George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Equity

Honoring the Innocence of Black Girls

A teacher reconsiders one of his students in light of recent findings on how adults perceive black girls.
A black female high school student looks out a window
A black female high school student looks out a window
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Robin sat in the front row of my ninth-grade English class, turning a pyramid-shaped Rubik’s-type puzzle. Finals were coming and the class learning objective was an uninspired “Prepare For Finals,” but still I felt anger creeping up. How dare she! Didn’t she know this would be graded?

I knew the questions I would hit her with: Have you completed the assignment? Did you check your answers? What else should you be studying?

I took a step toward her, but then stopped.

In fairness to her, Rubik’s puzzles abound in my class. I have them because a puzzle is nothing but a question (How do I...?) composed of a thousand other questions (What should this...? What happens if I...?). The prospect of being unable to answer questions, being shown to not know, intimidates many to the point that they never try. No matter the subject, confronting this fear of questioning is a vital challenge for a learner.

Robin’s brown eyes were intent, her brows furrowed as the colored triangles clicked in her fingers, a mild smile on her lips. It occurred to me that she was at innocent work, the type of work black girls are denied in so many academic spaces.

According to the recent report Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood, black girls are seen as less innocent than white girls. Participants in the study documented in the report—adults of various racial and ethnic backgrounds and educational levels from across the U.S.—judged black girls, starting at age 5, to be older, to need less support, to know more about adult topics, to need less protection, and to be more sexually aware than white girls.

One consequence of this is that black girls are disciplined at twice the rate of white girls. Another is that black girls are less likely to have their questions honored in academic spaces, and a classroom that doesn’t recognize the innocence of a child cannot truly understand the child’s questions. A black girl’s questions are more likely to be considered tools of rebellion than of inquiry.

Making Space for the Joy of Discovery

At the beginning of the year, I have students write a letter of introduction. Robin had said her goal was to “strive for greatness,” but that she didn’t deal with frustration well. This was true. She often rolled her eyes when I assigned homework. If I didn’t help her first when she raised her hand, she sighed like a pachyderm. She hardly ever missed an assignment, but it was all transactional, less an academic exploration and more like paying down a phone bill.

Robin was one of my hardest working students, but without a space for innocence and inquiry, she struggled to see the joy of discovery as a possibility in school. In my experience, Robin is typical of many black female students.

Although she said she liked to write, Robin confided that she had never earned an A on an essay and didn’t think it would ever happen. Looking at her work, I could tell she needed help with sentence structure and elaborating on evidence, but her biggest barrier was that she had been taught to approach her writing like she was filling out a graphic organizer or following a list of instructions. It was hard for her to connect to what she was writing because it didn’t originate in her own questions.

When we read Romeo and Juliet, I gave the students a series of open question frames like “What does the relationship between _____ and _____ teach us about the theme of _____?” or “What does the change we see in _____ teach us about the theme of _____?” I had them insert various characters and themes to produce as many questions as they could. It was messier than a simple prompt but allowed students like Robin to develop and pursue questions that were important to them.

With the authority of the writing shifted back to students, Robin worked diligently to perfect her paper. She agonized over writing the hook, a skill which had stumped her all year. At one point, Robin asked me what she should write. I gave her some pointers, but she looked dissatisfied.

“Just tell me what to write!” she said.

I told her that it sounded like she had a writer’s problem and that she was more than capable of solving it. She sat for a while and then wrote: “Most men think being a man means showing no weakness. Most men think being a man means being violent. Most men think being a man means being in control. In this patriarchal world where gender and violence play a big role, men are mostly the cause of tragedy.” She wrote an excellent paper. Not only was it strong in its use of evidence, but the voice displayed a sense of discovery about the material and an enthusiasm for its central question. Without a doubt, it was an A.

Honoring Innocence

Standing in class at the end of the year, watching Robin manipulate the colored tiles of that puzzle, I thought about how much we use the buzzword inquiry to describe the purpose of education. But inquiry is meaningless if we can’t recognize the innocence of our children.

If we teach them that questions are important, vital to learning, to living, and then don’t create spaces that honor their innocence, we’re not just wasting our most precious resource, we’re committing an act of unspeakable violence. Black girls are, by and large, succeeding in the academic sphere, but when their innocence is not honored, they are robbed of education’s highest purpose: the unfettered joy of discovery.

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Jasmin Smith's picture

My heart aches to read this article. Growing up in a predominantly white school, I never even experienced having those of color in class with me. Now that I am in college going to school for education, it is heartbreaking to read about the injustice that these students face. I hope that other teachers are reading articles like these in order to look at themselves and make sure they do not have presuppositions like these.

Abdel Shakur's picture
Abdel Shakur
Teacher and Writer in Evanston, IL

Thanks for sharing your experience. Like you suggest, teachers have to not only get prepared to serve their students in their particular content areas, we also have to stay humble and open to reflecting on how the societal factors that shape our identity (race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc.) can affect our interactions with the children that need us. That's hard, heart work but it's necessary.

Mrs. G's picture

Many of the Facebook comments below illustrate this article perfectly. As an educator for the past 23 years, I am saddened by the direction our country is headed in...

This article was written about a specific topic. There are other articles and studies about different subsets of children (males, females, economically disadvantaged, gifted, Latino, Caucasian, etc.). Let's focus on the issues discussed in THIS article.

I don't have the answers. The author has raised many questions. Hopefully one day there will be no bias in education. We're not there yet, not even close in my opinion. If this article upset you, work on finding solutions, as I plan to do.

Abdel Shakur's picture
Abdel Shakur
Teacher and Writer in Evanston, IL

I'm with you. The problems our children face in schools are bad enough, but it's even more troubling when people can't see the role of racism at both the institutional and personal level. We have to be brave enough to look in the mirror and be honest about what's really going on.

Mr. GC Jeter's picture

Great article. The innocence of our children and our youth is one of the most precious things that they can have and we must protect and nurture it. As they learn the world and "go see" what life is their eyes (and hearts) must be open to truly see and learn what is there. Innocence allows this.
If we would change the world, make it better, go "beyond" where maybe you and I as adults have gone, innocence must be recognized, nurtured and protected.
I say though, we must also see it. Innocence. Where is it though, in the world, or is it in us? Our own eyes have to be open.
Thank you for being a teacher and for sharing this hopeful article.

c.joung's picture

Thank you for posting this article. I think that it is very interesting how you use the word innocence to characterize how we ought to look at our students as educators. I do believe as someone previously has mentioned that sometimes this can happen without even teachers recognizing that they're doing it, which is the most dangerous part. This is also the reason I believe that you writing this article is very helpful. I do believe that each student as they enter our classrooms deserve to have a clean slate no matter what prejudices are out there and no matter what the statistics may even say. Each student has a right to prove themselves in the classroom and it is our duty as educators to develop equity in the classroom where each student has the same opportunities given to learn.

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