Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools

by Monique W. Morris

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Faith’s curiosity was infectious. Why do adults get mad when strong girls ask questions? “They say I’m disrespectful...’cause I always got something to say. . . . [They keep] telling me, ‘Sometimes you got to bite your tongue.’ . . . I don’t know how to do that, though.”

Excerpts from Chapter One and the Epilogue

Asking the Tough Questions

By the time I met fifteen-year-old Faith in a juvenile detention school classroom, I was already aware of how educational and juvenile justice systems routinely fail our girls (a subject explored further in Chapter 4). We were talking about the types of programs that she would like to see implemented in her community when she slumped in her chair and let her fingers trace the perimeter of the desk. Then she asked me an important question.

“You know how they say this is a man’s world?” she asked

I nodded and replied, “Yep.”

“I don’t like that,” she said, staring into my eyes.

“Neither do I,” I said softly.

We shared a nervous laugh, but then I asked, “I know why it bothers me,” I said. “But why does it bother you?”

“Because I feel like . . . it shouldn’t be just one person’s world. Like, what you mean, it’s a man’s world? Like, what does a strong girl get out of that? Like, how is this a man’s world? I just don’t get it. I feel like it should be equal, and I don’t feel like that’s equal. I feel like boys . . . men got more rights than girls, and that shouldn’t be right.”

In Faith’s eyes—and her words—was a rejection of patriarchy and the idea that she was inferior just because she had been born a Black girl. All around her were signs that she was supposed to adhere to an imposed hierarchy reinforcing that she was less important than adults, less important than boys, less important than kids who came from families with money, and—because of her sexual identity, which she described as gay—less important than heterosexual girls. Faith was fighting not just for her right to voice her opinions but also to be seen and respected. All while being a Black girl and a ward of the court.

As we talked, I noticed the posters in the classroom. My eyes roved over the letters and posters above the whiteboard until they settled on one in particular, a photograph of President Obama and his family. In that picture, the Obamas look “official”—clustered together, well dressed, and smiling directly into the camera. There they were, a Black family of the highest privilege. Most Black Americans looked upon that photo with great pride, particularly in 2012, when Obama was beginning his second term as president. But at that moment, all I could see was their juxtaposition to Faith and other girls like her who had suffered from a lifetime of neglect and harm—so much so that they had learned to do harmful things to other people. The Obamas’ smiles felt inappropriate in an institution that provided so little response to girls with such significant needs. In that juvenile hall, the image and the privilege it represented felt unreal, out of touch, and unfair.

For Faith, whose prominent tattoos displayed a nickname given to her by a deceased loved one, prospects for employment would be complicated and radically different than the young women who smiled down at her from the photograph hanging in that detention center classroom. Even their manifestation of “family” was different from the reality for the girl sitting with me and describing her experience of being expelled from eighth grade for trying to create a family by “making a gang.”

Faith vehemently opposed being treated like she was an inferior human being, and she rejected structures that supported this treatment as legitimate. In her, I recognized a spark that could initiate a vision for making conditions equitable for girls, but it was hidden behind a lot of pain.

I asked her what she felt would improve her experiences in juvenile hall. “They should make this a learning environment to make you understand that [juvenile hall] ain’t the place. And I feel like, they say they making this seem like it ain’t the place by making it harder. That just make it hard. It don’t make it that I don’t want to come back here, ’cause half the time, people still come back. . . . I just feel like, you should make it helpful. . . . They don’t make it helpful by making it hard on people, ’cause you got it hard out [in the community], too.”

Faith felt that the institutions with which she was most familiar—schools, juvenile detention centers, group homes, and social service agencies—were, individually and collectively, intentionally disruptive to her ability to establish self-worth and to her ability to challenge those whose actions she felt were oppressive.

“If it’s a student and teacher, the student’s automatically in trouble, ’cause it’s the teacher. Like jail, if it’s an argument with me and staff, I feel like, I’m going to lose, period. ’Cause I damn near don’t have rights no more ’cause I’m in jail. So I feel like, in school, if you get in an argument with a teacher, you damn near lost, ’cause that’s her job. You know? I see if the teacher was like beating on you or being like racist or something like that, or homophobic or something like that. But most of the time, over an argument, you out. It’s his class. Like, get out! They won automatic. Like I feel like they go off the teacher first, before they go off the child. ’Cause, like, you a child! I don’t give a damn about being no child. You still not going to talk to me that way. I feel like, I don’t go off ’cause you an adult. I’m a child? I shut up? No. I feel like, I’m human, you human, so I talk just like you talk. If you disrespectful, I’m going to be disrespectful too. . . .

“I’m human. Just a human being, like this whole world . . . and then, I feel like, when you question somebody, it’s wrong ’cause [they’re] an adult. I feel like, why I can’t ask a question? ’Cause you an adult? What do ‘adult’ mean? Like, that don’t mean nothing to me. That’s just a word to me. That don’t mean nothing to me . . . I’m supposed to shut up and not ask questions? I can ask questions if I want to. That’s why I got a mouth. My auntie and my god-mama said, if you don’t get it, or you don’t understand, you ask a question. And that’s what I do, I ask the question. And I always do that. I always question. And then sometimes, teachers get mad off of that. Questioning them about why they doing this in they classroom or why they doing that . . . I don’t understand how you get frustrated off of a question if I’m not being disrespectful . . . why you get mad?”

Faith’s curiosity was infectious. Why do adults get mad when strong girls ask questions?

“They say I’m disrespectful. That’s my label, disrespectful, ’cause I always got something to say. . . . [They keep] telling me, ‘Sometimes you got to bite your tongue.’ . . . I don’t know how to do that, though.”

***

Though connected to the topics covered in this book, in many ways these perspectives were outside the scope of inquiry.

There is still so much to explore about the lives of Black girls. We need scholars to center Black girls in their research, educators to immerse their pedagogy in intersectionality, and advocates and policy makers to measure impact outside of a linear framework. I sincerely hope that within the next five years, we are able to develop a robust and coordinated strategy to change the racial justice narrative in a way that authentically and earnestly includes girls and women.

In these girls, I see a raw and uncultivated version of myself. As a preadolescent, I participated in cultures of school-based and after-school-based violence. Like many of the girls in this project, I became a survivor of sexual assault as a child, and throughout my adolescence I had to negotiate the traumatic experience of responding to unwanted stares and touches. But for the empathetic educators who sought to cultivate my intelligence as a clear path toward personal freedom, who knows where I would be. In many ways, I empathized with the girls who shared their narratives with me. What I learned and now know with certainty from this experience is that the education of Black girls is a lifesaving act of social justice.

I think often about the girls whose voices are represented in this book. They trusted me to share their words with integrity, and for that trust (which I consider a gift) I am thankful. It was my intention to be honest in my representation of how these girls articulated their experiences, which in some cases may differ radically from what might be described by the adults in their lives. But we owe it them to listen and respond.

I leave you with this last reflection, a moment that I shared with Jennifer in a California detention facility. We were wrapping up our interview, and I asked her, as I did with all of the girls I spoke with, if she had anything else she wanted to add or ask me. She cocked her head to the side, folded her arms, and asked, “So, what you gonna do with all this again?”

“Well,” I responded, “some people think I should write a novel, and others think I should write it as nonfiction. . . . What do you think?”

She didn’t respond at first, but then she relaxed her arms and stood up, responding to a prompt from the detention center staff that our time was up.

As we approached the door and moved toward her cell, she said, “I think you should tell the truth . . . Yeah, just tell the truth.”

Copyright © 2016 by Monique Morris. This excerpt originally appeared in Pushout, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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