In life, so much emphasis is placed on education. There is good reason for this, of course, because education is a defining factor in what we are able to accomplish later in life. Discipline plays an important role in creating the optimal educational environment; students who misbehave need to be punished so that the rest of the students can get the most out of their school experience. As a high school student, discipline almost never impacted me. I always did as I was told, careful to never draw any negative attention to myself.
This changed for me in my junior year of high school. After making a light-hearted joke about another administrator, I was asked to stay behind after class to talk with my teacher. My teacher proceeded to tell me that I had a “sass” problem, and my sense of entitlement needed to be eradicated immediately.
In that moment I was taken aback. A single joke had been perceived as a dispositional issue on my part. Even worse, the words my teacher used reflected the stereotypes about black women that I tried so hard to defy. Generations-old misconceptions about black women perpetuated the idea that we are loud, aggressive, angry, and attitudinal. These stereotypes often make it hard for black women to express feelings in public spaces without being characterized as an oppositional archetype. Furthermore, these stereotypes cause mild incidents of misconduct from young black girls to be viewed as the start of a cycle of aggressive behavior.
My experience is a minuscule example of a common occurrence. Too often, I’ve heard stories of black female students being unable to even communicate with a teacher without being accused of being disrespectful. In the classroom, I’ve witnessed a simple disagreement with a teacher result in a student getting kicked out of class.
National suspension rates for black female students tell part of the story. Black girls are suspended more often and more severely than their white female counterparts. Black girls often can’t express themselves, voice their discomforts, or engage in civil discourse without being accused of having an attitude. When voicing your opinion is viewed as an act of insubordination, you are being silenced.
It took a negative experience with a teacher to make me understand this issue. To remedy this problem in schools, educators who have never experienced this personally must try to form an understanding. Creating a space where people can share their experiences without being undermined is crucial. A dialogue between students and teachers, particularly between students of color and their white teachers, must start.
Teachers must take responsibility in starting these dialogues and realize that sometimes it is best to just listen to the experiences of their students. Mutual understanding between these groups can go a long way in ensuring that black girls have a space where they are encouraged to speak up without sacrificing their personality and all of the complexities associated with cultural identity.