Black Girls Belong

Photo Credit: Dr. King Memorial in DC.

In observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Day this year, I chose to dedicate this post to awareness of the injustice of how Black girls are treated in schools today and how to build safer learning environments for Black girls so they feel like they belong in their schools and classrooms. I attended a screening of the documentary Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Dr. Monique W. Morris and Jacoba Atlas, which is based on Morris’ book with the same name, in November. In the documentary, Morris and Atlas share the stories of Black girls who receive excessive consequences for behaviors that other students often do not experience. Pushout captures these often ignored or unheard stories of Black girls’ treatment in schools. The alarming statistics demonstrate how Black Girls are affected by the ways that schools criminalize, adultify, and ostracize them and eventually push them out.

  • Black girls are 3x more likely to be referred to juvenile courts than white and Latinx girls.
  • Black girls are suspended 7x more than white girls.
  • In Chicago, Black girls represent 39% of the student population and 66% of school-related arrests.
  • statistics from Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Dr. Monique W. Morris

The issue affecting Black girls in schools made front page news in USA Today last spring.

Black girls don’t misbehave more than white girls, yet they are more likely to be disciplined in school and often receive harsher penalties for the same infractions, experts say.

Monica Rhor, “Black Girls Put Schools on Notice: Disparities in discipline, justice lead to programs to narrow gap.” USA Today, May 15, 2019

I interviewed one of my closest friends and her colleagues who have dedicated their work to supporting Black girls and women. Carolyn Strong, Dr. Tyffani Monford Dent, and Tami Winfrey-Harris are the founders of Centering Sisters, a movement focused on centering the experiences of Black women and girls to create a space for dialogue and healing. Its mission acknowledges the failure of gender-based and racial movements to recognize and honor the intersectionality of Black women and girls.

from left to right, Tami Winfrey-Harris, Dr. Tyffani Dent, and Carolyn Strong from Centering Sisters

Carolyn is an educator in the Chicagoland area who primarily focuses on educational equity and discipline disparities as they relate to Black girls. She is a motivational speaker and an author of Black Girl Blues and two other books. Tami is a writer who specializes in the space where current events, politics, and pop culture intersect with race and gender. Her work appeared in The New York Times, Cosmopolitan and Ebony. Tami’s first book The Sisters are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America has won multiple awards. Dr. Tyff is a licensed psychologist, motivational speaker, and author. Her primary areas of interest are sexual violence prevention and intervention on the continuum, the role of intersectionality in the lives of Black and brown girls/women and culturally informed work with those within the juvenile justice system.

Q1: Tell us about your work and how you came to focus on Black girls. Why are these issues important to you?

A1 (Dr. Tyff): One of my areas of specialty is adolescence. In my work with child protective services in the justice system, I saw Black girls are disproportionately represented in those systems. I was consistently having engagement with Black girls. Being in those systems as a Black women, I saw how those systems can misinterpret behaviors of Black girls.

Tami: I was dismayed by how others were talking about us. About 5-7 years ago, it seemed to be all of this discussion sparked by that we’re “half as likely to be married as white women” and “what was wrong with Black women?” and why we were “too single, we’re too fat, we’re too unhealthy, how we don’t have any money, we’re angry, and all of these things. 

What I realized was after finishing a book and in interviewing hundreds of women across the country is that the treatment of black women doesn’t happen out of context and it doesn’t spring up the moment we turn 18. It starts depressingly earlier in our lives almost from the day a girl child is born. My hope is that we can do something to change the way to advocate for Black Girls to change the way we show up for black girls, and the way we raise Black girls so that they don’t have to wait to be alright later like many of the women I talked to. And have to go through this process of realizing that they are fundamentally not broken because they’ve been told from their earliest age that they are.

Carolyn: I came to my work on Black girls specifically through my work in discipline trying to answer the questions: Why the discipline numbers looked like they did? Why were the highest number of suspensions for girls? Why were all the fights with girls?Why all the arguments with girls? It led me down the path at looking at things historically and generational trauma and a lot of things that are not in the here and now but are impacting the here and now. 

Q2: What negative images or comments do you see in your work with Black girls?

A2 (Tami): I did a workshop at a school and during the icebreaker I asked the girls, “What do we need to know about you? Tell us something you want us to know about you.

One of the girls said, “One of the first things you need to know about me is that I have a bad attitude?”

Another girl responded, “Me too.”  Other girls responded in the same way.

I paused and asked, “Well, who told you that?” They responsed that’s what they heard from their mothers and other adults. Already they were internalizing this fact that they have “attitude problems” and that’s who they are as Black girls and that’s what’s wrong with them and that’s the first thing anyone needs to know. 

Carolyn: Remember when I went to Colorado for a workshop, and I asked the girls what they thought of Black girls. They were saying stuff that Black girls have bad attitudes. When I asked what you think about White girls, their response was that they were “marriage material.”

Dr. Tyff: I think we end up running into a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you start internalizing these beliefs about yourself, you start to live those beliefs because it’s what you view yourself as being. And so then we run into those other issues of trauma and internalized oppression. It’s manifesting in these behaviors that are self-sabotaging and instead of somebody stopping them and saying, Hold up. Let’s reinterpret what this behavior means about you. We instead continue to feed into those narratives within those systems like older Black women who’ve internalized their oppression and putting it on girls; Black men in the community who have bought into issues of patriarchy; and white society’s view of us. White society who has been dehumanizing us from the beginning of time and we keep repeating this cycle. What ends of happening is that we do a disservice to girls in our mental health systems, our educational systems, and in society in general. 

Tami: Then we confuse our traumatized selves with our authentic selves. A friend of mine was telling me that she grew up with a lot of women who could reasonably be called,”angry Black women” because they were unsupported, they were overwhelmed, they didn’t know how to deal with those things and no one was trying to help them. That’s a result of trauma and lack of support. That is not intrinsically who Black women are but because we are so often traumatized and lack support, there’s a stereotype out here. Those things become attached to blackness and Black femaleness

Carolyn: These girls don’t know any other way to be because nobody is showing them another way and that’s why for me…I’m not always successful, but I try to make a conscious decision to show my girls another way. 

Dr. Tyff: Not just show them another way but redefine what you’re doing. You being angry doesn’t make you “an angry Black girl” you have a right to be upset. In this situation, yes people are treating you unfairly, people are silencing you..How do I help you to make sure that people listen while also acknowledging that your reality is reality. I think that’s the advocacy piece. I don’t think we do it enough in any arena for Black girls including the school system, especially the school system

Q3: Often I see people dismissing the need of focusing on Black girls despite the data and the growing incidents of criminalization. How do we start to reframe the narrative for Black girls?

A3 (Carolyn): For starters, when you know better you do better, and I mean that for the systems themselves. Education, for whatever reason, when they should be at the forefront of innovation has historically been always been bringing up the rear. We’re so slow on the uptake and because of that a lot of things get lost. When this research regarding Black girls started coming out about 5-6 years ago–because we’re the first line of defense, we being schools–for black girls–we should have been the first people dissecting that research and trying to figure out how it informs our systems instead we do nothing with it. 

But the problem is if the system is unwilling to change, there’s not a lot we can do in the system which is why I’ve had to take my gifts and talents outside of the system and work that way. We don’t have a lot of folk that are trying to help specifically Black girls, and I think that’s why it’s taken so long. I’ll be honest I believe if this was an initiative for Black boys, schools would have been all over it. When I wanted to implement programming for Black girls, I was told that I could only do programming for Black girls if I found comparable programming for Black boys even though we’ve had programming for Black boys in the schools for years without comparable programming for Black girls. So we’ve got entire systems and entire mindsets to change.

Tyff: I don’t even want to say that it’s prevention because prevention implies that you’re trying to address the problem before it’s a problem. And we already know within our schools that our girls are already coming into the school system, even if they don’t have their own traumatic experiences just societally we’re dealing with the trauma of being Black girls. 

We need to make it ok and just not ok, make it mandatory in these schools that we do these prevention programs and acknowledge that these things are happening for Black girls. We also have to have people at the table when we’re addressing issues of discipline who are going to advocate for them and monitor how discipline practices are occurring in those systems. I think we also need to look at a micro- and macro-level who are we hiring to educate our goals, who are the people setting policies within our schools, who are the head administrators who are supposed to make sure these spaces are equitable for girls.  

Special Thanks to Carolyn, Tami, and Dr. Tyff for sharing their work with me. #StandWithBlackGirls


Morris, Monique W. “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.” New York, The New Press, 2018.

Rhor, Monica. “What can be done to stop the criminalization of black girls? Rebuild the system.” USA Today. Internet.

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