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Abstract

Although much scholarship has focused on the schooling experiences of African American boys, this article demonstrates that African American girls encounter unique educational perceptions and obstacles. Black girls in a predominately minority school performed well academically, but educators often questioned their manners and behavior. Some tried to mold many of these girls into “ladies,” which entailed curbing behavior perceived as “loud” and assertive. This article advances theories of intersectionality by showing how race and class shape perceptions of femininity for Black girls, and how the encouragement of more traditionally feminine behavior could ultimately limit their academic potential.
“Ladies” or “Loudies”?
Perceptions and Experiences of
Black Girls in Classrooms
Edward W. Morris
Ohio University
Although much scholarship has focused on the schooling experiences of
African American boys, this article demonstrates that African American girls
encounter unique educational perceptions and obstacles. Black girls in a pre-
dominately minority school performed well academically, but educators
often questioned their manners and behavior. Some tried to mold many of
these girls into “ladies,” which entailed curbing behavior perceived as “loud”
and assertive. This article advances theories of intersectionality by showing
how race and class shape perceptions of femininity for Black girls, and how the
encouragement of more traditionally feminine behavior could ultimately limit
their academic potential.
Keywords: intersectionality; African American girls; educational discipline
Much recent scholarly and social concern has revolved around the plight
of young Black men (Ferguson, 2000; hooks, 2004; Lopez, 2003; Mac
an Ghaill, 1994; Price, 1999; Sewell, 2000). Although certainly important,
this focus on Blackness and masculinity often implicitly leaves young Black
women on the sidelines. For example, we know a great deal about the educa-
tional challenges of Black boys, but how do Black girls experience schooling?
In this article, I explore this question. I show how race, gender, and class com-
bine to shape the educational experiences of Black girls, creating unique
obstacles for them. I observed how educators in a predominately minority,
working class middle school expressed dichotomous judgments of African
American girls.1Many teachers encouraged these girls to exemplify an ideal,
docile form of femininity, emblematized in the prescription to act like
Youth & Society
Volume XX Number X
Month 2007 1-26
© 2007 Sage Publications
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1
Author’s Note: This research was partially funded by the Annenberg Foundation. I thank the
staff and students at Matthews Middle School for sharing their time and thoughts with me. I
also thank Leon Anderson, Kathryn Herr, and the anonymous reviewers for helpful advice on
previous drafts. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.
“ladies.” At the same time, however, most teachers viewed the existing
femininity of these girls as coarse and overly assertive, leading one teacher to
describe them as “loudies.” I employ an intersectional approach in analyzing
these educational experiences, dissecting the ways race, class, and gender
acted as interconnected factors influencing the impacts of one another. I show
how race shaped adult perceptions of the femininity of Black girls, and how
schooling processes were aimed to mold them into a particular model of
womanhood.
Background: Intersectionality, Education,
and Social Reproduction
Scholars examining inequality have found the theory of intersectionality
particularly useful (e.g., Bettie, 2003; Collins, 1990, 1998; Glenn, 2002;
Pyke & Johnson, 2003; Zinn & Dill, 1996). Intersectionality underscores
combinations, or intersections, of important modes of social advantage and
disadvantage. Rather than isolate factors such as race, class, and gender into
distinct, independent effects, an intersectional approach explores how these
factors combine in daily life, because individuals do not experience them in
isolation. A key insight of intersectional theory holds that modes of inequal-
ity, such as race, class, and gender, can combine in ways that alter the
meaning and effects of one another. Whiteness, for example, creates myr-
iad advantages for White women, even as gender produces certain disad-
vantages (McIntosh, 1998). In the words of Collins (1990), “White women
are penalized by their gender, but privileged by their race” (p. 225).
Intersectional theory frames a complex view of social inequality and
reality. Collins (1990) conceptualizes the array of interwoven patterns of
inequality as a “matrix of domination,” where one is positioned based on
interconnecting dimensions of advantage/disadvantage such as race, class,
and gender; and one may extract privileges or disadvantages depending on
this particular positioning. Although complex, scholars have found that this
view is helpful in elucidating seemingly contradictory patterns of social
inequality. Masculinity, for example, tends to be held in higher social
esteem than femininity. But this does not mean that all men enjoy power
over all women. The race of Black men might put them at a disadvantage
compared to White women in various areas of social life. Furthermore, their
race might alter perceptions of their masculinity, making it appear more
volatile and dangerous (Anderson, 1990; Connolly, 1998; Ferguson, 2000).
In this way, an intersectional approach examines “the ways in which gender
2 Youth & Society
is racialized and race is gendered” (Glenn, 2002). Race alters the very
meaning and impact of gender and gender alters the very meaning and
impact of race.
A complex, intersectional view of femininity can be seen in research on
girls and education. Feminist research produced in the early 1990s argued that
girls experience declining self-esteem in school and that boys tend to domi-
nate teachers’ attentions (Sadker & Sadker, 1994; American Association of
University Women, 1992). Femininity in this sense was cast as fragile and
vulnerable. However, subsequent research has challenged the notion that girls
always accept the quiet, passive roles society tends to encourage (Simmons,
2002). In particular, research that has included girls of color, girls of different
class backgrounds, and girls living in urban areas, highlights variations in
experiences and enactments of femininity (Emerson, 2002; Rotheram-Borus,
Dopkins, Sabate, & Lightfoot, 1996; Taylor, Gilligan & Sullivan, 1995; Ward,
1996). Because Black women, for instance, have historically worked outside
the home and occupied prominent positions in Black communities, their expe-
rience and understanding of being a woman differs markedly from White
women (Fordham, 1993; Thompson, 1998). By taking this intersectional per-
spective, such work reveals the hegemonic, but tenuous, status of femininity.
Although institutions continue to promulgate dominant definitions of
femininity as quiet and passive, girls themselves—especially those situ-
ated differently according to race, class, and place—may construct alter-
native embodiments of femininity. Indeed, girls not privileged by Whiteness,
as well as those not privileged by class status, most likely possess unique tools
to carve out counter-hegemonic ways of being female (Bettie, 2003; Taylor
et al., 1995).
This intersectional view of femininity rests on the notion that race, class,
and gender are socially constructed (Glenn, 2002). Some empirical work has
shown how race (Lewis, 2003), class (Willis, 1977), and gender (Thorne,
1993), are constructed through interaction and personal agency, albeit within
certain importantly restrictive social and institutional constraints. Much of this
literature examines education as an important institution in the social con-
struction and reproduction of race, class, and gender for youth. From the per-
spective of what has come to be known as reproduction theory, schools not
only serve as sites for the construction of race, class, and gender identities,
they also reproduce existing inequalities in these areas (Bowles & Gintis,
1976; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977; Dillabough, 2003). Contrary to the
common view of schools as “great equalizers,” reproduction theory contends
that schools solidify, or even exaggerate, the inequalities children bring with
them to school (see Downey, von Hippel, & Broh, 2004). Reproduction theory
Morris / Perceptions of Black Girls in Classrooms 3
has been one of the most enduring frameworks for understanding continuing
inequality in education. However, most variations of this theory give primacy
to race or class or gender in the reproduction of inequality—it remains less
clear how schools might aid in reproducing these factors if we consider them
intertwined in ways that might alter their impacts.
Literature on education and youth has recently begun to consider race,
class, and gender in this interconnected way (Bettie, 2003; Ferguson, 2000;
Lopez, 2003; Williams,Alvarez, & Andrade Hauck, 2002). Early examples of
the utility of a race/gender perspective (although not employing the stated
theory of intersectionality) can be found in the work of Linda Grant (1984,
1992, 1994). Grant’s examinations of the intersections of race and gender for
Black girls in classrooms shows how teachers tend to treat Black girls differ-
ently than they treat White girls or Black boys. Furthermore, Grant empha-
sizes how educators express more interest in promoting the social, rather than
academic, skills of Black girls. In Grant’s (1992) research, this emphasis on
social skills was less apparent for White girls, Black boys, and White boys.
These findings demonstrate the necessity of comprehending race and gender
simultaneously: Particular combinations of these factors tend to result in dis-
tinct educational perceptions and experiences.
Reproduction viewed through an intersectional lens can clarify seeming
contradictions in inequality, schooling and gender. For example, although
masculinity typically garners rewards in institutional settings, other factors
such as class, race, and sexuality may alter the experience and perception of
masculinity (Connell, 1995; Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). Educational
research has noted that boys from disadvantaged class backgrounds often
resist academic success, seeing it as effeminate and undesirable (MacLeod,
1995; Willis, 1977). In addition, several scholars have noted a pronounced
gender gap in achievement and attainment among African Americans and
Latinos, with females in these groups generally outperforming males (Lopez,
2003; Mickelson, 2003; Riordan, 2003). Some have suggested that this stems
from a strong stigma attached to race and class for young Black and Latino
males. This results in strained, often confrontational interactions between
these young men and educators.
Ferguson (2000), for example, argues that stereotypes of race and gender
combine to make (often very young) Black boys appear threatening or poten-
tially threatening, and serves to justify their harsh and persistent discipline in
schools. Lopez (2003) draws similar conclusions in her study of the educa-
tional experiences of Dominican, Haitian, and West Indian youth, the major-
ity of whom had an African phenotype. Lopez demonstrates how Dominican
male high school students endured surveillance and harsh discipline:
4 Youth & Society
“Through the implementation of security measures, young [Dominican] men
in particular were profiled and singled out as problematic throughout the
school” (p. 88). Dominican women, by contrast, did not undergo such disci-
pline, and developed closer relationships with educators.
Such research raises questions about the disciplinary experiences of girls,
however. Many argue that girls enjoy more educational advantages than boys
(Sommers, 2000; see Mickelson, 2003; Riordan, 2003, for reviews). Indeed,
the studies by Ferguson and Lopez demonstrate that Black girls are disci-
plined less than Black boys. But does this mean that the gender of Black girls
provides them with advantages over boys in classrooms? Instead of taking
such a dichotomous view, it might make more sense to examine the ways
Black boys and Black girls undergo distinctive disciplinary regimes in their
schooling. Schools might view many Black girls as problematic and subject
them to discipline, but in a different way than for Black boys. In this article,
I explore this proposition. Building on the work of Ferguson, Grant, and
Lopez, I examine how race, gender, and class interpretations combined to
influence the perceptions and discipline of Black girls. I analyze how class
and race-based perceptions impacted perceptions of femininity, making the
behavior of African American girls appear improper to many educators. The
discipline directed at Black girls was aimed to make them more “ladylike,
yet this same process appeared to discourage behaviors that could lead to
educational success.
Methods
This article emerges from a 2-year ethnographic study of a public, neigh-
borhood middle school. I call this school Matthews Middle School (a pseu-
donym, as are all names in this article). Matthews comprised seventh and
eighth grades, and enrolled approximately 1,000 students during my time
there. The faculty of the school consisted of approximately 60 educators,
who ranged from teaching veterans (close to 30 years of experience) to first-
year teachers. An African American woman served as the school’s principal,
and the faculty was roughly two-thirds African American and one-third
White, with just a handful of Latino and Asian American teachers. The
school was located in a predominately poor and working-class area. In the
final year of my research, the school had 66% of its students receiving free
or reduced-price lunch. The racial composition of the student body that year
was 46% African American, 43% Latino, 7% Asian American, and 3%
White. The external structure of the school appeared somewhat neglected,
Morris / Perceptions of Black Girls in Classrooms 5
with dingy, stained bricks, plain façade, and plainly landscaped grounds. The
interior of the school, by contrast, was bright and cheerful, displaying student
artwork on the walls, and constantly bustling with activity.
My fieldwork lasted from August 2000 to June 2002, although I visited the
campus only a few times from August to December of 2000. In January 2001
and continuing through June 2002, I made regular visits to the school, approx-
imately 2 to 4 days per week during the school year. I attempted to give back
to the school and improve rapport between myself and teachers by offering to
tutor students who needed extra help. The classes and students I tutored var-
ied, but I concentrated on writing because the school wanted to improve their
writing scores on the state assessment test. Tutoring gave me a chance to get
to know some students, as well as help out the school, which accommodated
my presence so graciously.
I typically observed at Matthews for several hours during the days I vis-
ited. This observation concentrated within classrooms, but I also observed
before school, during lunch, after school, and in hallways, the library, the
main office and the assistant principals’offices. I attended sporting events and
other extra-curricular activities and ceremonies. My observations did not
follow any particular pattern, and I tried to observe as many different
teachers and classes as possible. I did have more observation time with
certain teachers, but also spent enough time in other classrooms to discern
the extent to which my observations differed, or bore similarities, across
teachers. I observed or spoke with nearly every teacher during my time at
Matthews.
I recorded most interactions I observed in a small notebook while they
occurred. However, occasionally I sensed that this note-taking might be
obtrusive or distracting to teachers and students. In such cases, I wrote down
my notes as soon as possible after observing (see Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw,
1995). When I could only remember the basic idea of what someone said, I
did not record this as a quote. Thus, the quotes that I use in this analysis,
although not always verbatim, represent a very close approximation.2
I conducted a student survey to asses how students identified racially. I
asked each teacher to distribute this survey in their advisory periods (com-
monly known as “homeroom”), so that each student would have an oppor-
tunity to complete the survey. However, some teachers forgot to administer
the survey, some students were absent when the survey was administered,
and other students chose not to complete the survey. Thus, I received a total
of 581 completed surveys from approximately 1,000 students enrolled at
the time, yielding a response rate of approximately 58%.
6 Youth & Society
I conducted 14 semi-structured interviews with teachers and administra-
tors. I chose the interviewees based on a purposive sampling technique (see
Lofland, Snow, Anderson, & Lofland, 2006), meaning that I purposefully
intended the sample to vary by gender, racial/ethnic background, and years
of experience. I tape-recorded the first 2 of these interviews, but the respon-
dents appeared somewhat uneasy with the tape-recorder. This unease prob-
ably stemmed from several factors. First, I conducted the tape-recorded
interviews relatively early in my fieldwork, perhaps before gaining complete
rapport; second, the interview questions included sensitive topics regarding
race, class, and gender in education. Thus, I decided to eliminate the tape-
recorder and wrote down the other interviews as they occurred. These sub-
sequent interviews struck me as far more lucid and conversational than the
first 2. I analyzed my data using a modified version of the grounded theory
approach (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), meaning that I entered the field with cer-
tain interests in race, class, and gender inequality in mind, but remained rel-
atively open to making new discoveries from the data while in the field. For
example, my overarching research question concerned the academic and
social experiences of White students in this predominately minority school,
but I soon learned that their Whiteness only gained meaning in relation to
students of color, and that experiences of race varied according to under-
standings of class and gender (Morris, 2006). This meant that I systemati-
cally recorded experiences of Black girls, along with White students and
other students. I coded these data using focused coding (see Emerson et al.,
1995, pp. 160-162), identifying key themes, one of which pertained to the
classroom experiences of Black girls, which composes the basis for this arti-
cle. I found and coded examples that fell within this theme after reading
through interview and fieldnote transcripts manually.
My social position as a White middle-class man certainly shaped the way
I gathered and interpreted data. Especially because this article concerns the
experiences of students from a different gender, race, and class background
from my own, this created some social distance between myself and my par-
ticipants. Although I talked to Black girls at Matthews frequently, I was not
able to achieve the kind of social connection and bonding with these students
as someone who shared their race, gender, and age position. Furthermore, I
did not have the opportunity to tutor any Black girls. The teachers assigned
students to me for tutoring, generally because these students “needed extra
help,” and never paired me with a Black girl (although they did pair me with
several Latina girls). Thus, the reader will note less direct data from the
thoughts and words of Black girls than from their teachers. I certainly do not
Morris / Perceptions of Black Girls in Classrooms 7
mean for this to silence their voices—instead I have aimed to empathize
as much as possible with their experiences and tell their stories. In addi-
tion, many of the educators at Matthews, as I have mentioned, were
African American, and many of them women. Although I shared a simi-
lar position with them as an “adult” (I would argue that in the world of
middle school, the major social division lies between “adult” and “kid”),
I did not share their race and gender background. However, I found that I
was able to gain rapport with many of these teachers. In telling the stories
of all educators at Matthews, I have attempted to retain as much empathy
as possible. Although I am often critical of certain student-teacher inter-
actions, I do this only to reveal the complicated and tacit reproduction of
various inequalities in schools, not to place blame on particular educators
or this particular school.
Findings
I identified several themes in the educational experiences of Black girls
at Matthews, described below. Within each of these themes, gender, race,
and social class combined to impact perceptions and actions concerning
Blackness and femininity. This shaped the academic experience of Black
girls in complex and unique ways.
Black Girls’ Interactions in Classrooms
Much feminist literature has described the relative silence of girls in
classrooms and a concomitant drop in self-esteem for girls in their early
teens (Sadker & Sadker, 1994; American Association of University Women,
1992). But other work has noted that Black girls maintain their self-esteem
and their classroom “voice” into adolescence despite the fact that they may
feel neglected in education (Orenstein, 1994; Taylor et al., 1995). Indeed,
at Matthews I often observed girls—particularly Black girls—dominating
classroom discussion:
4/24/02. Mr. Carter, 7th grade English. The girls in this class, many of them
African American, answer and are involved in the discussion much more than
the boys, even when the discussion deals specifically with computers [a topic
of the story they are discussing]. A Black girl named Tanya and an East Asian
girl sitting at the front named Carla seem to be competing to answer the most
questions.
8 Youth & Society
[ . . . ] After the lunch break, the boys in the class seem even more discon-
nected. Mr. Carter tells a Hispanic boy to “sit up—don’t slouch.” He wakes
up a Black boy who is asleep on his desk. The boy complains that he just can’t
stay awake. Mr. Carter lets him leave with a hall pass to go to the bathroom and
wake up. Mr. Carter calls on some of the boys to try to get them involved, but
it doesn’t seem to work—most have not been following well. I ask him after
class if it was just the topic today that encouraged more participation from the
girls. He says no—that the class is always like that. He says that “the girls just
talk a lot.”
I noticed this active participation of girls to a greater extent in English
classrooms, particularly when, as in this example, the subject concerned
gender issues or relationships. However, the topic in this example also con-
cerned computers and technology, areas more commonly dominated by
boys. Furthermore, girls at Matthews, especially Black girls, spoke out to
ask and answer questions in science and math classes as well, although to a
lesser extent than in English and history classes.
This willingness of African American girls to compete and stand up to
others also emerged in their non-academic interactions with boys. At times
in this middle school (as is perhaps the case in any middle school) kids
often appeared to show affection for others by hitting and “messing with”
them. This occurred more frequently for boys, who often engaged in play-
fighting rituals with other boys to display masculinity in the context of
friendships (see also Connolly, 1998). Boys also initiated this behavior with
girls they appeared to have some affection for, almost as a way of flirting,
although ostensibly bordering on harassment (I did not see any touching or
grabbing of an explicitly sexual nature, although teachers said that this did
occur). Black girls often responded to these hitting and chasing games by
fighting back, such as in the following example:
Fieldnotes, 12/14/01. Ms. Farley, 8th grade English. Ms. Farley leaves me in
charge of the class while she looks for the article of a boy named Raymond on
the library computer. The kids get even worse after she leaves (and they were
pretty unruly before). Taron, a Black boy, trades hits with a Black girl named
Jan. Then he hangs out in the hall for a while. Alex, another Black boy, also
hits Jan and then runs, and she chases him and hits him back. They both stop
and look at me for a minute, but Jan says, “He won’t tell,” and they continue.
Once they start running around some more, chasing and hitting each other,
I feel compelled to tell them to stop even though I am trying to not be seen as
an authority figure. Ms. Farley then comes back into the room. The class con-
tinues to be unruly as she tries to get them started working on their writing.
Morris / Perceptions of Black Girls in Classrooms 9
Black girls at Matthews often challenged physical contact initiated by
boys by hitting and chasing them back. They did not yield to and accept this
behavior from boys, nor did they tend to seek adult authority to protect
themselves and punish the boys. Although the above exchange was playful,
it also involved some fairly rough hitting. However, Jan does not tell Ms.
Farley about Taron and Alex, and she does not ask for my protection. In con-
trast, she actually continues to chase Taron because she decides that I would
not make her stop, and that I would not tell Ms. Farley about their behavior.3
Thus, most African American girls in my observations did not hesitate to
speak up in classrooms, and stand up to boys physically. Few Black girls I
observed created disruptions in classrooms, but most consistently competed
with boys and other girls to gain teachers’ positive attentions. Such an attitude
and style within classrooms is not surprising when considering the historical
experiences of most African American women, who have long struggled
against race and gender oppression in ways that differ starkly from White
women. According to Fordham (1993):
African-American women’s history stands in striking contrast to that gener-
ally associated with white womanhood and includes (1) more than 200 years
in which their status as women was annulled . . . (2) systemic absence of pro-
tection by African-American and all other men; (3) construction of a new
definition of what it means to be female out of the stigma associated with the
black experience and the virtue and purity associated with white woman-
hood; and (4) hard work (including slave and domestic labor). (p. 8)
Thus, the historical exclusion from White, ideal models of femininity and
the requirement to be independent from men has forged outspokenness for
many Black women and girls. I observed this outspokenness at Matthews.
Black girls there appeared less restrained by the dominant, White middle-class
view of femininity as docile and compliant, and less expectant of male pro-
tection than White girls in other educational research (Holland & Eisenhart,
1990; Orenstein, 1994; Sadker & Sadker, 1994).
Black girls’ constructions of femininity also led, in many cases, to a pos-
itive view of education, serious attention to schoolwork, and pride in acad-
emic achievement. For example, Black girls took pre-Advanced Placement
(AP) courses in high numbers (see also Orenstein, 1994). Black girls com-
posed a greater percentage of students in these courses than Black boys or
Latina girls, although all three groups were similar in overall proportion of
the student body. According to my analysis of pre-AP enrollment, Black
girls outnumbered other race-gender groups in advanced courses, as Table
1 shows for selected subjects and pre-AP courses overall.
10 Youth & Society
Their high numbers in AP demonstrate not only that teachers held posi-
tive assessments of Black girls (students required teacher approval to take
these courses), but also that these girls cared enough about school to take
more rigorous courses. This pro-school attitude even appeared for girls
tracked into “regular” ability courses such as in the following example:4
Fieldnotes, 2/23/01. Mr. Patel, 8th grade science. The class is very unruly.
A Latino boy is removed from class by Mr. Patel. . . . Another boy, who looks
part Black and part Latino, is also sent out. In the midst of this commotion,
a Black girl named Cindy sitting next to me shows me the grade on her test.
“I make 100s,” she says proudly. As the class continues to act up she says to
me, “Look at how they’re acting—they act like children. It’s stupid, I’m just
trying to learn.”
Black girls such as Cindy appeared to take their education very seri-
ously. Thus, even in lower tracked classes these girls often strived to learn
and achieve. This is not to suggest that boys did not also possess a strong
interest in education, but Black girls appeared to voice their interest more
transparently (see also Lopez, 2003). I argue that the particular combination
of race and gender encouraged this. Black girls did not endure the same
strict discipline as Black and Latino boys, and tended to not be seen as quite
so troublesome:
Fieldnotes, 4/26/01. Mr. Pham, 8th grade elective class. In the course of this
boisterous class Mr. Pham has sent three Black boys to the [assistant princi-
pal’s] office [for stricter punishment]. He tells a Latino boy who has been
wrestling with another boy for most of the period to “lay off.” [Earlier Mr.
Pham sent another Latino boy to the office].
As I’m talking to Mr. Pham, he points out Kalina, a Black girl I’ve seen
before, and Cesar, a Latino boy, as good students. “I wish I had a whole class
Morris / Perceptions of Black Girls in Classrooms 11
Table 1
Enrollment in Pre-Advanced Placement (AP) by
Selected Student Group and Selected Courses,
2001 (in percentages)
Race-Gender Group Literature Science History All Pre-AP Courses
Black female 42 47 47 41
Black male 17 20 29 21
Latina female 8 7 6 7
Source: Matthews Middle School Records, 2001.
Note: Figures have been rounded.
like them,” Mr. Pham says. I ask him about Kendrick, a Black boy who Mr.
Pham calls by his nickname. Kendrick is not a good student according to Mr.
Pham [ ...] Later he asks another teacher walking by in the hall, “Can you
take him [Kendrick] back please? I don’t like him.
Like Mr. Pham in this example, teachers tended to discipline Black and
Latino boys strictly, while often depicting Black girls as good students.
Teachers appeared to view these girls as less threatening than Black and
Latino boys, thus facilitating a more comfortable position for them within the
classroom. At the same time, the self-reliance and outspokenness of many
Black girls allowed them to engage teachers’ attentions and deflect potential
distractions from other students.
Reactions to Black Girls from Teachers
The tendency of African American girls to assert themselves in class-
rooms and stand up to boys was not always interpreted positively by
teachers, however. Such behaviors appeared to work quite well for Black
girls academically, as evidenced by advanced course enrollment and positive
teachers’ perceptions. This stands in contrast to Grant’s (1992) observations
in mixed-race classrooms, where teachers did not describe Black girls as
among the top students. However, similar to Grant (1984) I noticed that edu-
cators at Matthews still focused less attention on the academic progress of
Black girls, and more attention on their comportment and social decorum
(see also Horvat & Antonio, 1999). As I have described elsewhere (Morris,
2005), most educators at Matthews expressed a keen interest in student dis-
cipline, with Black and Latino boys constituting the most harshly and regu-
larly disciplined groups at the school. However, as I will show, teachers did
subject Black girls to a particular form of discipline, largely directed at their
comportment. This discipline stemmed from perceptions of them as chal-
lenging to authority, loud, and not ladylike.
Perceived challenges to authority. Teachers, particularly women, often
scolded Black girls for supposedly subverting their authority in the class-
room, such as in the following excerpt:
Fieldnotes, 4/6/01. Ms. Harris, 7th grade math. A Black girl named Celia is
calling out answers to many of Ms. Harris’s questions, but getting many of
them wrong. Ms. Harris, a Black woman, tells Celia that she is just guessing,
and she needs to do the work on article [...] Later in the class, Ms. Harris
goes over a sample problem from the state assessment test on an overhead
12 Youth & Society
projector. Referring to a drawing Ms. Harris has made with the radius and
diameter, Celia shouts out from nowhere, “Why didn’t you put circumfer-
ence?” Ms. Harris is clearly disturbed by Celia’s comment. She threatens to
stop teaching because, as she describes it, Celia can now teach the class. The
class yells, “No!” wanting Ms. Harris to continue teaching. (This is probably
the first time I’ve seen a middle school class begging the teacher to teach.)
Celia puts her head down on the desk and is disengaged for the rest of the class.
I observed several instances of Black girls such as Celia being scolded for
calling out answers or questioning teachers. This reaction happened less fre-
quently for boys, and very rarely for girls of other racial and ethnic groups.
Thus, although Black girls often actively sought the attention of teachers in
classrooms, many teachers could interpret their questioning and assertive-
ness negatively. An African American teacher named Ms. Duncan alluded to
this during our conversation one day:
Fieldnotes, 12/18/01. I sit in Ms. Duncan’s class and talk to her a little. She
nods toward a Black girl and tells me, “I’m gonna get that one out of my class
’cause I just can’t take it anymore. [ . . . ] The counselor didn’t want to move
her,” she continues, “but we’re calling her mother and she’s going to make
her switch to another class because it won’t be a good situation if she stays
in here (chuckles).”
I say that probably sounds like a good idea. Ms. Duncan says, “Yeah, a lot
of the females, especially Black females here, try to have some authority over
me in class. [ . . . ] I say to them ‘uh-uh—I’m the only adult in here.’” She
pauses for a bit and then continues, “But they think they are adults too, and
they try to act like they should have control sometimes.
This statement from Ms. Duncan exemplifies the perception of Black girls
as too assertive, so much so, in her view, they even attempt to wrest control
of the class from her. Furthermore, she interprets the behavior of many Black
girls in this context as prematurely adult. Similarly, other teachers, such
as a White teacher named Mr. Lang, described girls at the school as very
“mature” and more sophisticated than boys (Interview, 2/26/01). This per-
ception echoes Grant’s (1992) observation that teachers in mixed-race class-
rooms often describe Black girls as socially (but not academically) mature.
It also bears similarities to Ferguson’s (2000) analysis of the adultification of
young Black boys by school officials. Ferguson describes how many adults
in the school she examined viewed elementary school-age boys as already
dangerous and deserving of harsh, adult-like punishment. This adultification
may pertain to Black girls as well, whom many view as overly sexual and
Morris / Perceptions of Black Girls in Classrooms 13
controlling at a young age. Collins (1990) discusses the stereotypical “con-
trolling image” of the Black female matriarch. The matriarch portrays a
negative view of African American femininity as overly aggressive and
dominant. Similar to Black boys, whose adultification leads to a perception
of them as aggressively masculine and justifies strict punishments, the adul-
tification of Black girls can lead to a perception of them as aggressively
feminine, which can justify restriction of their inquisitiveness and assertive-
ness in classrooms.
Interestingly, at Matthews this view of Black girls as challenging to author-
ity was expressed most often by Black female teachers. A Black teacher
named Ms. Taylor, for example, thought the girls behaved better for men than
women:
The girls here are very defiant, very challenging to authority. They like a
male teacher [ . . . ] but they will oppose a female [ . . . ] Also, I think the
opposite sex will let them get away with a little more. (Interview, 3/27/02)
In my observations of male and female teachers’ classrooms, I did not note
any discernable difference in behavior for Black girls. Black women teachers
appeared to discipline girls more often than male teachers did, perhaps because
they remained more aware of transgressions of students of their own gender.
However, as I have mentioned, I observed that both male and female teachers
disciplined boys, especially Black and Latino boys, the most persistently and
critically.
Previous research suggests that Black women teachers are particularly
conscious of stereotypes of Black women, and may actively try to rid Black
girls of behavior corresponding to these stereotypes (Tyson, 2003). This view
is also consistent with research that demonstrates how Black mothers include
lessons about encountering racism in their parenting (Ward, 1996), and
research demonstrating the importance of othermothers5and an extension of
family-like caring in the Black community (Collins, 1990; Thompson, 1998;
Ware, 2002). Thus, the Black female teachers at Matthews may have assumed
a caring, parenting role, which aimed to prepare Black girls for the racism and
sexism they would encounter as adults. In my observations, Black women
teachers did attend more closely to the behaviors of Black girls, and often took
more of an active role in attempting to reform those behaviors:
Fieldnotes, 4/26/02. Ms. Boyd, 7th grade history. Ms. Boyd, a Black woman,
tells Chantelle and Larissa, two Black girls, to stop talking. Chantelle responds,
“We is talking, but it’s about the assignment.” Ms. Boyd corrects her: “We are.”
Chantelle seems confused. Later, Ms. Boyd corrects her again for not saying
14 Youth & Society
“are.” She says, “I know this isn’t English [class], but you will speak correctly
in my class.”
This interest in reform coincided with a notion from many Black female
teachers that they should help instill the children with social skills. As Ms.
Boyd said, “You’re not just teaching [a subject], you’re teaching life skills. A
lot of these kids, they don’t get this at home” (Interview, 5/10/01). As I will
discuss further, this interest in social skills typically included molding Black
girls into traditionally feminine behavior, presumably to prepare them for a
White dominated world that might be critical of their femininity. Such a view
is consistent with the socially conscious and discipline-oriented version of
African American teacher caring documented in other research (Irvine, 2002;
Thompson, 1998). However, at Matthews, teachers’ interactions with and
assessments of Black girls were not always redolent of caring. The excerpts
from Ms. Duncan and Ms. Harris above, for example, demonstrate tense con-
frontations with Black girls in classrooms.
Some of the friction between Black female teachers and their Black
female students appeared to stem from social class. Much literature on
African American teachers and African American students (rightly) empha-
sizes race, and to a lesser extent gender (Irvine, 2002; Thompson, 1998), but
downplays social class. However, a substantial class bifurcation exists within
the Black community (Wilson, 1980; 1996). Black teachers occupy a mid-
dle-class position, which could lead to a social class-based division between
some Black teachers and some Black students. Evidence of such a division
emerged especially when teachers at Matthews discussed presumed family
problems in the area. Ms. Boyd in the quote above, for instance, indicates
that many of the students did not learn appropriate interactional skills from
their families. The perspective that the students “don’t get [these skills] at
home” suggests that area families lacked knowledge of middle-class-based
manners to transmit to their children. In addition, a negative view of mother-
headed households often imparted a gendered connotation to class differ-
ences, suggesting that boys would have no male role models in the home and
girls would be given too much responsibility and authority. Ms. Taylor
alluded to this in our interview when explaining discipline problems among
the students: “These parents are too young, they’re unemployed a lot of
times, they are formally uneducated, there is a lack of a male figure in the
home” (Interview, 3/27/02). According to Collins (1990, p. 75), the image of
the matriarch links assertive, “unfeminine” behavior in Black women and
girls to female-headed families and poverty, thus combining race, class,
and gender perceptions. This view of poverty and family shortcomings
Morris / Perceptions of Black Girls in Classrooms 15
prevailed at Matthews and influenced views of Black girls, even for Black
teachers. Ms. Taylor said later in our interview that she thought she “shares
a lot of [her]self with [the students]” because she grew up poor. However,
she drew differences in the fact that her parents stayed married, and she
was staying married to her husband—presenting a subtle, but important,
distinction in class-based family structure.
Of course, not all Black women teachers I observed viewed the girls and
the community in this way. But this indicates the complex intersections of
race, class, and gender, and how each factor can influence the others in
sometimes unexpected ways. Social class differences promoted a critical
view of Black girls and their families at Matthews, even from Black women
teachers. At the same time, these teachers (perhaps even in a caring way)
wanted Black girls to not reflect dominant stereotypes of Black women,
and appeared to take a special interest in these girls. This complex dynamic
demonstrates the importance of intersecting identities and interests in
teacher-student interactions.
Perceived loudness. By far the most common description and criticism of
African American girls by all teachers at Matthews was that they were too
“loud.” Ms. Boyd expressed this perception:
The boys here are always quiet and the girls are real loud. Girls are loud at
this age, they have attitude. They won’t want to do something, or think some-
thing is stupid, and move their heads back and forth and click at me.
(Fieldnotes, 4/12/01)
Ms. Boyd speaks of girls in general in this quote, but her description of
clicking and head movement reflects stereotypical Black female behavior.
Furthermore, other teachers linked this loud and insolent behavior to Black
girls specifically, as Ms. Duncan mentions in the quote given earlier. This per-
ception of Black girls as loud provoked discipline from many teachers, as in
the following example:
Fieldnotes, 4/10/02. As I walk by the classrooms a Black girl who is among
a group of Black students standing out in the hall [of a White woman
teacher’s classroom] says, “Hi Matthews Visitor!” and asks my name. I say I
am Mr. Ed and ask why she is in the hall. She tells me she got in trouble for
being loud.
Mr. Neal, an African American teacher, similarly described Black girls
specifically as loud and confrontational. He went on to link this stance to
16 Youth & Society
the fact that Black girls do not enjoy the same institutional benefits as other
girls:
Fieldnotes, 3/6/02. I say to Mr. Neal that I’ve noticed that the Black girls will
defend themselves. He says, “Yeah, see they’ve learned to be combative because
they don’t have the system behind them. They’ve learned this to survive.
This statement from Mr. Neal is very insightful, and in fact echoes what
scholars have claimed about the unique history of Black girls and women
(Collins, 1990; Fordham, 1993; Glenn, 2002). Mr. Neal suggests that Black
girls have learned to be assertive because they do not enjoy the same sys-
temic protections as other girls, and have learned to stand up for themselves
“to survive.” However, according to Mr. Neal, this strategy ultimately results
in a negative “combative” demeanor.
“Ladylike” behavior. For many adults at Matthews, the presumed loud
and confrontational behavior of African American girls was viewed as a
defect that compromised their very femininity. This emerged most clearly in
educators castigating Black girls to behave like “ladies”:
Fieldnotes, 4/27/01. I am observing in Ms. Taylor’s class, which is separated
from another classroom only by a small wall with a large open passageway.
In the adjoining classroom, there is a loud fight between two girls and the
teacher of that class has to leave, I assume to take the kids to the office. While
their teacher is gone, the class next door gets very unruly. They eventually get
so loud, Ms. Taylor has to go over and tell them to settle down. “You need to
grow up,” she tells them. She calls one Black girl “unladylike.” “You are a
young lady,” Ms. Taylor informs her, “You shouldn’t be screaming—speak in
a normal tone.” She calls the girl over to the space between the classrooms
and threatens to call the girl’s mother.
Perceptions of the loudness and aggressiveness of Black girls translated
into discipline aimed at curbing this behavior. Admonitions and instructions
in ladylike behavior for Black girls, such as the example above, abounded at
Matthews. The intention of this discipline appeared to be to mold them into
exhibiting more “acceptable,” stereotypical qualities of femininity such as
being quieter and more passive.
Perceptions of Black girls as not sufficiently ladylike can also be linked
perceptions of these girls as prematurely adult, mentioned earlier. Many
teachers described the girls at the school as too sexually mature. A White
teacher named Ms. Phillips, for example, told me that “a lot more girls are
Morris / Perceptions of Black Girls in Classrooms 17
going off campus with boys picking them up [...]their appearance is too
provocative” (Interview, 11/26/01); and a Black teacher named Mr. Kyle
stated that “these ladies here are fast—they’ve got boys 25, 26 calling after
them” (Interview, 3/22/02). This perceived over-active and overly mature
sexuality stands in contrast to dominant proscriptions of ladylike restriction
of sexuality. Thus, part of the project to instill ladylike behavior involved
circumscribing “provocative” behavior. Tensions over student dress demon-
strated this most saliently. Some teachers attempted to dissuade Black girls
at the school from wearing overly provocative “hoochie mama” clothing,
seen as a mark of inappropriate, overly sexual femininity:
Fieldnotes, 5/15/02. The school usually requires uniforms, but it’s a free
dress day today. I’m sitting in an Art class. A Black woman who is an aide
for the class asks a Black girl, “Why you wearin’ that hoochie mama skirt? I
can almost see your butt in that!” The girl ignores what the aide said and con-
tinues working on her project.
Indeed, one of the reasons the school required uniforms was to restrict
tight or revealing clothing, along with oversized or baggy clothing (the motto
for free dress days was “not too baggy, not too tight”). Many students, includ-
ing Black girls, indicated to me their dislike of this restricted dress:
Fieldnotes, 4/2/02. As I come in [to the classroom] and take a seat a light
skinned Black girl says “Hey—he in all my classes!” And then asks me,
“Why you in all my classes mister?” I tell her I go to lots of different classes
at the school, not just hers [ . . . ] Later I ask her if she likes it at Matthews.
She says, “Yeah, I guess so—’cept the uniforms.”
As with the examples above, Black girls often disagreed with, or sim-
ply ignored, restrictions on their dress and behavior. In Ms. Taylor’s class
especially, Black girls often appeared perplexed by her insistence on lady-
like actions and dress. But because teachers occupied positions of author-
ity, Black girls typically complied with their commands. Furthermore, I
observed much evidence of Black girls actually accepting the emphasis on
traditional femininity. For example, the school had two voluntary student
clubs ostensibly geared toward teaching proper manners of dress, speech,
and comportment. Both clubs attracted numerous members, who consisted
almost entirely of Black girls. One of these clubs was a specific etiquette
club, and the other was a more general girls club called The Proper Ladies.
The Proper Ladies appeared patterned after a college sorority. The club carried
out formal functions, taught girls formal dress and grooming, occasionally
18 Youth & Society
visited area colleges, and performed community service. To be sure, the club
included many positive impacts for these girls, but it also aimed to signifi-
cantly alter their behavior. For example, although I never witnessed this
while I observed at Matthews, a teacher told me that The Proper Ladies held
a week in which the members could not speak in classrooms unless spoken
to first. This teacher laughed in recounting this, describing it as a great break
for the teachers. Although many Black girls voluntarily showed interest in
The Proper Ladies, activities such as this week of speaking solely on com-
mand could only obstruct the voices of girls in the club.
But African American girls also showed resistance to traditional expres-
sions of femininity emblematized in ladylike behavior. This resistance often
appeared in subtle ways, rather than blatant opposition to teachers’ requests
for traditionally feminine manners. In the example of the “hoochie mama”
accusation given earlier, the Black girl simply ignored what the adult said,
perhaps recognizing that the adult was just an aide, not a full teacher.
Teachers and administrators, of course, carried the authority to make the girls
comply, even against their wishes. As Scott (1990) argues, however, much of
the resistance of subordinate groups appears in “hidden transcripts,” or sub-
tly veiled forms of opposition. Such a hidden transcript of resistance from
Black girls at Matthews could be seen in examples such as the following:
Fieldnotes, 3/25/02. Ms. Powell, 7th grade math. At one point [during the
class], a group of Black girls on one end of the room start laughing, and shout
that someone has farted. One exclaims, “that’s not ladylike!” And they all
break into convulsive laughter.
The Black girl in this example ostensibly internalizes an interest in lady-
like behavior and uses this to admonish her classmates, much like a teacher.
However, her use of humor suggests that her statement is actually a parody of
many teachers’ concern with traditionally feminine behavior. This example
shows how the discourse of acting ladylike pervaded the lives of Black girls
at Matthews, appearing in their own conversations. At the same time, how-
ever, these girls did not necessarily internalize a focus on models of feminin-
ity steeped in silence and restriction, and in fact discursively subverted this
focus in subtle ways.
It is also important to recognize that not all teachers at Matthews encour-
aged traditional, ladylike behavior from Black girls. Some in fact used the
term lady in a very different way than a model of femininity based on docil-
ity. A Black woman named Ms. Cooper, for instance, used this term while
encouraging more participation from girls in her classroom:
Morris / Perceptions of Black Girls in Classrooms 19
Fieldnotes, 4/12/01. Ms. Cooper says “Ladies, you need to get more involved
and answer some of these questions. Why am I not hearing from my young
ladies? I read a study that said that boys answer more than girls do—now
don’t let this be true in my class.” When Ms. Cooper continues, the girls do
get more involved, especially some Black girls [sitting] up front.
Such encouragement for girls to be more assertive was not the norm at the
school, however. And most of these girls accepted, rather than openly resisted,
efforts to modify their behavior. Clubs such as The Proper Ladies, as well as
many teachers in daily classroom interactions, appeared intent on molding
Black girls into more mainstream models of femininity—models that included
more “proper” behavior such as bodily control and restriction, speaking in a
quieter way, and being more receptive to authority and instruction. This focus
revealed a perception that the femininity of Black girls was somehow flawed.
I did observe Black girls to be assertive and outspoken in classrooms, but I did
not observe this behavior to be consistently obnoxious or disruptive. Instead,
it demonstrated that many African American girls simply showed an interest
and excitement in learning, and were engaged in the class. Ironically, many
educators at Matthews viewed as problematic the same set of behaviors that
led Black girls to pursue their learning in a concerted and self-reliant way. In
their genuine attempts to help these girls by teaching them proper ladylike
manners, educators often unintentionally stifled the outspokenness and
assertiveness that forged academic success for many African American girls at
Matthews.
The discipline of Black girls from Black educators at Matthews, however,
could be viewed as an effort to model behavior that might be more acceptable
to a White-dominated society (Delpit, 1995; Tyson, 2003). Literature on
African American teachers indicates that they carry a unique focus on over-
coming racism and discrimination into their classrooms, taking on a responsi-
bility to prepare Black students, in particular, for the negative experiences they
will undoubtedly encounter in White-dominated institutions (Ware, 2002;
Irvine, 2002). Although Tyson (2003) empathizes with the intent of preparing
African American students for a critical White society, she notes that it might
inadvertently reinforce dominant representations of African Americans, espe-
cially if students do not understand the reason for such discipline. At
Matthews, I observed that this understanding depended on the teacher. Some
teachers, such as Ms. Cooper (a favored teacher among all students, including
Black girls) used the term lady in an emancipatory way, encouraging young
girls to speak out in the classroom. Her understanding of being a lady actually
coincided with the strength, outspokenness, and self-reliance traditionally
rooted in Black femininity (Emerson, 2002; Thompson, 1998). However,
20 Youth & Society
other educators’ versions of ladylike behavior, even from Black women such
as Ms. Taylor, encouraged bodily control, quietness, and passivity—qualities
that would seem to restrict more than enable the progress of these girls.
Even though some teachers’ work with Black girls stimulated counter-
hegemonic enactments of femininity, the interest in ladylike behavior in gen-
eral appeared to reinforce dominant, negative representations of Black girls
as inadequately feminine. This reinforced view could be seen even within the
walls of the school. A White teacher named Mr. Wilson, for example, contin-
ued to interpret many Black girls as too assertive. He described The Proper
Ladies in the following manner:
The Proper Ladies haven’t shown me much. I haven’t seen the change in
behavior there. The Proper Ladies—I don’t call them the Proper Ladies, I call
them The Proper Loudies (laughs). Because they’re so loud—they are really
the most abrasive group of girls (laughs)! (Interview, 5/15/02)
The stereotypical view of Black girls as loud and challenging was resilient
at Matthews. Despite the efforts of some educators to rework these girls’
behaviors into closer approximations of hegemonic notions of womanhood,
views of their femininity as abrasive and flawed persisted. In fact, the very
project to reform the femininity of these girls itself indicated something prob-
lematic in this femininity.
Discussion
In the case of Black girls at Matthews, race and class impacted perceptions
of femininity, which impacted their experience of schooling. These girls did
not experience the same forms of classroom discipline and teacher-student
interaction as White girls, Latina girls, Latino boys, or Black boys shown in
other research (Ferguson, 2000; Lopez, 2003; Morris, 2005). The stereotypes
and resulting treatment pertaining to Black girls were unique to them,
although certainly influenced by dominant ideas of race, class, and gender
more generally. Blackness, along with perceptions of class and family back-
ground, impacted perceptions of the femininity of these girls. Their assertive
behaviors, which schools and families often subtly encourage for White and
middle-class children (Lareau, 2002, 2003; Anyon, 1980), tended to be inter-
preted as abrasive and aggressive. This tainted perceptions of Black feminin-
ity in this working-class environment, making these girls appear inadequately
feminine—lacking control over themselves, yet trying to establish control
over others in inappropriate ways. Such perceptions resulted in patterns of
Morris / Perceptions of Black Girls in Classrooms 21
discipline intended to re-form the femininity of African American girls into
something more “acceptable.” However, this more acceptable form of femi-
ninity often included many traditional aspects of female deference such as
passivity and silence.
This interplay is reminiscent of Willis’s (1977) classic study of working-
class boys in Britain. Willis describes the perspective of the “lads,” a group of
boys who vehemently opposed school, as partially characterized by certain
penetrations, or insights into the structure of class inequality. Through such
penetrations, these boys critiqued and resisted the dominant ideology of an
existing meritocracy and personal responsibility for class position. Although
less transparent, the perspective and behavior of African American girls at
Matthews reflects a certain critique and resistance of gender inequality. These
girls’ actions suggested alternative embodiments of femininity that refused to
accept a passive, deferential position in the gender order. The unique history
of Black women perhaps contributed to a standpoint from which Black girls
could reject the dominant ideology of gender inequality (Fordham, 1993;
Collins, 1990; Thompson, 1998). Their actions also produced practical
results—namely academic success—that demonstrated the benefits of this
approach. However, many adults viewed this alternative model of femininity
as culturally inadequate. And although some Black girls resisted efforts to
curb their unbridled, independent behavior, most acquiesced or even vol-
untarily participated in re-forming themselves into traditional, restrained,
“young ladies.” Thus, the penetrations leading to the success of many Black
girls and women in the face of race and class inequalities could be under-
mined in favor of reinforcing a hegemonic model of womanhood. Similar to
the lads, whose hindrance according to Willis came primarily from their fas-
cination with a dominant, physical masculinity, the hindrance of Black girls
at Matthews stemmed from an emphasis on a passive, docile femininity.
This model of womanhood appeared to counteract the very qualities—
outspokenness, assertiveness—that made many Black girls in my observa-
tions successful academically. Some teachers at Matthews, such as Ms.
Collins, encouraged outspoken behavior from girls, even while describing
them as ladies. But for most teachers, molding these girls into young ladies,
included subtly (and unwittingly) molding them into less active learners.
Conclusion
In analyzing the complex workings of inequality in education, it is essen-
tial to view inequality as multi-faceted and interconnected. I argue that the
22 Youth & Society
lens of intersectionality, which understands race, class, and gender as inter-
twined factors that might alter the experience and meaning of one another,
best illuminates the often contradictory experience of educational inequality
for Black girls. Much previous research in educational inequality has been
dominated by reproduction theory—the theory that schools reinforce and
sometimes exacerbate existing social inequalities. This perspective has
often expressed class, gender, and race as analytically distinct inequalities
(Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Dillabough, 2003; Delpit, 1995). I suggest instead
that social reproduction must be viewed through an intersectional lens.
Reproduction does not take place according to race, class, and gender inde-
pendently, but in combination. Through this combination, these factors do
not just layer on top of each other, but also interact with each other in pro-
found and sometimes unexpected ways.
These interactions can produce unequal consequences. It is interesting, for
example, that many teachers criticized Black girls for perceived challenges to
authority, and thought this behavior required reform. Indeed, other research
shows that a “hidden curriculum” often encourages this same behavior for
middle-class and White students—a situation that many scholars suggest
conditions them to be critical learners and successfully attain middle-class
and upper-class occupations (Anyon, 1980). Black girls who exhibited all the
trappings of young ladies might have appeared to be good students in their
behavior, but the gender-specific qualities associated with a “well-behaved”
student are not always the qualities associated with academic and occupa-
tional excellence.
Notes
1. In this article, I will alternate between the terms “African American” and “Black” for
readability and because educators and students at the school alternated between these terms.
2. Based on the suggestion of Spradley (1979), I intended to record methodological deci-
sions, hunches, and other issues in a separate notebook. However, because I found it logisti-
cally easier to record these thoughts on the spot, I soon began to include them in my primary
field notebook under separate headings (for a more thorough description of the methods for
this project, see Morris, 2006).
3. I made it a point to not discipline children unless absolutely necessary for their (or my)
safety. I did this because I did not want the kids to see me as one of the teachers, which could
accentuate the social distance between myself and the students (see also Bettie, 2003; Thorne,
1993).
4. The school had three tracks: “pre-Advanced Placement” for high achievers, “regular” for
middle achievers, and “resource” for low achieving students designated as special educational
needs.
5. Othermothers can be defined as Black women who take on roles of surrogate parents in
Black communities.
Morris / Perceptions of Black Girls in Classrooms 23
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Edward W. Morris is an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio University. His research
interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender, white privilege, and education.
His recent publications include articles in Sociology of Education,Sociological Perspectives,
and Symbolic Interaction (forthcoming). His book An Unexpected Minority: White Kids in an
Urban School was recently published by Rutgers University Press (2006).
26 Youth & Society
... Notably, Black boys are viewed as older, less innocent, and more prone to criminality than boys of other races (Goff et al., 2014;McHale et al., 2006). Black girls are read as older, viewed as aggressive and volatile, objectified sexually, and face discriminatory beauty standards rooted in anti-Blackness (Davis Tribble et al., 2019;Morris, 2007), reflecting the gendered nature of the White racial frame (Feagin, 2013). If White parents of Black children lack awareness of the intersectional nature of societal stereotypes, they may be poor agents of racial socialization. ...
... In addition to children's gender, children's developmental stage may inform and nuance parents' racial socialization practices, such that as Black youth move into adolescence, they receive more messages of preparation for bias and promotion of mistrust (e.g., Black children are warned to be wary of other racial groups as a protective measure; Hughes et al., 2006;McHale et al., 2006). In turn, as Black children enter adolescence, they are vulnerable to stereotypes about Black adults (e.g., men as dangerous; women as promiscuous or overly assertive), thus enhancing their risk of mistreatment (Morris, 2007;Turner, 2011). ...
... Echoing prior work (McHale et al., 2006), and in line with a gendered racialized frame (Feagin, 2013), parents were more likely to engage in preparation for bias with sons than with daughters, especially when they looked older than they were; or, when AFAB children could be mistaken for Black men, reflecting concerns about stereotypes of Black men as threatening (Goff et al., 2014). Thus, few parents-and generally parents of more masculine-appearing girls-noted an awareness that their Black daughters might come under scrutiny for being too loud, aggressive, or unladylike, and thus face the risk of harassment by authority figures (Brunson & Miller, 2006;Malone Gonzalez, 2019;Morris, 2007), underscoring how attention on Black men as violent may undermine parents' understanding and preparedness related to Black girls' gendered racial vulnerability (Leath et al., 2020). Notably, some parents were concerned about their Black daughters' risk for sexualization, a theme that has been discussed in relation to Black mothers of Black daughters (Leath et al., 2020), but one that may be more challenging or awkward for White parents of Black daughters to raise, given a lack of shared experience. ...
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This study explores White middle‐class adoptive parents' experiences with parenting Black children (M age = 12.3), attending to how intersections of children's race, gender, and developmental stage informed and nuanced parents' approach to racial socialization. Scholarly debate regarding the adoption of Black children by White parents centers on parents' ability to facilitate positive racial identity development. Limited work has explored how White parents' approach to racial socialization is shaped by Black children's gender and developmental stage, particularly as children grow older and encounter intensified racialized stereotypes. Twenty‐five White parents (11 lesbian mothers, seven gay fathers, seven heterosexual mothers) were selected from a larger sample of 128 adoptive families because they adopted Black (including biracial/multiracial) children, and were interviewed as their children entered adolescence. Thematic analysis was used to analyze the qualitative data. A typology emerged that captured parents' racial awareness and racial socialization approach: Minimizing and Reluctant, Worried and Fumbling, Aware but Cautious, and Reflexive and Purposeful. Additional cross‐cutting themes centered on the role of the sociopolitical climate, gender, and developmental stage in racial socialization. Contemporary adoptive parents of Black children are often constrained by their own White racial frame, but some parents, especially those who are younger or have monoracial children, are able to translate awareness of the complexities involved in raising adopted Black children into meaningful action and understanding.
... Studies have linked the prevalence and subsequent implications of teacherbased discrimination and disproportionate discipline policies on Black girls' academic and psychosocial adjustment (Blake et al., 2011;Bryan et al., 2018;Leath et al., 2019;Butler-Barnes and Inniss-Thompson, 2020;Hines-Datiri and Carter Andrews, 2020;Cooper et al., 2022). While educational spaces may be envisioned as safe spaces for many youth, studies specific to Black girls have found that Black girls experience discrimination in their school and classroom contexts (Morris, 2007;Morris and Perry, 2017;Nunn, 2018;Carter Andrews et al., 2019). These experiences communicate broader societal perceptions of Black girls' academic abilities and inform their identity development. ...
... When participants were asked to share what stereotypes they believed existed about Black girls, they expressed that people described Black girls as being "loud, ghetto, extra, rowdy, uneducated, and unable to graduate." The stereotypes that participants named are aligned with the decades of scholarship that highlighted the negative stereotypes of Black girls often held by teachers and school support staff (Morris, 2007;Archer-Banks and Behar-Horenstein, 2012;Neal-Jackson, 2018;Annamma et al., 2019;Carter Andrews et al., 2019;Gadson and Lewis, 2021). ...
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Full-text available
While educational settings may be envisioned as safe spaces that facilitate learning, foster creativity, and promote healthy development for youth, research has found that this is not always true for Black girls. Their negative experiences within educational settings are both gendered and racialized, often communicating broader societal perceptions of Black girls that ultimately shape their identity development. Utilizing semi-structured interviews with adolescent Black girls (n = 12), the current investigation explored Black girls' educational experiences, their meaning making of Black girlhood, and the role of parents in their positive development. By centering Black girls' voices, this study illuminated how Black girls negotiate their multiple marginalized identities and how their identities are shaped by their home and school environments. Findings revealed that Black girls are aware of the difficulties in navigating educational settings for Black girls, but this awareness was coupled with parental support that promoted positive gendered racial identities for Black girls in middle school and high school. This investigation advanced current knowledge of Black girls' identity development and highlighted the protective role of parental socialization. Future research directions and implications are also discussed.
... For example, racialized expectations of femininity for Hispanic girls may increase pressure to provide support in friendships (Stanton-Salazar & Spina, 2005) that taxes girls' own mental health. Additional behavior regulation in school due to racist stereotypes may socially sanction Black girls' tight-knit peer groups (Morris, 2007). Young Asian women may face gendered racism from peers through expectations of compliance or submissiveness (Ahn et al., 2021) that can similarly affect the benefits of cohesion to mental health. ...
... Racialized hypermasculine stereotypes (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005) may further limit friends from becoming supportive resources (Lindsey et al., 2010). Racialized gendered stereotypes of boys of color as violent or confrontational (Morris, 2007) may also shape perceptions of racial/ethnic minority boys' peer groups, leading to potential sanctions for tight-knit groups. ...
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Adolescence is a developmental period when peer network structure is associated with mental health. However, how networks relate to distress for youth at different intersecting racial/ethnic and gender identities is unclear. Using National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health survey data, cross-sectional models examine peer network cohesion predicting adolescent depressive levels for racial/ethnic and gender groups. The analytic sample is N = 13,055, average age 15.3 years, 50.2% female, 68.8 % White, 17.2% Black, 9.7% Hispanic, and 4.2% Asian. The results indicate that average cohesion, depressive levels, and cohesion associated with depressive levels differ by race/ethnicity and gender, with the greatest benefits for White and Black girls. This work clarifies patterns of adolescent networks and mental health by race/ethnicity and gender.
... For example, educators often label Black girls as loud (E. Morris, 2007) and aggressive (Lindsay & Hart, 2016). Simultaneously, the adultification of Black girls demands that they act older, resulting in educators punishing them when they act their age (Epstein et al., 2017). ...
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This study explores how an ideology of color-evasive racism (i.e., color evasiveness; Annamma et al., 2017) imbued white educators' discourse surrounding intersectional inequities in schools for Girls of Color in the U.S. Our analysis of interview and focus group data addresses a gap in educational research identifying color-evasive racism in discourse by in-service educators, specifically for white educators making sense of inequities in schools. We draw from Bonilla-Silva's (2018) application of color-blindness to discourse to identify three specific discursive frames that white educators employ, namely 1) centering self, 2) claiming white racial innocence, and 3) employing progressive notions, and the discursive tools within each. This focus on white educators' discourse expands understandings of how color-evasivene racism is employed, (re)producing intersectional inequities in education. Given that each of these educators was nominated because of their strengths working with Girls of Color, we believe this paper's significance captures the complexities of teaching in a system of white supremacy and identifies underlying ideologies animating discourse that can be disrupted through a Disability Critical Race Theory (DisCrit) lens.
... Finally, scholars have documented problems not only in formal curricula, but also in the informal or hidden curricula-the implicit messages embedded in sexuality education-through which educators may inadvertently promote class, gender, and race stereotypes (Fields, 2008;Morris, 2007). Future research and practice should prioritize efforts to hire SRH educators and service providers from local communities with diverse linguistic and sociocultural backgrounds and skillsets, as well as support training based in the tenets of cultural humility (Greene- ...
Article
Full-text available
Introduction When it is offered, sexuality education in the USA is far from standardized. While studies have explored differences in delivery and type of sexuality education across the USA, sexual and reproductive health inequities persist among historically marginalized groups (Latino/a/x, Black, African American, LGBTQ +). There is a critical need to better understand the systemic barriers to receiving effective sexuality education in these communities. Methods Participatory research methods were used in working with a community advisory board (CAB)—consisting of emerging adults and service providers from community-based organizations (CBOs) serving youth—to examine how structural barriers contribute to adolescent sexual and reproductive health (ASRH) inequities in Massachusetts. CAB meetings and semi-structured interviews were conducted in the cities of Springfield (n = 14) and Lynn (n = 9) between December 2020 and May 2021. Results Inflexible funding guidelines, a related evidence-based curricular mandate, and a lack of community-responsive sexuality education fail to meet the sexual and reproductive health (SRH) needs of these youth. Conclusions Current evidence-based mandates must be revisited to improve young people’s access to quality sexuality information in public schools. To guarantee sexuality education curricula is centered in the context of the community and population in which it is implemented, collaboration between youth-serving CBOs and school districts could improve students’ overall experience and social-emotional growth by providing comprehensive, positive, and community-responsive curricula. Policy Implications Funders and programming should prioritize community responsiveness by financially supporting and developing and/or adapting evidence-based curricula to better match the community’s needs, which can be completed through culture-centered training and community-based partnership.
Chapter
This chapter focuses on nonviolent discipline practices within classroom settings. The authors draw upon a trauma-informed perspective as a means to encourage professionals working with children to engage in best practices as they decide how to best discipline children under their care. They also address a few examples of nonviolence in U.S. history because peace has worked multiple times as a means to solve social problems. In addition, they provide a brief history of discipline in U.S. schools and how that has evolved over time. Furthermore, they explain possible causes of trauma in children, how to discipline children with histories of trauma, how to implement trauma-informed care in K-12 settings, as well as provide examples of trauma-informed classroom strategies. Using a case study, they provide an example of how to guide teachers to use nonviolent discipline in their work with children with histories of trauma.
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The data on COVID‐19 show an irrefutable and disturbing pattern: Black Americans are contracting and dying from COVID‐19 at rates that far exceed other racial and ethnic groups. Due to historical and current iterations of racism, Black Americans have been forced into conditions that elevate their risk for COVID‐19 and consequently place Black children at the epicenter of loss across multiple domains of life. The current paper highlights the impact of the pandemic on Black children at the individual, family, and school levels. Based on an understanding of the influence of structural racism on COVID‐19 disparities, policy recommendations are provided that focus on equitable access to quality education, home ownership, and employment to fully address the needs of Black children and families during and after the pandemic. Research, practice, and policy recommendations are made to journal editors, funding agencies, grant review panels, and researchers regarding how research on COVID‐19 should be framed to inform intervention efforts aimed at improving the situation of Black children and families.
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Black women have played an integral role in Black liberation struggles. Yet there is little psychological scholarship on Black women’s contribution to social justice movements, particularly beyond conventional forms of activism, such as protesting and voting. To address this gap, the current study draws on Black feminist epistemology to present a multidimensional framework of Black college women’s sociopolitical development. Using consensual qualitative research methods, we analyzed semistructured interview data from 65 Black college women (18-24 years) to explore their understandings of agency, civic engagement, and resistance. Eight themes emerged— gaining knowledge, self-advocacy, sisterhood, self-love, educating others, collective organizing and leadership, community care, and career aspirations. Our results situate Black college women’s activism within a sociohistorical framework of Black feminist organizing and underscore the overlapping roles of self-awareness, interpersonal relationships, and institutional knowledge. The authors discuss how the contemporary racial and sociopolitical climate in the United States informed the participants’ social justice orientation and how their involvement and investment in the Black community helped the participants reframe racial violence and oppression into narratives of resistance and healing.
Book
Racial and ethnic minority groups in the United States have been growing rapidly in recent decades. Projections based on census data indicate that, in coming years, white people will statistically dominate noticeably fewer regions and public spaces. How will this reversal of minority status affect ideas about race? In spaces dominated by people of color, will attitudes about white privilege change? Or, will deeply rooted beliefs about racial inequality be resilient to numerical shifts in strength? In An Unexpected Minority, sociologist Edward Morris addresses these far-reaching questions by exploring attitudes about white identity in a Texas middle school composed predominantly of African Americans, Latinos, and Asians. Based on his ethnographic research, Morris argues that lower-income white students in urban schools do not necessarily maintain the sort of white privilege documented in other settings. Within the student body, African American students were more frequently the "cool" kids, and white students adopted elements of black culture-including dress, hairstyle, and language-to gain acceptance. Morris observes, however, that racial inequalities were not always reversed. Stereotypes that cast white students as better behaved and more academically gifted were often reinforced, even by African American teachers. Providing a new and timely perspective to the significant role that non-whites play in the construction of attitudes about whiteness, this book takes an important step in advancing the discussion of racial inequality and its future in this country
Chapter
Updated version of her famous essay "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack."