For girls, education is a critical protective factor against involvement with the juvenile and criminal legal systems. Our first priority should be keeping them in schools, not finding new ways to render them “delinquent.”
Anderson: A recurring theme in the book is the use of contemporary and historical anecdotes to underscore how black girls and women throughout history have been the victims of discrimination and exploitation. Why was it important for you to bring the voices of black girls and young women into the narrative?
Morris: I believe in the healing power of the narrative. Our stories can help us—in this case, as a nation—develop empathic responses to complex social issues. There is an African proverb that says, “Until the lions have their own historian, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” That is something that was at the forefront of my mind while researching and writing this book. Not only am I interested in the story of the “lion” so to speak, I am also interested in the story of the fly on the lion’s tail, the zebra who may be looking on, and the impact of the hunt on the greater environment in which other lions are being raised.
The public typically understands black femininity according to distinct and narrow stereotypes about black women and girls as hypersexual, sassy, conniving, or loud. Centering the voices of black women and girls moves us toward a deeper understanding about their lived experiences, and forces us to confront the routine (and often ignored) victimization, exploitation and discrimination that occur in their lives—and how we can ultimately develop a critical response to interrupt the oppression that they experience and internalize.
I include narratives from cis- and transgender black girls and young women, black girls who describe themselves as “gay,” black girls who are mothers … black girls who run away, black girls who are locked up, and black girls who fight. I also include high achieving black girls who have experienced what they perceive as differential treatment in the classroom. All of these [stories] narratives help us construct a better understanding of how black girls are uniquely vulnerable to the marginalization that occurs in schools, and what we can do about it.
Anderson: Clearly some of the most blistering accounts emanate from black girls’ public-school experiences, where racialized and gendered expectations seem to leave them feeling simultaneously targeted and invisible. The use of zero tolerance and harsh school discipline is a culprit, along with the attitudes and behaviors of school staff. How do these elements work in tandem to derail black girls’ education?
Morris: When we combine latent misperceptions about black femininity with punitive discipline policies, we are paving the way for black girls to be disproportionately pushed out of schools. Black girls are the only group of girls overrepresented in all discipline categories for which data are collected by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. That is alarming. Zero tolerance and other punitive policies in schools leave many school leaders and educators with only one response to young people who act out.
[Further,] black girls express that a caring teacher is most important in their learning environment. When they connect with a teacher and feel a genuine love and appreciation for their promise as scholars, their relationship with school is more positive. However, research studies have found that African American children receive “more criticism and less support” from teachers—conditions that could alienate and push black children away from learning. Recent examples in New York City and Georgia demonstrate the hard work that is still needed to produce learning environments that acknowledge and invest in the positive potential of black girls.
Anderson: You convincingly detail how policies and practices often unite to “save” black boys and boys of color while black girls seldom generate public concern. How can policymakers—at the local, state, and national levels—positively intervene to change the trajectory for black girls?
Morris: I believe that the investment in black boys, and other boys of color, is necessary. However, that investment should never be to the exclusion of black girls. Blanket policies and practices that have been constructed based upon the experiences of boys and young men must be reevaluated. [For example,] when policymakers—at all levels—discuss ways to dismantle the “school-to-prison pipeline,” they should recognize that for girls, the educational pathways to confinement are varied and often connected to their histories of victimization and exploitation. Toward the goal of generating policy that responds to the needs of girls as well as boys, interventions should include specific training and professional-development opportunities for all school personnel on gender-based violence and implicit bias, as well as mandated partnerships with intermediaries that specialize in culturally competent, gender-responsive, and trauma-informed practices.
Anderson: The book’s appendix poses a range of intriguing questions to help parents, community members, and educators work together to uplift and improve black girls’ lives. Are you hopeful that the end result will be much better outcomes—steeped in equity, respect, and fairness—for black girls?