Over the weekend I encountered two posts which revealed what children, particularly black children, are being taught in school. It’s not as obvious as a Common Core Curriculum or a teacher’s lesson plan, instead it is the implicit lessons our children are learning from course materials and unfair disciplinary measures that communicate that they are less than equal to their white peers.
I came across this picture on Facebook on Saturday morning. The young woman who posted it didn’t explicitly point out the problems of this penmanship assignment but everyone who commented on her post saw it. I saw it too. Why were the white children happy and proud while the black children were sad and angry? Why was it not the other way around or a mix? Why didn’t the person who created this exercise realize the implicit message this could communicate to all children about the life experiences of their peers? This is not an innocuous assignment but one that could internalize for a child the misguided message that white is synonymous with good and black is synonymous with bad. We already have proof that at a young age, children have ideas about the meaning of whiteness and blackness as Dr. Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s doll test–and the countless iterations of it–indicate. As one Twitter user aptly pointed out:
— zellie (@zellieimani) October 25, 2014
Yesterday morning The Atlantic published a story entitled “The Economic Impact of School Suspensions,” based on a report released in September by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Women’s Law Center. The report provides both qualitative and quantitative data showing the ways in which African-American girls are the victims of unequal and inequitable treatment in the education system. The Atlantic story focused on the finding that African-American girls outpace their white peers in suspensions and, because of these suspensions and other “overly punitive discipline practices,” they suffer in school and sometimes end up impoverished. The story unfolds with Tiambrya Jenkins, a 14-year-old high student who was suspended and placed in a transitional academy after a fistfight with a white student. The white student went back to school after 90 days, but Jenkins ended up at the transitional academy for the rest of the school year. What kept her in the transitional academy so long? “Minor missteps” such as talking out of turn, dress code infractions, and organizational mistakes such as forgetting a notebook. All of these resulted in turning the clock back to 0 on her 90-day suspension and her having to start the process all over again. Two years later Jenkins, once a top math student, returned to high school and couldn’t keep up with her classes because she was so woefully behind. Jenkins’s story is but one example of how disciplinary measures are unfairly meted out to black students versus their white peers. The study also finds that while black female students are suspended more than their white counterparts they actually don’t misbehave more than them. Instead it is cultural misconceptions and stereotypes that set black female students back. Of this the story says,
“Traditional” middle-class notions of femininity, which value passivity in girls, can clash with stereotypical images of African-American females as loud, assertive, and provocative, and generate differing punishments for similar conduct, the authors note. Subjective offenses like “disobedience” or “disruptive behavior” may signify little more than a student’s failure to conform to dominant gender norms or fit a teacher’s view of what constitutes appropriate “feminine” behavior.
The authors of the study state that racial stereotyping and perceptions are not the only reason for negative educational outcomes but they impose “significant barriers to achievement for African-American girls.” Other reasons for negative educational outcomes include the fact that African-American students are disproportionately enrolled in under-resourced schools–schools without quality resources, credentialed teachers, rigorous course offerings, and extracurricular activities; unequal access to STEM learning opportunities; sexual harassment; violence; trauma; early pregnancy and parenting challenges; and discrimination by personnel. Thus we discover that it is no explicit doing on the part of black female students, rather it is cultural misconceptions and incompetence held by teachers and administrators as well as the students social location that creates barriers to equitable access to the education system. A system that makes it clear that privilege shapes access and a black child’s access to a good education will be a hard won for manifold reasons mostly out of their control.
So what can we do when the odds are stacked against our children and they are bombarded by messages of their undesirability and unworthiness for an education on par with their white counterparts? The study offers a number of recommendations in the concluding section entitled, “A Call to Action to Eliminate Educational Disparities for African American Girls” including:
*Address overly punitive disciplinary practices that disproportionately impact African American girls and push them out of school.
*Combat gender-based harassment and violence and ensure that African American girls get the support they need to heal from trauma they experience.
*Improve STEM opportunities and participation among African American girls.
*Require the reporting of data that reflect the needs of African American girls.
*Invest in the future of African American girls.
It is one thing to talk about the challenges that African American girls face in their pursuit of an education and a piece of this so-called American dream, but what is necessary is action and investment in them. I don’t take it lightly that the authors of this report put their recommendations under a section entitled “call to action” because that is what is needed in the battle for equitable education for our children. It is not just the responsibility of parents but of whole communities–those with privilege and without–to take part in creating a more equitable educational space that is not stymied by social and cultural incompetence. “Invest in the future of African American girls,” is the last of the recommendations made in the study and it is time for us to invest in African American girls as much as we invest in African American boys.