Why the Politics of Representation is Crucial for Black School Girls

by: Candice Mason
(Feature image credit: Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

On the night of April 23rd, perhaps the most influential pop-powerhouse of this generation, Beyoncé Knowles, released the highly-anticipated Lemonade to the masses who were caught off guard—much like with the silent cyber release of the eponymous Beyoncé album— by its sudden announcement. The visual album consisted of 12 songs accompanied by videos that visually personified the singer’s lyrical themes ranging from parent-child bonds to speculative autobiographical bouts with infidelity, but most prevalent of all was the artist’s unapologetic Blackness and exceptional nod to Black feminism.

Credit: Chayse Irvin/Parkwood Entertainment 2016
Credit: Chayse Irvin/Parkwood Entertainment 2016

The artist’s short film almost exclusively featured Black girls and women, many of whom are known not to shy away from critiquing social justice issues using a Black feminist lens. One of the youngest is teen actress Amandla Stenberg, The Hunger Games alum whose early role as Rue caused quite a stir over character race-imagining when casted. In more recent years, Stenberg has taken social media by storm after posting online a class project that defined and called out her entertainment industry peers on Black cultural appropriation. Other Black stars featured in Lemonade included multi-Wimbledon winning tennis star Serena Williams, Civil Rights cook Leah Chase, and the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. Beyoncé pays homage to the plight of all Black women in a scene that captures up close shots of multiple Black women using Malcolm X’s prolific Who Taught You to Hate Yourself? speech—given at the funeral of a victim killed by the LAPD—as overdub in which he is heard saying “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”

The importance that strikes me here is that we must not forget that little Black girls will one day become Black women. And, it is influential figures like Beyoncé who have the cultural and media power to affirm Black beauty, denounce stereotypes, and shed light on the social injustices that the Black girl, caught at the intersection of being Black and female, doubly faces. Affirmative representation of women of color in media is crucial to Black girl development of self-worth and engages us in dialogue that punctuates the overlooked complexities of “being a Black female and proud of it” in a time where the Black female body continues to be hyper-sexualized and hyper-criminalized.

As a collective, Black girls are regularly treated as deviant and disobedient simply based of skin color. Schools are a leading example of this tendency. Where Black girls make up only 16% of the total of female students in American schools, they make up 42% of girls expelled and are an astounding six times more likely to be suspended than white female students. Based on how they dress, how they talk, how they question things, Black female students are treated as “problems” across the board in education. In (and out) of classrooms, Black girls are marked as ghetto, noisy, and intellectually inferior. In classes, girls who act out of inquisitiveness are often misjudged as being “deviant or as challenging authority” according to an NPR interview with professor Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, co-author of Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected, a study done on the lopsided disciplinary actions Black girls face in both Boston and New York public schools. These archaic stereotypes of Black girls being sassy troublemakers are reinforced by teachers and administrators who unjustly condemn Black students when they mistake their expressiveness for aggression which has a long, negative historical tie to Black Nationalism via Black radicalism. These misjudgments put a cap on student interest in classroom engagement and leave students feeling at odds about their position in the educational sphere, especially when they are silenced and punished when they point out the discriminations happening to them and others in and around school.

Black girls are overlooked and left unheard in the scandalous “school-to-prison-pipeline” where they are disproportionately victims of criminalization. They’re treated as second class citizens in studies and movements that are fighting to dismantle the pipeline, though they’re incarcerated at rates that are closing in on the Black and brown boys with whom studies have been most concerned. When these girls are being punished and pushed into carceral corners through redundant suspension and expulsion based on zero-tolerance policies which take away from classroom time, the student’s learning opportunities are further narrowed. These policies leave girls exposed to street-life that facilitates not only educational achievement gaps but makes them vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse, and enables them to engage in—or be mistaken for engaging in—criminal activity by police and campus security.

In school, unrelenting sexism imposes punitive action against Black school girls who fail to comply with arbitrary dress codes. Girls are sent home and garner demerits for simple physical “errors” such as wearing nude colored leggings or their natural hair—none of which directly affect students’ ability to learn which is the quintessential point of school, right?—telling them that they, in their humanly natural Black feminine state, are problematic. In classrooms, female victims of sexual advances by classmates of the opposite sex are shamed as the root of classroom disruption. Founded on antiquated sayings like “boys will be boys” it is still assumed that it is the responsibility of a girl to cover up modestly to protect herself and avoid these sorts of defiling occurrences. “They try to police girls’ sexuality in ways that really just marginalize them from the school environment,” says author of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, Monique Morris. Instead of providing better education on rape culture to students of all genders, girls and Black girlhood specifically, continue to be hyper-sexualized in school as they are throughout popular American media.

At the intersection of gender and race, where anti-Blackness is a thriving reality (yes, darker-skinned people suffer the most cross culturally) and anti-woman sexism is prevalent on every continent, Black girls (in)arguably have it tough no matter where you look on the globe. Here in America, Black girls face dilemmas where they feel forced to repudiate their Blackness in an attempt to evade the sundry of negative stereotypes that are tacked onto the Black body. Black girls and Black women are put in positions where their triumphs go without merit. From schools to billboards, Black girls and other bodies of color are hypersexualized, problematized, and depicted as one dimensional beings. So when Beyoncé puts out a visual album that presents Black girls as not just some bitter, “angry black woman” monolith, but instead as individuals who experience life with various but similar strife-stricken realities; when we learn through empowering media that Black women and girls have valid emotions that shouldn’t be closeted to appear strong; when a pop star releases a video demonstrating the qualms of being Black in the face of racialized tragedies like Hurricane Katrina and police sanctioned brutality; when she— a Black woman— brazenly steps onto a field and salutes Black power activists in front of 111.9 million viewers, it is to encourage embracement of Black pride, Black magnificence, and Black girlhood in an international sphere. When she proclaims that Black Girls Matter it is not an exclusionary statement: Beyoncé matters, you matter, I matter. This claim is to support Black girls’ healing by finding comfort in one’s body, intellect, culture, sexuality, and existence. She is simply reaffirming that the lives of girls who have been historically devalued matter even when they have been systemically told that they do not. And that is a dialogue and realization that is long overdue.

Candice N. Mason is an undergraduate student in anthropology completing her degree at San Francisco State University. Her writing and research interests include race, girlhood, sexuality, popular music, youth culture, and activist education.