Black Girls in Education

MSC Student Life Intern, Cheyenne

From the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative to increased discourse about the criminalization of Black boys it is safe to say that conversations about African-American males in the school system have been abundantly abuzz. However, the unique challenges that Black girls face in America’s school system are often subsumed by those of their male counterparts, leaving their needs unattended to. Although it is assumed that girls generally fare better than boys in school, much of the data that supports this fact fails to dis-aggregate data by race, which would reveal that African-American females are actually doing worse than the national average for girls on almost every scale of scholastic achievement.


In response to the persistent underachievement of African-American girls, groups such as the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Women’s Law Center, and the African-American Policy Forum have released reports that comprehensively demonstrate how the gendered racism, combined with poor school resources cause Black girls to experience higher disciplinary, suspension and expulsion rates than any of their other female counterparts. The release of such data has shed light on how America’s educational system has historically underserved Black girls and has emphasized the importance of policymakers, educators, and school administrators paying attention to girls of color.

Stereotypes and Discipline

Similar to Black boys, Black girls have also suffered the burden of negative stereotypes that cast them as aggressive, angry, promiscuous, and hyper-sexualized. Despite statistics that show that African-American girls tend to have higher self-esteems than their White counterparts, the racialized and gendered perceptions that their teachers may use to analyze and understand their behavior in the classroom can negatively impact their educational experiences and cause them to feel less committed to continuing their academic journeys in the future. Oftentimes disciplined for behavior that does not conform to white middle-class norms of femininity, the dispositions and attitudes of Black girls that may demonstrate academic engagement and excitement are instead coded as “disruptive” behavior, thus showing how the educational potential of Black girls is often limited due to their failure to conform to the norms of the dominant culture. Thus, Black girls face a “Catch 22” situation in which in they are either unnecessarily disciplined for being “too assertive” or forced to conform to Eurocentric standards of girlhood that encourage passivity and quietness and therefore deprive themselves of educational opportunities.


Black Girls and Leadership

blk girls lead

Despite the fact Black girls are more likely to consider themselves leaders, express a desire to be leaders, and already have leadership experience in comparison to their White counterparts, America’s public school system seems to present scarce opportunities for Black girls to hone their leadership skills, with only 12% of 12th grade African-American girls reporting “considerable” or “significant” participation in student government according to the report created by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and National Women’s Law Center.

Although Black women and girls have been on the forefront of movements to fight against racial inequality in public schools, organizations and initiatives designed to foster the leadership and self-confidence of Black girls are scarce in America’s public schools and may further reinforce the academic struggles of African-American girls along with long-held stereotypes.

Black Girls and Educational Disparity

Untitled1 Despite the groundbreaking ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education that deemed the “separate but equal” doctrine unconstitutional in the racial segregation of schools, African-American students are still enrolled in schools lacking adequate resources, qualified teachers, college-prep classes, and diverse extra-curricular activities at higher rates then their white counterparts. Data shows that the access and retainment of these resources are key to student success and although statistics on the impact of school disparities on students is not dis-aggregated by gender, school resources (or the lack of) serves as an important factor in considering the status of Black girls in education. In comparison to their peers from other racial and ethic groups, both African-American boys and girls are more likely to attend racially-isolated, high-poverty schools which are socioeconomically isolated and have a lower proportion of highly-qualified teachers. These disparities begin as early as pre-school, thus showing how the academic inequalities Black students face to be cumulative.

Although Black students may share some similar challenges in education, recent data and statistics clearly demonstrate that African-American females face very unique situations in public schools distinctly separate from their male counterparts. If policymakers and educators are serious about increasing the academic achievement of Black students, they must be willing to challenge and take into account societal norms that marginalize the life opportunities of Black females in order to truly increase the effectiveness of public school education.

A Message From The Director of the Multicultural Student Center in Light of Recent Events


Image via the Badger Herald online: “UW students hold vigil outside basketball game for victims of police brutality”, December 3, 2014.

As the director of the Multicultural Student Center (MSC) and as a member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison community I am deeply saddened and disgusted by the ongoing violence, racism, and incivility taking place around the nation and in our community. Over the last few weeks I have been at numerous events where students have gathered to discuss the violent patterns of racism and how it has impacted their lives. I am distraught by the recent incidents in Ferguson, New York, and other cities that do not make headlines; however, I find inspiration and hope as I see students gathering to support one another. Although our communities of color may seem small on this large campus, this small community is powerful, compassionate, and committed. I have also been encouraged by the involvement of allies who are striving to support and learn more about people of color and the impact of racism.

As we are directly confronted with alarming acts of violence around the country and hate speech, bias, and ignorance on our own campus, I ask that our students of color, particularly Black and African-American students, reach out to campus resources to find the support they need. There are numerous spaces on campus that are here to ensure students of color are included, valued, and supported. The MSC is here as a place to gather with friends and/or visit to speak with a staff member on an individual basis. The African American Student Academic Services continues to host dialogues and community spaces to support one another. University Health Services continues to be present at #blacklivesmatter events, and they are equipped to support students of color’s mental health and emotional needs. Please feel comfortable to visit them to meet with a professional mental healthcare provider.

Continue to demand what you need in order to be successful on this campus, and know you have partners who are right beside you. As students you have the right to shape your community. Although progress may seem slow and hopeless, your statements, rallies, and voices have an impact. You also have the right to take time for yourself to ensure you are mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually well. The burden of social transformation should not fall on the shoulders of our people of color who are striving to be successful students. The issues we are facing are not only one community’s issues; these are the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s issues. I ask that we all be engaged in these conversations and continue working towards making our campus a more just, inclusive, and safe place for all of us.


Joshua Moon Johnson, Ed.D.

To find support or learn more about the events discussed, please stop by and see the MSC staff. The Multicultural Student Center is located on the 2nd floor of the Red Gym at 716 Langdon Street.  All students are welcome.

UW Staff Spotlight: Rain Wilson


Rain Wilson, playwright, spoken word poet, and educator, was hired as the Creative and Academic Advisor for the First Wave Hip Hop and Urban Arts Initiative at the beginning of the Fall 2013 semester.  Her artistic and educational work revolves around empowering African Americans, women, and other marginalized groups of people.  Within her short time here at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, she has already brought her play, “Jungle Kings,” to life on campus in the 1st annual Multi-Cultural Theater Festival.  Currently she is leaping forward with First Wave students to ignite an impactful women’s history month event at the end of March, working on launching a program with First Wave to do writing and performance workshops within the women’s prison in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and preparing for her one woman show, “Ink Never Dries,” which will be performed later in the year.

Wilson was attracted to the First Wave Hip Hop and Urban Arts Initiative scholarship program because she admired the opportunity that First Wave students have to connect with the art of spoken word as cohorts within an academic setting where they do not have to feel isolated like she often did when she was in college.  She also valued the element of activism within the artistry that she saw from various students in the program.  First Wave was something that she just knew that she had to be a part of.  As the Creative and Academic Advisor of First Wave, her goal is to utilize the experience that she has gained as an artist in order to inform and mentor students who possess a similar passion for theatrical performance and poetry. “I would like to facilitate the exploration of collaborating with one another as a collective to reach a common goal.” Continue reading

Restoring Power Collectively to End Domestic and Sexual Violence: Interview with Kabzuag Vaj

Freedom Inc engages low-to-no income communities of color and works to end violence against women, gender non-conforming, and youth by promoting healthier living, especially in African American and Southeast Asian populations in Dane County.  The organization creates new definitions and solutions to empower community members as agents of change and inspires and restores power to those most affected by violence through leadership development and community organizing.

Cynthia Lin, Social Justice Educator at the MSC, sat down with Freedom Inc’s Founder and Co-Executive Director, Kabzuag Vaj, to talk about how the organization addresses root causes of violence and builds across communities of color towards collective liberation.

Cynthia: Tell us a little bit about your background and how it led you to start Freedom, Inc?

Kabzuag: Born at the end of the Secret War in Laos (Vietnam War) under circumstances of famine, death, and despair, I was never meant to survive. Because I was never meant to be here, I have been fighting to let people know I am here.

Growing up, I saw how women and girls were treated unfairly.  I saw how my mother and aunts would cook all day just to set their food on the table for my male family members to eat first, leaving the leftovers for the women and children.  As a baby girl, medicine was not given to me willingly.  As a teen, my brothers were allowed to control and discipline me.  As a young woman, I was controlled by my husband and my family.  From a young age, I vowed to create a new world—one in which I wanted to live in, one in which my sisters, mothers, and aunties wanted to live in.

Twelve years ago, when I was 24, I began noticing more and more younger girls dropping out of high school, hanging around in neighborhood parking lots, having trouble finding or keeping jobs.  I created informal safe spaces for youth to gather, talk about issues in their daily lives, and build opportunities for popular education. From there, I worked with other women my age to lead weekly community organizing training and skill-building workshops for 15- to 22-year-old Hmong and Southeast Asian youth, on topics of violence against women, racism/racial profiling, economic justice, and immigration and deportation. That’s where Asian Freedom Project began, and we sustained these programs over three years.

Through my involvement in domestic violence work, I was offered funding to start an anti-violence organization in Madison, and that is when the seed of Asian Freedom Project became Freedom Inc.

C: How does Freedom Inc. mobilize communities of color and low-income communities around social issues?

K: At Freedom Inc, we work to end violence against women, gender non-conforming folks, and young folks, to promote healthier living.  We organize around the root causes of violence, creating new definitions and solutions, and empowering all community members as agents of change. Our vision for ending violence is to inspire and restore power of those most affected through leadership development and community organizing, in ways that are language-, gender, generation-, and culture-specific to women, gender non-conforming, and youth, in African American and Southeast Asian families.  Restoring this power brings about deep social, political, cultural, and economic change. Through Freedom Inc, we have worked with hundreds of women and children as well as build a non-profit that has a collective model where people most affected share power and lead the vision of the organization. Continue reading

Recommended Reading: Varieties in African American Religious Expression

Dr. Anthony Pinn defines black religion as the quest for complex subjectivity. Last week, Dr. Pinn gave a public talk on Body Language: Embodiment, Materiality and the Reframing of African American Religion as the kick off lecture for the R3 Symposium. Check out the live stream to hear him talk about how black bodies occupy time and space and how African American religion is about the effort to make life meaningful and ask existential and ontological questions.
 In the final installment of our recommended reading lists themed around Race, Religion, and Representation, we offer a list of books for those interested in exploring African American religious expressions including atheism, humanism, feminism, philosophies, African traditional religions, and earth-based traditions. 
  1. The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin
  2. Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought – Lewis Gordon
  3. Reel to Real: Race, Sex, Class at the Movies  – bell hooks
  4. Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations – bell hooks
  5. Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self Recovery – bell hooks
  6. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics – bell hooks
  7. Rock My Soul: Black People and Self Esteem – bell hooks
  8. Salvation: Black People and Love – bell hooks
  9. Island Possessed – Katherine Dunham
  10. Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery – Na’im Akbar
  11. System of Dante’s Hell – LeRoi Jones
  12. The African Aesthetic – Kariamu Welsh-Asante
  13. African Christianity: An African story – Ogbu Kalu
  14. Afrocentricity – Molefi Kete Asante
  15. Selections from the Husia: Sacred Wisdom from Ancient Egypt – Maulana Karenga
  16. Autobiography of Malcolm X  – Malcolm X
  17. Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars – Sikivu Hutchinson
  18. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism – Patricia Hill Collins
  19. Black and Not Baptist – Don Barbera
  20. The Black Humanist Experience: An Alternative to Religion – Norm Allen
  21. Portal into the Light of Truth: The First Book of Wicca for African Americans and All Seekers – Jeanine de Oya
  22. Metu Netter Volumes 1 and 2 – Ra Un Neffer Amen
  23. Sacred Woman:  A Guide to Healing the Feminine Body, Mind, and Spirit – Queen Afua
  24. Master Book of Candle Burning – Henry Gamache
  25. Black Magic – Yvonne Chireau
  26. Rootwork: Using the Folk Magick of Black America for Love, Money and Success – Tayannah Lee McQuillar
  27. Jambalaya – Luisah Teish
  28. Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica – Zora Neal Hurston

Related posts:

Is God a White Racist? and other Scholarly Books on African American Christian Theologies

As a continuation of our themed book list series intersecting faith and social justice, we compiled another reading list for those specifically interested in African American Christian theologies and traditions.
  1. Is God a White Racist?: A Preamble to Black Theology  by William R. Jones is landmark critique of the black church’s treatment of evil and the nature of suffering.
  2. Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk  by Delores Williams uses the image of Hagar, the mother of Ishmael who was cast into the wilderness by Abraham and Sarah as a prototype for African American women
  3. Black Theology and Black Power by James Cone is an essential read for understanding Black Liberation
  4. A Black Theology of Liberation by James Cone offers a searing indictment of white theology and society
  5. God of the Oppressed by James Cone reflects on God, Jesus, suffering, and liberation and relates the gospel message to the experience of the black community
  6. Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone contemplates the greatest challenge of any Christian theology to explain how life can be made meaningful in the face of death and injustice
  7. White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus by Jacqueline Grant proposes a womanist theology and christology that emerge from and are adequate to the reality of contemporary Black women
  8. Beyond Ontological Blackness: An Essay on African American Religious and Cultural Criticism by Victor Anderson is a thoughtful critique of contemporary African American cultural, political, and religious thought.
  9. Handbook of Unites States Theologies of Liberation by Miguel De La Torre explores the interrelationship between religion, community, and culture in the social context of marginalized groups
  10. Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective by Kelly Brown Douglass tackles the “taboo” subject of sexuality that has long been avoided by the Black church and community
  11. The Black Messiah by Albert Cleague is a presentation on black consciousness and black power by one of America’s most influential Black religious leaders
  12. Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South by Albert J. Raboteau analyzes the transformation of the African religions into evangelical Christianity Continue reading

Recommended Reading: Asian American Identity and Activism

The Asian American diaspora is uniquely diverse. While the Jeremy Lin phenomenon has sparked mainstream media attention and created popular discussion around Asian American identity, there are still many unheard voices and perspectives. Jay Caspian Kang writes, “We still haven’t figured out how to talk about Asian Americans.”

The Asian American community struggles to navigate and make visible a racial identity society has trapped between white and black. Books by Asian American scholars and activists discuss how the community can transcend awareness and move towards social action. The books below connect culture and politics and share ways that the Asian American community stand in solidarity with other communities of color.

Continue reading