Disciplining girls of color: moving from stereotypes to self-awareness

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By Sabrina Holcomb

A white student in an Iowa middle school brings a knife to school, threatens another student, and is placed an in-school program for eight weeks. A black student in the same school brings a knife to school and is immediately expelled.

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As an in-school suspension educator at the school in question, Yvonne Shepherd has a front-row seat to the impact of disproportionate discipline policies on students of color. Although Black students comprise around 20 percent of the school’s student population, of the approximately 600 student referrals during the school year’s first semester, 400 are Black and that includes girls.

Shepherd acknowledges that girls of color at her school are more likely to be in trouble for insubordination and “silly fights over hair and looks and boys.” But there is a difference, says Phillips, in the way in which rowdy girls of color and their rowdy white peers are disciplined.

The ways in which girls of color are seen—and see themselves—has a definite impact on the way in which they’re treated, confirms Professor Erika Wilson, who speaks from experience. A gifted student and fast reader, Wilson was automatically tracked into a remedial reading group in her predominantly White elementary school.

A scholar activist at the University of North Carolina School of Law, Wilson’s research focuses on racial equality in education and the intersection of race and gender. She breaks down the one-dimensional, cartoonish stereotypes girls of color must navigate:

African-American girls are portrayed as “loud, obnoxious Mammys and Jezebels; American Indians as wild, permissive Pocahontases; Latinas as sassy, hot-tempered firebrands; and Asian and Pacific Americans as exotic but passive model-minority nerds. Girls of color from all groups suffer the stigma of being depicted as oversexualized seductresses.

These stereotypes carry over into the way girls of color are disciplined. According to the most recent federal data, Black girls’ 12% suspension rate is much higher than girls of any other race and most boys, and research shows that dark girls are disciplined more harshly than those with lighter skin.

American Indian and Native-Alaskan girls have a 7% suspension rate that is higher than the 6% suspension rate for White boys, while Latinas have a 4 percent suspension rate compared to 2% for white girls. Asian American girls have the lowest suspension rates at 1%.

Unfortunately, studies show that stereotypes are internalized by educators of all races and the students themselves. Awareness for both groups is the first step in addressing the problem says Wilson.

Rainya Miller

At a recent meeting of the Lunch Circle at Crossland High School in Prince George’s County, Maryland, an animated group of Black girls and Latinas discussed the “messed up” gender stereotypes governing the behavior of girls and boys—from double standards involving sexuality to the glass ceiling.

“I started the Lunch Circle this school year as a way to reach out to young ladies who were being written up for insubordination and minor transgressions,” says Rainya Miller, an instructional program coordinator for the National Board Certified Teacher Program.

Miller explains that home life and community life are often behind the emotional issues some of her girls bring to school. What’s worse, these issues are compounded by negative stereotypes that color the ways in which they’re perceived and treated. “It’s harder to focus on academics if you’re in defense mode all the time,” says Miller.

To help educators get past their own implicit biases and students’ defenses, Miller recommends cultural competence training. To help students transition from defense mode to relationship building, Miller emphasizes self-awareness and cultural awareness. “Feeling good about themselves is the foundation for everything else.”

“Building pride within my students rather than shame for who they are is powerful,” affirms Rachel Byington. An Oklahoma educator from the Choctaw nation, Byington manages her district’s Title VII federal program for American Indian students, who are suspended at a rate second only to Black students.

Rachel Byington

Byington brings together Native students from all over her district to build Native identity through multiple Title VII programs. These programs provide students with academic and emotional supports that help them strengthen self-esteem and reject demeaning stereotypes.

Girls in the program have a much higher graduation rate and are more likely to pursue post-secondary education than their peers, reports Byington, who says their experiences have inspired some girls to sharpen their advocacy skills.

“As bad as stereotypes and mascots are, fighting them is bringing out the activist spirit in many of my girls,” she says with pride.

Both educators are optimistic about the progress they’ve made but are concerned that just as they are gaining ground, the new administration’s law and order platform might turn back the clock.

“No one knows what to expect,” echoes Professor Wilson, who encourages activists to advocate for positive discipline policies at the state and local levels. “We have to be especially vigilant to ensure all the progress we’ve made isn’t just gone with the wind.”

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