May 5, 2020 11:17 am
My name is Aliya Horton. I am 18 years old and I am a first year college student at the Ohio State University, and I am a youth advisor to the Schools for Girls of Color Learning Network.
Going through middle school and high school was awkward and a bit challenging, figuring out who I was and having all these new changes that happened to my body and my life. As a black girl, teachers expected more out of me than my counterparts– I realized that pretty early in grade school. In addition to having that expectation over my head, there was also life, which continues to happen in the midst of everything. I can vividly remember the countless number of times throughout grade school, starting in elementary, when my friends had adult responsibilities. These responsibilities included taking care of siblings when parents worked late; cooking meals because no one was ever home; paying bills; and working to eat or help with bills. Having to deal with this stress to make sure that they survived was enough in and of itself–going to school to have to face separate problems harmed the mental health of these girls. Because they had to deal with adult responsibilities, they sometimes didn’t have time to do homework or study for school, or didn’t have time to get the proper sleep, or acted out in class. But I observed that teachers only saw the surfaces and didn’t look deeper into the problems of black girls, so they would just discipline them “accordingly”.
I also remember when I was in elementary school how much of a struggle it was to take care of myself when my body started changing, and I vividly remember how some of my friends had to figure out what they needed to do for their personal hygiene and how to do simple things like doing their hair or shaving, and while going through these changes they would become more introverted than usual and not participate in class. That process was when we started to realize how life was and how the real world treats girls of color when they hit puberty–and when I say that, I mean how men take advantage of girls. I still can remember the countless number of times when girls were being sexually assaulted and abused but didn’t know who to tell or what to do; sometimes they were not even aware that they were being sexually assaulted or abused. Sometimes their abuser — the person who assaulted them — still lived with them or still were in their life significantly. Some girls didn’t tell anyone for weeks or months; when we realized what happened, it explained why their whole demeanor and attitude had changed.
With all of this going on, black girls still have to go to school, still have to carry on with life; society tells us to swallow the trauma, so getting help or even telling someone almost seems taboo because that action could bite them back. That results in blacks girls’ being depressed and having other mental illnesses. What people forget is that depression comes in different forms and sizes–depression is not just sadness. So if a specific girl lashes out to you with anger and you reciprocate with anger of your own, you potentially scar that girl more; maybe her anger was a cry for help, but responding with anger just shows her that you don’t care, that you’re not listening, and ultimately that she doesn’t matter. Remember: there’s more to a black girl than what’s on the surface.
If you are an educator, principal, or an advocate and you are finding yourself judging or making assumptions in your head without questioning the possible reasons behind what’s going on in a girl’s life, here are some things that you should think of before coming to a conclusion: Instead of thinking she has an attitude and doesn’t want to listen, maybe question: is she tired and/or overwhelmed? Instead of thinking she isn’t interested in school and doesn’t try, maybe you should ask, does she have the proper environment to do her work and actually understand the content given to her? Instead of thinking she’s being “aggressive” , maybe consider whether she’s fighting for her life at home and that’s the only language she’s been shown. Instead of punishing her for sleeping in class, maybe consider that this may be the only time she has time to sleep. Also, take into account how you are disciplining these girls. Instead of giving them detention, which wastes the teachers’ time and the students’ time because they’re sitting there doing nothing, replace that with meditating for an hour; the next hour, have them look up colleges they need want to apply to, or engage in another activity that has to do with their future and have them turn it in at the end of class.
Lastly, if you are a teacher, I can not stress this enough: you should know your students (or get to know them). You’re probably thinking “that’s beyond my job description!”– but these girls spend more time at school than they do at home, and YOU have a more of an impact on their life than you think. Embrace girls of color–don’t try to change us.
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