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Students in Professors Kerry Haynie and Ralph Lawrence’s fall 2017 Duke Immerse program discuss the life-changing semester they spent traveling to different cities learning about urban governance and structural inequality.
By the year 2050, approximately 7 billion people will be living in cities worldwide. This makes it imperative that we not only think about how best to plan and build urban centers in terms of physical features and infrastructure, but that we also pay attention to how inhabitants interact and coexist in these environments, and how politics and public policy can significantly affect these human interactions.
The Governance, Policy, and Society Duke Immerse program (GPS) is a research-intensive semester-long examination of politics, policymaking, and social interactions in urban settings. GPS uses 3 U.S. cities, Atlanta, New Orleans and Durham, and two cities in South Africa, Durban and Pietermaritzburg, as case studies and sites for student fieldwork. In both the U.S. and South Africa, racial and class divisions and group-based disparities remain prominent features of the urban landscape, despite the formal barriers of segregation having come down, sixty years ago in the U.S., and two-and-a-half decades ago in South Africa. The persistence of these various divisions and disparities has serious implications for community cohesion, race relations, public health, education, and general economic and social development.
Along with these topics, GPS Duke Immerse participants examine issues such as gentrification, urban redevelopment, economic mobility, zoning, public safety enforcement, public-private initiatives, tourism and leisure, and political decision-making. An underlying premise of GPS is that comparative analyses provide an opportunity for expanding knowledge and understanding of patterns of social and economic deprivation. Such analyses also have the potential of suggesting policy reforms and prescriptions that could contribute to more cooperative group relations and enhanced opportunities for all to have a fair chance at significant positive economic mobility.
Here, students in the course discuss their experiences.
What was the most different about this Duke Immerse semester than a “typical” Duke semester?
Tionne Barmer: I think something that’s great is that we have all four classes together and with the same professors so I think you definitely get to know everyone on a personal basis. You get to benefit from that group dynamic, which is really nice because we can all bond over doing the work or traveling or living together when we were in New Orleans or when we were in South Africa, so I think that part was very nice.
Donovan Bendana: I think what’s most unique about this semester is all of us are really interested in the topics and the issues that we’re learning about and it’s not “Oh, I’m taking this class as a requirement” or “I’m not really interested in this, I’m just trying to fill an arts credit” or something like that. But with this program, everyone’s really interested in the topics and really engaged and it pushes me, at least, to learn more and do better in the class.
Kevin Solomon: I also really like how this program is structured on the same theme. Like we looked at the same topics that are all very similar about urban politics, about urban affairs. So as in a regular or typical semester, I would take statistics and English and maybe a political science course — I’d have a very eclectic range of courses. And this program I get to really focus and dive into a topic like gentrification or transportation policy. And that’s really unique and, rather than just getting the broad outlines, you really get to see it and understand it.
For example, I get to see how transportation connects to affordable housing and I get to see how that compares in the United States and in South Africa. Whereas, in another class, if it’s just a regular semester, I might just learn about one topic and then we’ll go to the next topic and not really see the connections and draw comparisons.
Alycia Parker: I think this semester has been a lot different for me because I’m also taking another class with this class in order to keep track with my Arabic major. So it’s been a little difficult for me especially with going on our trips for three whole weeks of the semester. But I think it’s definitely do-able and it has been extremely interesting to be in this group of people and to be able to learn about a theme, and then go into the field and do work. I feel like that’s so much different than the standard class you’d have at Duke. You can learn about these same concepts in class but you wouldn’t necessarily be conducting interviews learning about spacial intake in the same way as seeing it. I think it makes it a lot more real and tangible to what we’re learning.
The four courses in this Duke Immerse program focused on governance, public policy, and social interactions in cities and urban neighborhoods. If someone was to ask you what, if anything, about these topics is of any general societal concern or significance, what would your answer be?
Kyra Exterovich-Rubin: I think I’m still thinking about the last book we just read which was really, really important to me. We just read “Behind the White Picket Fence,”[written by Sarah Mayorga-Gallo, a 2012 Duke sociology alum] talking about the hypocrisy of progressive ideologies and how there’s a hypocrisy between those ideologies and how they manifest in social interactions in terms of racial integration. And I think that’s important right now especially for college campuses where we live in these very literal bubbles and we don’t always feel a personal mandate to enact these values in how we live our lives.
Tionne: I think, for me, I’ve taken a lot of economics classes at Duke and I think just generally the amount of inequality that’s present even in the United States has been staggering — and it’s increasing year by year. We’ve seen that very much throughout the course. In looking at some of the things we saw in New Orleans and Atlanta, and to compare those things in a country like South Africa, which has a history of apartheid and gender inequality, we noticed that these two countries are kind of similar and have a lot of connections. It really just places a light behind the fact that there is a lot of inequality here right now on the ground.
The class trips to Atlanta, New Orleans, Pietermaritzburg, and Durban are described as fieldwork trips. How did they relate to the rest of your classes and coursework? How did they contribute or enhance your learning?
Donovan: We would have class for about– maybe more like a field trip — for around 3-4 hours everyday, usually in the morning. And what was great about these trips is that we had a lot of free time in the afternoon. I think Professor Haynie was really adamant about making sure we had time to really explore the cities, both in Atlanta and New Orleans and in South Africa, ourselves and often when we were just alone, that’s when we started to realize things we read about. It was really interesting.
Kyra: In terms of the research we were doing, we looked at websites like Trulia that people actually look at in terms of how they buy homes. There are ratings for crime and educational attainment and those are things that people use to make their everyday decisions about where they want to live. And they will actually analyze those statistics and it’ll kind of be indicators of an impoverished neighborhood.
Erin McDermott: I think we used a lot of the skills we gained through class on the trips. When we were visiting different neighborhoods, we could see how structural inequality, for example, plays out. Each researcher came to these conclusions because we were actually seeing the neighborhood itself. And even that happened a lot in retrospect, where we’ll talk about something in class and be like ‘Oh, we actually noticed that in New Orleans’ or ‘we noticed that in Atlanta’. So it was a unique experience, as far as drawing upon what we learn in class. We actually saw the real-world applications form.
How did you learn about the program?
Donovan: I was actually in another class with Duke political science professor Ashley Jardina — Minorities in American Politics. I really enjoyed it. I actually didn’t apply for the program until very early May. I had already registered for classes, but when I was registering for classes I was trying to find more classes on minority politics. And I wasn’t very successful. But then I stumbled upon Duke Immerse and I saw ‘Wow, four of these are minority politics classes.’ It’s perfect– so I told Spencer and we both applied.
Are there things you learned from these trips that you couldn’t get from reading and audio-visual materials?
Josh Podl: I think for me in particular, we read a lot. The trip to New Orleans was very eye-opening for me because we read a lot about Hurricane Katrina and what’s happened after that and we read a lot about efforts to revitalize New Orleans. But, I don’t think you get the whole picture about what areas are being rebuilt and what areas are being neglected. And we definitely saw that when we were in the 9th Ward. We were in this development neighborhood, in these areas that seem like they really haven’t been touched since Katrina. There’s so many abandoned houses, vegetation that’s just growing like crazy, porches you can still see from the remains of houses, the roads were extremely bumpy. And then we go to more, maybe middle class, or more affluent neighborhoods in New Orleans where everything looks pretty much normal and you would have no clue that a huge natural disaster had hit. So, it’s just crazy. You don’t really get the picture of where the money is going to and who’s really being helped.
Donovan: Even for me, I’m actually from New Orleans. So that was part of the reason why I wanted to take this class. I’ve lived there my whole life and I would think ‘Oh I know about New Orleans and its racial inequality issues,’ but no. Taking this class I was still learning about new aspects of New Orleans that I had never known before.
Even just going to the 9th Ward, I realized that I don’t go to the 9th Ward a lot– I’ve maybe only been there once, I’d just drive by it. And my group is the one that did the presentation on that neighborhood, so really delving into that neighborhood, specifically and learning about it was meaningful for me because I’ve had a very different experience with Katrina than maybe someone in the neighborhood next to me or definitely than someone from the lower 9th Ward. The experiences vary a lot based on socioeconomic experience. I was constantly learning new things about New Orleans…
Just driving through the lower 9th Ward and really seeing how like the roads were just in disarray, driving through a part of my city that looked like it was in an underdeveloped country was almost just staggering like ‘This is my home, this is where I live. And these issues are right at the forefront.’
Spencer Bandeen: On that topic, I think a lot of the neighborhoods that we saw aren’t necessarily the most tourist-y destinations, so I think you could go to New Orleans or Atlanta and you won’t have the same experience that we just did. And in South Africa, we went to Durban and Pietermaritzburg. And most of the time when people go to South Africa, or heard that we were, they’re like ‘Oh, you’re going to Cape Town or Johannesburg’. But what we were seeing was more authentic to what we’ve been learning and I think it’s more applicable.
Kyra: We read a book earlier this semester called “Evicted” which is about homelessness in Wisconsin and I’m from Wisconsin. Reading that just kind of shook me because race is not discussed in Wisconsin. Everyone has a very ‘we don’t see color’ attitude about it.
I had never really been passionate about housing as a policy issue. I’m a public policy and philosophy major and so I really care about people being able to achieve upward mobility. It’s crazy how it never really hit home for me. I never had to consider that personally. And I think driving through and just seeing boarded up windows and overgrown lawns and it’s just seeing how inaccessible it is for people to live their day-to-day lives was really striking for me and made me reconsider what is now being discussed back in my home town, my home state.
Kevin: One thing that I think is amazing about this program is that it really just pushed me to think more critically and to challenge my understandings of other cities too, not just Atlanta and New Orleans. But it makes me want to try to have a more wholesome and nuanced understanding and picture of other cities. When I go home for the break in St. Petersburg, Florida or when I go to Grand Rapids, Michigan or Chicago, Illinois the same lessons and the same way that we looked at New Orleans, Atlanta, Pietermaritzburg, Durban; I have used that lens to view other cities. I don’t just look at the romanticized part or the beautiful tourist attractions, I look at the good and the bad, too.
Now that you’ve had this experience, what are some of the questions you ask yourself when visiting new cities?
Kevin: For instance, one of things I ask is: Downtown is where everybody seems to be, it’s where all the activity is, it’s where the entertainment is, where the economic employment opportunities are– but what about somebody who lives five miles out? Is there a place that they can go? Or do they have to come all the way downtown every time? And so just asking ‘why do people occupy these places and how does that affect their interactions and experiences?’ is definitely something that this program has encouraged me to think about.
Spencer: One of the things I learned, especially when we visited New Orleans and Atlanta, is just how very unique the history of race relations in America is and how it still plays out today and how desegregation still hasn’t occurred. And I think as the public image of America is so different than what we’ve been learning about and how the issues really are. In a sense, this was eye opening because a lot of what we’re doing is pertaining to current events– I mean they’re happening. We were looking, in the beginning of this year, at how some of these statues are being taken down, the riots surrounding the protests in Charlottesville. It seems very relevant to be taking the course, especially this semester.
Kevin: I think another really cool aspect to the program is that not only do we get to understand the United States and South Africa, but the lessons that we learned are intended to be extended beyond to other countries too. Just generally we learned about inequality and what shapes inequality and how everybody spirals and how it’s intertwined and just how difficult it is to try to overcome obstacles. And I think that that is a universal reality, that’s not something that’s just true in the United States and South Africa. So if I study abroad next year and I’m in Europe, or I was in Ecuador last summer– like a lot of the same things that I saw in Ecuador are also true here and will be true if I study abroad somewhere else.
Do you think the Duke immerse experience will have any lasting effects on the rest of your Duke academic career, and what you will do after Duke? If so, how or in what ways?
Kevin: I think one of the biggest impacts that this had on me for my college career is that I was considering whether or not I wanted to work or do an internship over the summer that’s in the United States, or if I was going to try to go abroad and get university funding. And I think one thing I would say is that this program really opened up my eyes to see that there are real problems here in the United States and we’re addressing it in a manner where they can be very much overlooked. And I think this program really made it feel more important or urgent to be doing work here in the United States, even though there are so many problems that are going on elsewhere.
Donovan: I’m an International and Comparative Studies major and this course has changed my plan– I was going to concentrate in Europe but this course has changed me to concentrate in Africa because of our experiences in South Africa.
Kevin: I am now doing a minor in African and African American Studies that I wouldn’t have done otherwise.
Tionne: I’m a senior so [my plans haven’t changed or anything like that] realistically. The thing for me– and this is kind of cheesy and I’m not really that type of person – but when we were in South Africa I remember this particular experience: we were in one of the local neighborhoods talking to one of the guys who was giving the tour, he was a pastor in that neighborhood, and he was talking about the violence and the poverty and the trauma, the general lack of economic mobility that the community faced.
And we read about these things in school, you know, we read about them in the papers, and it’s all good and then we go back to our dorms, we go back to our $70,000/yr school.
I think, when we went to that community, it was a very emotional experience for me and one that I’ll remember just because he talked about how, even after all the things they faced, after their family members were killed and all these things, they were still able to rebuild everything they had and just build up from the ground up. And you can see how they just kind of started off just having mud homes– people were trying to build their homes until they were actual real structures. I think that is just something I carried with me. Even when I’m thinking about ‘Oh I can’t do this’ or something, there’s people who are building from the ground up.
Kyra: Going off of that, when we went to a village– that experience was one of my favorites and I think one of the most meaningful to me on the whole trip. We sat in on this women’s self-help group for coming together to build small businesses and sell their crafts so that they can then learn the financial skills of investing and banking and things like that. And they were so grateful and happy and joyful and had this community that was so strong and colorful and that stood in such stark contrast with the gated community in Pietermaritzburg that was so wealthy and so sterile. As a community they would, I think every Monday, collectively would put in the amount which was like 20 Rand and it was like 15 women and that was all they could use and they were so happy and so optimistic.
Spencer: Two things. One of them is: Immediately following our trip, I stayed with a friend who lived in a gated community in South Carolina and having learned on the concept of private facilities and what individuals who live in gated communities can really change my perspective of them to really see how that plays out, concepts like neighborhood watch, and other things that I could then see in person. And just going off what Kyra said, we witnessed this microfinance group and, immediately after coming back from South Africa, I applied to a DukeEngage that does microfinance in India that I’ll be doing that this summer.
Alycia: When we were leaving, Kyra had left her backpack in the house and they just like came running with the backpack and I was like ‘Wow, they could have like kept this’ like they had no obligation to return it but the woman came running and I think that really just sticks with me. Welcoming us into the community, they didn’t have to do that.
Governance, Policy, and Society is led by Professors Kerry Haynie and Ralph Lawrence. For more information on this program visit: http://dukeimmersegovpolicysociety.strikingly.com.
This story also appeared on Duke Today.
by Linda M. Burton & PhD & Donna-Marie Winn, Ph.D.
Ask NBC News. They recently learned what happens when you tweet a story with a headline that erroneously twisted Sally Hemmings’ personal narrative of horrific, repeated rapes at the hands of Thomas Jefferson into a headline about her being Jefferson’s mistress. NBC News learned that in this current climate of close interrogation of history and fact-checking, Twitter, especially Black Twitter, claps back. Mightily.
NBC News now knows not to twist, at least one Black woman’s narrative, Sally Hemmings’, into something it was not. But what about the rest of American society? Do pockets of America continue to twist Black girls’ narratives about who they are and their vulnerability and innocence into tales of willing and complicit precocious sexuality?
In the recently released report, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” authored by Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Black, and Thalia Gonzalez, this question is answered with a resounding, “YES!” This report calls into sharp focus adults’ perceptions that dehumanize and both explicitly and implicitly impugn Black girls. The report finds that adult respondents from their study perceive Black girls as young as five to nine years old, in contrast to white girls, as needing less nurturance, protection, support, and comfort, while at the same time being more independent and knowing more about adult topics and sex.
To their credit, the authors chronicle the history of such dehumanization of Black girls and Black boys back to America’s inception and lift up the institution of slavery as further proof that such perceptions are not new. Such dehumanizing perceptions are often used to retell and revise the terror inflicted upon and objectification of Black bodies throughout American history.
Additionally, Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez review several dominant paradigms about Black femininity that emerged during slavery and note that the contemporary manifestations of these paradigms belie the implicit biases and racism (our word not theirs) that result in Black girls being treated more harshly and their developmental behaviors being criminalized.
We agree with the authors’ point about the continued, undeserved dehumanization of Black girls. Unfortunately, while the Girlhood Interrupted report focuses the spotlight on these dehumanizing perceptions of Black girls, the report also equates such perceptions with the term adultification.
As Black female behavioral scientists who have cumulatively studied adultification in the lives of Black girls and boys (see Burton, Winn, Stevenson, & McKinney, 2015) and Black families in different settings for over 50 years, we are concerned that framing the dehumanization of Black girls identified in the report as adultification is deeply problematic. In fact, we disagree altogether with the choice of adultification as a way to situate this very important discourse.
Admittedly, the authors, as a few other authors have done before them, defined adultification as, “a social or cultural stereotype that is based on how adults perceive children in the absence of knowledge of children’s behavior and verbalizations.” And from there they argue that their participants’ perceptions of Black girls as being less innocent and in need of less nurturance, guidance, and protection are similar to the dehumanizing stereotypes of Black women.
Using the adultification concept in this way twists the fundamental meaning and incumbent processes as it is discussed in existing social science and family therapy literature. In a 2007 article, Burton provides a standard definition of adultification that is not dehumanizing: “adultification comprises contextual, social, and developmental processes in which youth are prematurely, and often inappropriately, exposed to adult knowledge and assume extensive adult roles and responsibilities within their family network.”
Several of the Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez interview questions directly interrogate adults’ perceptions about parameters of the adultification process, for example: “How often do Black (or white) females take on adult responsibilities? How knowledgeable are Black (or white) females about sex?” As asked of respondents, however, even the second question is likely to conflate potentially precocious knowledge about sex with Black female children’s developmentally appropriate knowledge about sexual reproduction resulting from healthy, proactive parent-child conversations in response to the earlier onset of puberty for Black girls.
The other questions asked in the study have nothing to do with adultification. Quite the contrary, clinically, children who take on these roles need a lot of nurturance, comfort, and support to adequately learn and perform such roles. Playing an adult in a child’s body, with a child’s emotional maturity is hard. Full Stop. Black women need nurturance, comfort, and support too. Fuller Stop. In our view, the frame of adultification, in the ways Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez define it, seems to be more accurately and simply be characterized as dehumanization and promoting racist gendered stereotypes about Black females.
To be clear, Black girls’ being more knowledgeable about sex, perhaps sexual reproduction, at earlier ages than white girls does not equate with any definition of what being a Black woman is to us and many others. Furthermore, twisted perceptions about Black girls’ knowledge of sexual risks conjuring up the age-old, American stereotypes of the “jezebel” Black woman which, as Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez note, persist in present day American culture. That stereotype promotes racist notions of Black women as precociously sexualized, morally bankrupt, incapable of regulating their emotions, and unable to deeply feel — loss, love, grief or much of anything else for that matter.
We agree that adult Black women are still considered in the context of this racist, humanity eroding, gender offensive trope. And, we are concerned that viewing little Black girls through the Black female adultification lens, as posited by Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez, risks further imposing such dehumanizing stereotypes onto lives of Black children.
Indeed, conflating adultification with dehumanizing perspectives is intellectually flawed and poses obstacles in discerning alternative framings of what is happening in the lives of young Black girls and how the broader population is complicit in the process. Rather than considering the adult respondents’ perceptions that Black girls behave in adultified ways, shouldn’t we call it what it really is?
There are generic processes that people engage in on a daily basis to reproduce race and gender inequalities among individuals and groups. One such process is emotion management. Because race and gender inequalities foment feelings such as anger, resentment, despair, and sympathy that threaten to destabilize the social order, these emotions must be managed, which means, relative to the study we discuss here, that our perceptions and emotions about Black girls “must be managed.”
One way of managing societal emotions is by regulating the narrative about Black girls using particular language and assigning certain attributes to them. The dominant group in society usually controls the narrative and reinforces it in existing social structures, in this case schools and the judicial system, while more private discourses among ordinary people work to strengthen destructive narratives and stereotypes. Indeed, emotion management by controlling negative narratives on Blacks is thriving in certain pockets in today’s America.
As Black female behavioral scientists whose humanist resolve and intellectual rigor was birthed in the complex cities of Compton, California and New Orleans, Louisiana, respectively, we have lived experiences about the damage that twisted narratives and errant frames can visit upon Black and white America, particularly when scientists waywardly compare Blacks to whites. Such twisted frames attempt to strip us Blacks of our humanity and seek to render us as less than or an oddity in that, regardless of gender or class, we are perceived as having no sense of emotional intelligence, proclivity to care for others, or ability to self-regulate, regardless of our ages. Such framings move us no closer to accurately identifying fundamental causes in the persistent strengths inherent in or inequalities hoisted upon Blacks in America for centuries. Less we forget . . . Black women have shown America how to be humane.
We hope that the Girlhood Interrupted report can spark a wider discussion on the uncertainty that some Black girls live with on a daily basis, particularly those Black girls whose families and/or communities are economically impoverished or unsafe. Uncertainty is a state of ambiguity, one in which immediate and future conditions or events are unpredictable or otherwise not clearly determinable by those involved. In some environments, uncertainty, even when buttressed by community strengths and individual connections, can lead to a narrowing of viable options, a hesitancy to act, and a diminished likelihood of acting in ways that support longer-term, positive outcomes.
Under such uncertain conditions, some girls may act with an eye toward the moment because unpredictable resources and the ever-present specter of need require orientation to the here and now. This behavior often emerges from a lack of control girls may experience as they struggle to simply survive in a world where key resources are scarce, there are limited opportunities to thrive, and a broader society dehumanizes them in narratives based on erroneous assumptions and interpretations of their lived experiences.
Untwisting this narrative by, in this instance, uncoupling the frame of adultification and dehumanization is particularly important given the context of recent political rhetoric in America. It has become fairly common for public and political discourses concerning people of color and their communities to be inappropriately cast as having undesirable attributes.
In today’s America, we seem to have once again backslid to the days of the Moynihan Report where national leaders promulgated stereotypes about Black families being “tangles of pathology” and dysfunctional, no matter their social class. As in times past, national leaders foment the wholesale acceptance of such denigrating stereotypes among their followers who have little to no understanding of the profound inaccuracies of the rhetoric and who exercise little discretion or censorship.
We optimistically ask America not to get the findings in this report twisted. The adult perceptions studied in this work reflect the dehumanization of Black girls, not their adultification into Black women. Does America have the capacity to resist the twist, censuring and holding itself accountable for creating accurate narratives, frames, and discourses about Black girls and the Black women they aspire to become? If not, let NBC News’ recent twist serve as a good example of a bad example. There will be a clap back.
Linda M. Burton, Ph.D., is Dean of Social Sciences, Director of the Center for Child and Family Policy and the James B. Duke Professor of Sociology, and a professor of public policy at Duke University. Donna-Marie Winn, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Associate for the Kenan Institute for Private Enterprise at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
It has come to be known in our family as the “juice box incident”. I was called to my youngest daughter’s kindergarten class at a local charter school because she was being suspended. Apparently, my daughter had been accused of purposely squeezing juice, from a juice box, into the eye of a classmate, a White girl. As I sat talking with her teacher, I wondered to myself about the dexterity it would take for a five-year-old to deliberately squeeze juice across the table into someone’s eye. What I did ask the teacher directly, was if he had ever handled a juice box before. As any rank and file parent will tell you, there’s nary a juice box occasion that doesn’t end with some amount of juice anywhere but in a child’s mouth.
I am reminded of the “juice box” incident reading the recent study “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls Childhood,” published by the Center on Poverty and Inequality at the Georgetown Law School and based on research from the team of Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Blake and Thalia Gonzalez.
The gist of the report argues that adult educators, in their interactions with Black girls aged 5-19, believe that Black girls deserve less nurturing, protection, support, and comforting — dynamics that seemed to be grounded in perceptions of Black girl independence, though as the researchers note, that is rarely to their benefit. Though the scope of the research is admittedly limited — there were less than 400 respondents — I couldn’t help but read the report and think “this is my life.”
A critical component of the study highlights the “theory of adultification” of Black children where educators “associate Black girls’ behavior with stereotypes of adult Black women.” Adultification, in effect, creates a condition where Black children are treated as the babies of suspect stereotypes of Black women. As the researchers note, “adultification is a form of dehumanization, robbing Black children of the very essence of what makes childhood distinct from other developmental periods.”
The process of adultification has direct impact on the experiences of Black girls in school, particularly in the context of discipline with regards to in-school and out-of-school suspensions. Citing the work of Subini Annamma, the report highlights how Black girls are often disciplined for subjective reasons such as exhibiting defiance or as a school administrator said to me about my daughter “non-compliance,” which was her way of describing my daughter’s regular proclivity to ask followup questions or request explanations for directions that might not have made much sense to her.
As such, in comparison to their White female counterparts one study suggested that Black girls were twice as likely to be disciplined for minor infractions such as dress code violations or cell phone use. And they are two-and-a-half times more likely to be disciplined for “disobedience.” Remember the high school student who was assaulted by a school resource officer in South Carolina? These narratives overlay troubling examples of police shootings where Black victims failed to comply by running away.
Ironically the very attributes that encourage Black girls to speak back to power, if you will, was openly cited by respondents as evidence of the leadership skills of Black girls. Yet the tendencies of Black girls to “talk back” are viewed as disruptive in the classroom, and those energies are very rarely nurtured or redirected towards leadership development opportunities. As the report’s researchers observe, “the perception that Black girls do not merit nurturing or that their leadership qualities should be restricted could be associated with our finding that adults believe that Black girls do not need protection or nurturing, and could affect opportunities for success.”
The report suggests that as “early as 5 years of age, Black girls were more likely viewed as behaving and seeming older than their stated age.” The day that I sat with my daughter’s kindergarten teacher, I remember struggling for language to describe what I clearly viewed as a form of profiling; what the teacher heard was that I called him a racist. Unfortunately, as the report’s multiracial responders highlight, perceptions of Black girls transcend the race and the ethnicity of the adult educators. And as my own experience has shown ,with both of my daughters, now ages 14 and 18, very often adult educators believe that are helping Black children by encouraging, and even demanding, compliance and “good behavior” from them.
My daughter survived the “juice box incident” — and many such incidents. As she prepares for her first year in high school, she is also hyper-aware of the mechanisms of surveillance that exist, in ways that her White counterparts simply don’t have to be. In their conclusion, the researchers write, “all Black girls are entitled to, and deserve, equal treatment. Including equal access to the protections that are accepted as necessary and appropriate for children.” There’s a part of me that lives with the reality that my daughters, like so many Black girls, never fully had the freedom to simply be children.
Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African + African American Studies and a English at Duke University, where he is Chair of the Department of African + African American Studies, and co-Director of the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity (DCORE). Neal is the parent of two daughters, a rising college sophomore and a rising first-year high schooler.
Membership agreement from the Equity Through Research website:
The Collaborative to Advance Equity through Research is a voluntary affiliation of American colleges, universities, professional schools, seminaries, research programs, publishers, and public interest institutions committed to taking meaningful action to support and improve research about women and girls of color.
This Collaborative serves as a national model of substantive action, best practices, and sustained partnerships to advance equity through research about women and girls of color. Women of color will constitute more than half of all women in the United States by 2050, but are infrequently the central subjects of scholarly inquiry. This research deficit has meaningful consequences for the ways our institutions contribute to public discourse and policymaking. This Collaborative seeks to address that deficit.
The specific form of commitments from the undersigned institutions vary according to the unique mission, structure, and resources of each institution.
Together we recognize and affirm a shared commitment to generating new knowledge through rigorous scholarship, cultivation of a diverse academic pipeline, and sustained effort to build and implement a research agenda. Recognizing the imperative to act, members commit to the following:
1. Publicly acknowledging, via membership in this Collaborative, the critical need for increased research investigating women and girls of color and the value this research holds in advancing equity for women and girls of color.
2. New or continued support for specific actions on our campus or in our institution that contributes to meaningful research endeavors engaging and addressing women and girls of color. The specific form of our commitments will vary according to the unique mission, structure, and resources of each institution.
3. Conducting a review of the existing research efforts at our institutions and sharing the results of that self-study with members of the Collaborative in order to establish a landscape of existing scholarship, share best practices, and identify areas needing enhanced attention.
The Collaborative is being hosted by the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University in conjunction with the White House Council on Women and Girls. Photo credit: Blair Kelley, NCSU.