How Black Girls Are Pushed Out of Educational Institutions

By: Xavier Mann


Deanna and Mya of Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, Massachusetts

Deanna and Mya of Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, Massachusetts

Earlier in May, 15-year-old twin sisters, Deanna and Mya, were on the verge of being suspended from Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, Massachusetts for one reason: their hair. In April, the school began a crackdown on box braids, which is a low-maintenance, natural hairstyle usually worn by black girls and women as a protective style to promote hair growth and health. Near the end of April, Colleen, the girls' adoptive mother, received a phone call from the school demanding that the braids be taken out because students are not allowed to wear "anything artificial or unnatural in their hair." When Colleen refused to comply, the girls were given two weeks of detention. 

Shortly after this news broke, Eric Orr, a father from Montverde, Florida received a phone call from his daughter's school during which he was told, "Your daughter needs to get her hair done." Eric's daughter, Nicole Orr, had been wearing her natural hair in a twist-out afro, a hairstyle commonly worn by black girls and women as a protective style to give the hair a break from daily combing and styling. Eric was shocked and Nicole questioned, "The Caucasian girls are able to wear their natural hair straight. Why can't I wear my natural hair the way that it grows?" 

Incidents such as these are not unique but rather they consistently occur throughout the country. In 2013, a Florida school threatened a 12-year-old black girl with expulsion because she refused to cut her hair. In May 2016, in Texas a black girl third grader was sent home because the assistant principal did not approve of her hairstyle. These harsh punishments and threats of punishment are not just isolated to matters of hair. In 2007, a 6-year-old girl was arrested for throwing a tantrum. In 2013, an 8-year-old girl in Illinois was arrested for acting out. In 2014, a 12-year-old girl faced criminal charges after writing "hi" on a locker room wall of her Georgia middle school. These incidents fit into a larger narrative of black girls being criminalized and pushed out of schools and other educational institutions. 

Recent research has illustrated that, "Girls of color, and especially black girls, are subjected to discipline that is harsher and more frequent than that of their white peers, and are six times more likely to be suspended than white girls. The racial disparities in punishment are greater for girls than for boys." Although these disparities exist, black girls are often excluded from discussions centered around the school-to-prison pipeline. Monique W. Morris, author of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, states, "Black women andgirls must often navigate through a landscape that reinforces multidimensional stereotypes and debilitating narratives that negatively impact how black femininity is understood. Implicit racial and gender biases may also inform how we read the behaviors and actions of black girlsand women, and all of this comes together to guide whether black girls are safe in their communities and whether they have access to quality employment, food, housing, and education." 

Too often black girls are labeled as being disruptive, resistant, sassy, loud, and problematic. These stigmas that many of us attach to blackgirls places them onto pathways of confinement and economic hardship. Too often educators fail to take into account the oppression that many black girls experience and internalize which tend to influence how they behave in the classroom and respond to authority. Too often educators fail to consider the exploitation and victimization that many black girls from low-income backgrounds experience which may influence a person's desire to attend school and perform well. 

As educators, what we all must do is cultivate learning environments that acknowledge the uniqueness of black girls and supports their potential. As educators, we must challenge the implicit biases that we hold about children of color and reevaluate the policies and interventions that we implement to ensure that they are empathetic and inclusive. To disrupt conditions that leave black girls vulnerable to criminalization and cycles of poverty, we must implement practices that are culturally competent, gender-responsive, and trauma-informed practices.