In a classroom at the University of Pennsylvania, more than a dozen black girls and women gather on a recent Saturday afternoon. A simple game begins as an icebreaker for the workshop. “Stand up if your racial identity ever made anyone doubt your abilities,” the session’s leader says. Everyone stands. “Stand up if you’ve ever been told to act like a lady.” Everyone stands again. “Stand up if you’ve ever been called aggressive or bossy.” Universal affirmation. “Stand up if you’ve ever taken AP classes.” Less than five rise.
Across generations—from high-school students to professionals with salt-and-pepper hair—a common reality appears. “Day-to-day things—you’re bossy, you’re aggressive, you’re not ladylike—all of us share that experience,” explained Melanie Horton, a 17-year-old senior from Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. Horton helped lead the session, which focused on gender, race, and class expectations and was part of a recent “Penn Summit,” a symposium sponsored by the school’s Center for the Study of Race & Equity focused on exploring the educational lives of black girls and women.
With a tone of resignation, Horton recalled a counselor who she said doubted her aptitude for an honors biology course. She also spoke of a teacher who belittled her in front of an entire class after she questioned the cost of an Advanced Placement exam. “Constantly being treated as if I don’t belong” led the teen to transfer out of her district’s only public high school to a cyber school—a move that Horton described as “the best of a bad situation.”
A mounting body of evidence suggests that black students across the country face daunting odds in their quest for an equitable education. Federal statistics show that black students in the U.S. are suspended and expelled three times as often than white students. Research on racial discrepancies in discipline underscores that the higher rates of punishment among black students don’t correlate with a greater tendency to violate school policies—rather, the data suggests they’re disciplined more harshly than whites and other students for identical infractions. A number of studies also suggest that racial stereotyping by teachers is a key reason black students are often stigmatized as both troublemakers prone to misbehavior and underachievers incapable of academic excellence.
Given the growing recognition that race and poverty hinder educational opportunity and outcomes, leaders ranging from policymakers to businesspeople have committed to tackling this crisis. Yet their interventions and solutions are centered on boys of color. This often renders black girls all but invisible.