An Analysis of the Experiences of Black Boys and Black Girls in Predominantly White Schools

Since the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, young black students whose families moved into white neighborhoods for better education have attended predominantly white schools. In a setting like this, issues of race and class are more apparent for these black students because they are the minority in a space that was not built for them. However, it is important to consider the experiences of black boys in white schools as separate from that of black girls in white schools. The discrimination amounting from the intersection of race with other social categorizations would suggest that the experiences of black boys and black girls in white schools are incommensurable.

Race is embedded in the public school system in the United States through systems of redlining that ensured that the neighborhoods with a majority of white homeowners had access to schools that received more funding from the state. Because the amount of funding depends on the value of the homes in the neighborhood, white homeowners who have had homes passed down through their families for generations receive more funding for their schools while schools in predominantly black neighborhoods are underfunded. Since their integration into white schools, black students have faced multiple instances of racism that have been covered in the media. There are similarities and differences between the experiences of black boys and black girls in these schools. One similarity is the routine policing of black hair and the multitude of hairstyles that both black girls and black boys choose to have. Whether it is school officials using a sharpie to color in a boy’s haircut, or a girl being sent home for wearing braids, the discrimination of hair types is nothing new to the media or to the discussion on the over-policing of the cultural practices of black people.

However, when looking at a gender stereotype like ‘girls mature faster’ that is embraced by people of all races, its intersection with race highlight a difference in the experience of black girls in white schools compared to that of black boys. A study carried out by the Initiative on Gender Justice and Opportunity at Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality found, through interviews of black girls and women, that black girls and women recall having to deal with this issue of “adultification bias” from an early age. The foundation of this bias allows for the justification of the “increasing use of discipline against black girls in the classroom, by law enforcement, and in interactions with authority figures, even though they are no more likely to misbehave than white girls.” The same study found that “black girls as young as 5 years old are already seen as less innocent, and needing less support than white girls of the same age.” The root of this adultification bias is the conclusion that black women fail to attune to stereotypical white femininity and are therefore punished for it. Opinionated black girls are deemed disrespectful and aggressive by authority figures which, in turn, leads to harmful stereotypes such as the ‘angry black woman’.

Over-policing is also an issue for black boys in schools. The difference between the adultification bias against black boys and black girls is the root of the adultification bias. While adultification bias for black girls stems from non-conformity to gender stereotypes, adultification bias for black boys originates from a fear of power emanating from physical strength. The American Psychological Association found evidence showing how people view black men as bigger and more threatening than white men of the same size. This conclusion served as the justification for the lynching of black men in the early 20th century who, white men falsely claimed, were raping white women. Judgements like this have transformed into the caricature of stereotypical black men: violent thugs.  In a more recent case, when a group of teens were caught smoking marijuana, everyone but the black boy in the group received either a short suspension or no punishment. The black boy, however, “was not only suspended for a full week, he was also arrested and pleaded guilty in possession of drug paraphernalia,” a charge that will not only stay on the boy’s permanent record, but also hinder future job prospects. Adultification bias is shown here through the treatment of the infraction by the boy as one deserving the same punishment as an adult committing a drug offense. This treatment created the common parenting approach by black parents to teach their sons to always look at themselves through a white lens, a practice that can be disempowering for black boys.

Nonetheless, when looking at the benefactors of today’s pop culture, the similarities in the oppression of black boys and black girls in white schools diverge more notably. In the digital age, the expression of one’s character exudes from the actions of celebrities and influencers on social media. When looking at the mannerisms and speech patterns of these celebrities, white children look to black boys because they are seen as cool and strong, characteristics that are normally policed by white adults. This is especially the case since rap music, a genre dominated by black men, is becoming an increasingly popular genre of music among young white people. White children try to emulate the actions they see these rappers do in music videos and on social media. Black girls do not receive the same treatment from white children as black boys. White children stereotype black girls as “ghetto and loud.” Professor Megan M. Holland of the University of Buffalo found that “structural factors in the school as well as racial narratives about minority males resulted in increased social rewards for the boys, while those same factors contributed to the isolation of girls” in diversity programs in schools with a white majority. While young white people regularly view media outlets that include the mannerism of famous black women, the method of emulation is, more often than not, cultural appropriation. For instance, when looking at hairstyles such as cornrows that white people find ‘ghetto’ on black girls, Kim Kardashian, a white celebrity took the hairstyle, copied it, and renamed it ‘boxer braids’. “ The fact that a look could be deemed “trendy” on a Kardashian but ‘ghetto’, ‘unprofessional’, or ‘inappropriate’ on a black woman” accentuates the erasure of black women, which is further amplified in a school setting where children are looking at celebrities as role models.

Ultimately, the treatment of black boys and black girls in schools varies depending on whether the treatment is from white adults or white children. For this reason, the treatment of black boys cannot be deemed as worse than black girls or vice versa because their experiences are rooted in the intersection of race with multiple social categorizations, resulting in their treatments being disparate.

Works Cited

Ndiaye, Aboubacar. “Black Boys Have an Easier Time Fitting In at Suburban Schools Than Black Girls.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 18 Feb. 2014

Lockhart, P.R. “A New Report Shows How Racism and Bias Deny Black Girls Their Childhoods.” Vox, Vox, 16 May 2019

Lynch, Matthew. “Black Boys in Crisis: Racism in the Media and Schools.” The Edvocate, 4 Sept. 2017

Knight, David J. “Beyond the Stereotypical Image of Young Men of Color.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 15 Nov. 2017

Sparks, Hannah. “School Forced Black Student to ‘Sharpie in’ His Haircut: Lawsuit.” New York Post, New York Post, 20 Aug. 2019

Adams, Char. “Black Girl Removed from Louisiana Catholic School in Tears Over Hairstyle: It’s ‘Very Upsetting’.” PEOPLE, 23 Aug. 2018

Sliwa, Jim. “People See Black Men as Larger, More Threatening Than Same-Sized White Men.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, 2017

Jackson, Jamé. “3 Hairstylists on Braids, Cultural Appropriation and Media’s Erasure of Black Women.” Fashionista, 2 Jan. 2018

Hale, Chelsea, and Meghan Matt. “The Intersection of Race and Rape Viewed through the Prism of a Modern-Day Emmett Till.” American Bar Association, 16 July 2019

One thought on “An Analysis of the Experiences of Black Boys and Black Girls in Predominantly White Schools”

  1. Ify, I greatly appreciated the fact that you made it a point to center the experiences of Black girls and their struggles within predominantly white spaces. I think you beautifully captured the nuances that come with policing Black students in an academic setting when you described the“adultification process”. That is such an important thing to identify because it hits on the long term psychological effects on Black students because they are going to school in a majority white space. Furthermore, I thought that your choice to talk about cultural appropriation added depth to your argument because it shows that the same characteristics and aesthetics that Black youth are targeted for in ‘professional’ settings are the same things being capitalized off of by well-known celebrities.

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