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The Secret Life of Black Girls

Time delivers more heartbreak in the case of Amy Joyner-Francis, the 16-year-old Delaware girl who died after being jumped and hitting her head on a sink in the girls’ bathroom at school. Police have announced no charges yet in a complex case that has generated more than 3,000 pages of data.

In Black communities in Wilmington and beyond, what we do know is homicide is the second-leading cause of death for Black females 15-24, a rate much higher than their white counterparts.

Joyner-Francis’ death is just the latest, most extreme expression of the adolescent struggle for identity within the confines of an education system not always equipped to see — really see — Black girls and the obstacles they face while trying to access equitable educational opportunities. This attack didn’t happen in a vacuum or without context. In the secret life of Black girls, with its language, customs and ways, questions of survival exist in large numbers. They include: “Will I be seen?” “How am I seen?” and “How will their views of me effect my education?’

The answers they hear?

A lack of validation, acknowledgment and representation fuels systematic forms of oppression, causing many to feel hopeless and engage in detrimental activities. Because our current system of education does not honor nor validate the personal and cultural experiences of Black girls, many have a more difficult time valuing and respecting one another.

Now, some may say all adolescents struggle with establishing a sense of identity during school, which is true. But the struggle for a sense of identity is clouded and thwarted when met by the biases of others. A recent study by Johns Hopkins University found white teachers to be 30 percent less likely to believe a Black child would get a four-year college degree than Black teachers. Even more dismally, white teachers were 40 percent less likely to believe a Black child would finish high school.

In a system of education where more than 80 percent of educators nationally are white, there is undoubtedly an elephant of implicit bias in the room that we must address.

amy francis

Some may say teachers do not see race, or that disciplinary policies are colorblind. But a U.S. Department of Education study found that “Black students are suspended or expelled at a rate that is three times greater than White students, and while Black students make up only 18 percent of preschool enrollment numbers, they account for over 48 percent of preschool students who receive at least one out-of-school suspension.”

School systems are pushing Black girls out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system at alarming rates. Zero tolerance disciplinary policies reinforce systems of oppression like the school to prison pipeline. According to Monique Morris, author of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, Black girls drop out of school at a rate of 7 percent compared with 3.8 percent for white girls. Black women are also three times more likely to be incarcerated or imprisoned than white women.

A case in point: In February, Tayjha Deleveaux, a Black high school student living in Nassau, Bahamas, was threatened with suspension for wearing her natural hair, which was called “untidy, ungroomed, and unkempt.” How can we as a society expect Black girls to value and respect one another if the system that is supposed to have their best interest at heart constantly discriminates against them and sends them messages of inadequacy?

Joyner-Francis’s death was tragic and unimaginable, but we cannot expect for our girls to love, cherish and respect one another if what surrounds them constantly sends messages of hate and discrimination. The complexities of educational disadvantages for Black girls are far-reaching. But, we all have the power to create change.

One solution? Start a movement to protect and nurture Black girls like the Columbia University Black Girl Movement Conference, first held in April, by giving them a safe place to be vulnerable, visible, and receive recognition for their valuable contributions to society, according to organizers.

Beyond that, we can engage in courageous conversations about race and gender at home, in our communities, places of worship and in schools. Parents can talk to their daughters about all aspects of their identities and help their young girls develop a stronger love and appreciation for self.

Educators should identify their own implicit biases that affect how they teach and interact with children. Lawmakers can create policies that will address systematic forms of oppression, such as zero tolerance and expulsion practices within our schools, and our community at large can begin to change the narrative about what’s possible and for whom.

Let’s begin to honor our Black girls for having the courage and bravery to come into spaces that repeatedly send them messages of inadequacy, and allow them to unapologetically walk in their cultural truths.

As an English teacher, I know if Black girls are given an educational experience that is truly equitable and values them for exactly who they are, right where they are, we will see a dramatic shift in how our girls experience and understand their educational journeys.

Bianca Anderson is a Public Voices participant in Dallas where she teaches English at Greenhill School.