When Jamelia Harris, a researcher at Rutgers University in Newark, set out to study an education system that disproportionately punishes and criminalizes black girls, she looked to girls themselves for answers.
“Adults make the mistake of thinking that we know better than students how to address racial and gender inequalities in our school system. But it’s so important that we center the wisdom and expertise of young people, especially the most marginalized,” says Harris. “We need to ask them about their experiences, inside and outside the school system, about what they think should be done. They are the experts.”
Harris cites extensive research on racist and sexist stereotypes that can lead educators to penalize black girls for being seen as loud, unfeminine, adult and provocative.
According to the US Department of Education and Civil Rights, black girls are punished at a rate four times higher than non-black girls and boys, often for the same offences. She mentions the many social media videos that have gone viral over the past five years showing black girls being physically abused and raped by their teachers, administrators, security guards and police, including a six-year-old girl from Florida who was arrested, handcuffed and charged with battery for throwing a tantrum at school.
“In public schools across the country, the voices of black girls are often silenced and punished, their talents unrecognized and denied; their bodies monitored and over-policed; their most critical needs remain unmet,” wrote Harris, postdoctoral fellow Robert Curvin at the Joseph C. Cornwall Center in Rutgers-Newark.
Learning about the experiences of black girls from their perspective is key to creating change. “They deserve to be treated as partners, as stakeholders and shared collaborators. Their genius and their knowledge must be affirmed in the work of improving our school system,” she argues.
Before the pandemic, Harris spent two years working with an after-school group of 15 “chronically disciplined” black girls at a Southern California high school five minutes from the school she attended in her hometown. “It had the reputation of being a school where there were a lot of discipline problems. I was really drawn to the desire to understand the stories of the students there,” she says.
Together, Harris and the band named their research collaboration The Concrete Rose Project. She drew on their work to outline recommendations and exercises the school implemented to help educators better understand the lives and needs of black girls and how to support them. She compiled the findings in an article titled “When They Can’t See Us: Using Intersectionality to Examine Black Girls’ Discipline Experiences.” It was published in 2022 in the book “Critical Theories for School Psychology and Counseling”, a guide.
Harris thinks educators — the majority of whom are middle-class white women, according to national statistics — need to understand how anti-black racism and sexism intersect to harm the lives and school experiences of black girls. “It is imperative that educators develop an intersectional awareness regarding the nuanced identities of Black girls and the structural forces that shape their daily lives,” Harris wrote.
The Concrete Rose girls had been assigned detentions, suspensions and expulsions. Four have been involved in the justice system due to school discipline, sometimes due to “zero tolerance” policies, including a 15-year-old black girl who brought pepper spray to school because she did not felt unsafe due to sex trafficking in the community and didn’t realize it was against the rules. The band spoke candidly with Harris about his feelings, aspirations, and the obstacles he faced.
Many were motivated students with good grades and dreams of college and successful careers. Five of the girls were honorary students and deeply involved in campus organizations. Some struggled to cope with the pressure of having a family member incarcerated while others navigated foster care, a system that required them to change schools frequently and, in some cases, to assume the responsibility of caring for their younger siblings.
Harris tells the story of Teiera, a 17-year-old cheerleader and straight A student who aspired to be the first member of her family to attend college and become a pediatrician. After being separated from her mother and placed in three different foster homes and changing schools five times, her grades began to suffer and she descended into depression.
For the project, she wrote a note to her teachers, stating, “I want you to know that I’m more than just a black ghetto girl. I am independent, intelligent and trustworthy. I can be distracted sometimes… but I am motivated. In my classes, I want to feel equal and included.”
Another girl, Reigan, shared why she thought black girls were punished at higher rates than others. “No one really takes the time to understand us. No one… understands why we are angry or upset. Instead, they assume we’re just bitter.’
Harsh disciplinary measures can rob black girls of quality learning time, but even those who are not disciplined suffer the consequences. “When you’re constantly told that the way you engage is problematic, you shut up and avoid the vitality that comes with it,” Harris said. She knows this from personal experience.
As a teenager in honors classes where her peers and teachers were mostly white, Harris tried not to draw attention to herself. “I presented in a very passive and calm manner. I was seen as a ‘good black girl’ and it gave me access to opportunities and support that many of my friends, who were black girls enrolled in regular track classes or were considered black “ghetto” girls, “didn’t get it,” she says.
Many educators need a better understanding of black female cultural norms, Harris says. “Among the girls in the Concrete Rose project, volume was often seen as a strength in their communities, as it gave them the capital to survive in a racist and sexist society. For example, challenging an educator who disrespects them would be considered an asset and a strength. Educators need to have a good understanding of who black girls are from a socio-cultural and developmental perspective,” she explains.
Most importantly, black girls deserve spaces to be heard and educators who are committed to listening and respecting them. “They have a right to have their hard-won knowledge nurtured,” Harris wrote. “They have the right to be embraced and celebrated.”