Unprotected and Invisible: Black Girls in America

As more people join the battle for racial justice, we see a larger presence of messages in the media in support of this noble agenda. Yet, even within these messages advocating for equity, we unknowingly find disparity. When discussing racial justice, the concept of intersectionality is often overlooked, leading to a more narrow understanding of the risks that coincide with racism and discrimination in America. This ultimately contributes to the ongoing oppression generated by white supremacy. 

With more attention being brought to the subject, we have become familiar with the notion that Black boys are in crisis, facing dismal outcomes in and out of school, as this tends to be explored more in media, literature and research when discussing racial justice. However, the risks that Black and other girls of color confront rarely receive the same level of attention. This lack of awareness of the challenges that Black girls face perpetuates the misunderstanding of their attitudes, abilities and overall existence. In reality, Black girls face a disproportionate share of the blame and punishment for perceived school infractions, as well as high rates of poverty, sexual harassment and interpersonal violence. 

For many young girls of color, schools are toxic and traumatizing places, home to an influx of mixed messages about who and what is valued. Because of this, research and policy frameworks must move beyond the focus that the youth of color who are in crisis are boys and that the concerns of white girls are indistinguishable from those of girls of color. Racist perceptions of Black girls criminalize their behavior and ways of being, placing these girls at risk for unnecessary punishments, especially in schools with zero-tolerance disciplinary policies. According to Annamma et al., Black girls are overrepresented in school discipline data, with one major driving force being the adultification projected by white America. Adultification of Black and Brown girls creates the societal belief that these girls should possess a lot more control over themselves, despite them being children who are still growing and learning from their mistakes. This ultimately strips girls of color of their youth and innocence, resulting in disproportionate exclusionary discipline outcomes that are extremely harmful to the development of growing girls who are trying to figure out their place in the world. 

The presence of school resource officers, referrals to law enforcement and arrests at school exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline for Black girls, constraining their abilities to maximize their full potential as human beings. A SAGE Journals study from 2009 found that the higher a school’s population of color and proportion of students participating in free-and-reduced lunch programs, the more likely it is to report school offenses to the police. This finding points to the reality that Black girls’ encounters with police are heightened by racial and economic segregation in schooling. This also shines a light on the effects of adultification and other stereotypes projected onto girls of color as typical youthful behavior is instead perceived as criminal. 

Edward Morris’s work illuminates the intersections of race, gender and school discipline in finding that discipline directed toward Black girls in school is aimed at making them more ‘‘ladylike.’’ Black girls are more likely to experience suspension and expulsion for subjective reasons related to not being perceived as “ladylike,” such as disobedience, defiance, talking back and causing bodily harm. Additionally, the concept of femininity is linked very closely with whiteness. Thus, normative notions of femininity are positioned as belonging solely to white women. Therefore, Black girls cannot achieve the feminine ideal constructed by white society because their blackness excludes them, and this exclusion has material consequences in the lives of Black women and girls. Patriarchal hegemonic ideologies dominate Black female sexuality in the public sphere and the impossibility of being “perfect and white” helps to normalize and decriminalize psychological and physical assaults on Black women and girls, further contributing to the invisibility of Black girls in the eyes of protective forces.

Despite countless studies documenting Black girls’ risk of exposure to sexual harassment, gender-based harassment and assault perpetrated against Black girls are often ignored due to teacher perceptions of students. Teachers may position Black girls as sexually available and view harassing behavior as an accepted cultural norm within the Black community due to internalized stereotypes and biases. This reinforces the notion that Black girls are to blame for their own sexual harassment and assault, and, as a result, Black girls experience simultaneous invisibility and hypervisibility, in which attacks on them go unnoticed and the severity is minimized. In the absence of support, Black girls are left to defend themselves against verbal and physical assaults. Furthermore, they are often punished for taking matters into their own hands, leaving Black girls and women with no viable forms of protection. 

Constructions of femininity that center on and normalize whiteness penalize Black girls for speaking and acting in defense of their well-being. This definition of femininity casts Black girls as unworthy of the compassion and protection given to white girls and women. Ultimately, Black girls are not only vulnerable to sexual harassment and gender violence, but they are also held responsible for it and punished for reacting to it; their resistance to white constructions of perfection and femininity results in their demonization and dehumanization, further perpetuating white supremacy. Intersectionality must be taken into account within the movement for racial justice to properly address the inherently destructive social ills that cause great damage to countless lives and the overall functioning of society.