being smart and working hard might never be enough.

Earlier this month, the African-American Policy Forum released a report—entitled Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, And Underprotected—on the treatment of black girls in schools.

According to their research, black girls are suspended six times more than their white peers (while black boys are only suspended three times more than white males), and disproportionately suffer under excessive disciplinary measures in schools.

One story detailed a teacher striking a diabetic and asthmatic student when she nodded off in class, and in Alabama, an 8-year-old girl was arrested for acting out in class. Another girl described school police officers writing tickets for tardiness that led to bench warrants for her arrest.

And while black girls around the country are struggling with these kinds of conditions, they continue to be ignored or neglected at every level. President Obama himself made waves when he issued support for a nationwide initiative that targets black boys only, leaving their female peers at the wayside.

As I read the stories of these girls, I was pulled back to memories of my own black girlhood. Quickly, I recalled various moments that nearly threw me off my path. There was the time I was suspended and kicked out of the school play for not standing against a wall long enough. There were the many times I was sent to the principal’s office for not pledging allegiance to the flag, not walking down the stairs correctly, speaking out of turn, or quietly sitting still and ignoring my teacher out of frustration. I was disciplined for making petitions for better history books in third grade, for writing and directing plays about black history, and had my grades lowered in one high school class where I got perfect scores because the teacher said she didn’t like my attitude (in subsequent meetings, the dean of students admitted that this instructor often had disciplinary issues with black female students). I found myself using books to escape the confines of the classroom and help me survive.

One particular incident, though, stood out.

In the eighth grade, my English teacher assigned the class to write a book jacket description for a book we read. I was inspired by the task, scribbling furiously about the book’s plot, strengths, and characters. What I wrote was good—really good—and I was proud to turn it in. It had been a rough year, dealing with the transition to a new school district and the mounting abuse of my stepdad at home. The simple project had given me a much-needed boost of confidence and satisfaction; I eagerly awaited my teacher’s reaction.

So I was crushed when I finally got my grade, written in black ink over my carefully handwritten text: D+. Later, she begrudgingly explained the grade: “It didn’t sound like your words,” she said.

The sentence hit me like a ton of bricks. I was stunned.

She thought I had cheated. She thought that my own work was too good for me.

The illogics of racism turned even excellence into a symptom of bad behavior. She made me show her the book to prove it was my writing. And, even then, she never apologized—just half-heartedly scratched out the D+ and replaced it with a higher grade. My shining moment, gone with the ease and indifference of her bigotry.

But the horror of that moment stills stays with me, the realization that being smart and working hard might never be enough. I wasn’t sure how I could survive a world that would constantly question my abilities, give me more obstacles than my peers, and then downplay my achievements when I somehow managed to deliver.

I was overwhelmed by the thought of having to be a black girl for the rest of my life.

I was demoted in scholastic level across the board after that horrendous eighth grade year. I was kept out of Advanced Placement classes in English and History throughout high school. And once I graduated high school, I never took another English class again.

It had been my favorite subject.

*****

As I review this latest report on black girls being pushed out of schools across the country, I’m pulled back to my own scholastic moments, these spaces of rupture and uncertainty. I know that despite it all, I still had it so much better than a lot of my black girl peers. I survived with a network of support and drew courage from the teachers and mentors willing to nurture and recognize my strengths.

But these girls are not all making it through. The report explains that most girls are discouraged from school because of the extreme discipline and mistreatment. The presence of police officers in schools provide an added reason to avoid school—in Philadelphia, for example, a police officer sexually assaulted a girl by using security as a pretense to touch her inappropriately. And zero-tolerance discipline policies discourage girls from defending themselves or reporting sexual assault and harassment. In New York City, 90% of all girls expelled from school were black. None were white.

Racism is a national disaster in this country. It robs us of brilliance, ingenuity, and progress. And in a country where policymakers at the highest levels neglect black girls in favor of offering support to their male peers, we continue to undermine the progress of the entire community.

Mentoring black boys doesn’t help black girls raise children alone or trying to attend school while pregnant. Focusing only on black boys doesn’t keep black women from being the group with the fastest growing rates of imprisonment or highest HIV infections. It doesn’t stop the gender bias that disproportionately burdens girls with family and childcare responsibilities at home. “Trickle-down” community building that delivers support to only men and boys doesn’t help black women and girls any better than trickle-down economics helps the poor. And prioritizing black men and boys over black women and girls is simply about putting men first and women last.

As always.

As schools continue to deteriorate, at increasingly rapid rates in the cities in which brown and black children disproportionately reside, I am concerned about the fate of black and brown girls. Our stories are rarely told and so people have learned to think they’re insignificant. Our experiences are minimized and so, too, are our contributions.

I hope this report is a wake-up call to us all. We black women and girls must continue to speak truth to power, even when that power looks like us. There is a crisis happening. And it needs to be dealt with now.

Khadijah Costley White is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.

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