Our history is made of stories. But some stories are valued more than others: for years, we’ve been missing the voices of girls of color. Even now, when issues like the school-to-prison pipeline are discussed, Black girls are absent from the narrative.
“Never again.” Eleven-year-old Naomi Wadler electrified the crowd with these words during the March for our Lives, where she implored the audience to end our shameful history of failing to pay attention to the Black girls who are victims of gun violence. From the stage on the National Mall, Naomi trained a spotlight on these girls.
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
For years, the numbers have shown the need to do better: to pay closer attention to the lived experiences of Black girls, not just in the context of gun violence, but also the harsher treatment they experience in our schools and jails. Black girls are more likely to be suspended at school than white girls. They’re disproportionately arrested at school. And they are more likely to be disciplined for offenses like “disrespect” or “disobedience,” which are defined at the whim of the enforcer. This is nothing new. It’s been happening for a long time–but now, voices for change are starting to break through.
On May 15, Naomi joined leading scholars at Georgetown University Law Center to talk about the importance of listening to Black girls and the need to take collective action to improve schools’ disproportionate discipline of these girls. The event launched a new Initiative on Gender Justice & Opportunity at my organization, Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, which focuses on low-income girls and girls of color.
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
“[Black girls’] assertiveness—an asset in their male peers—is seen as threatening,” Wadler said, citing the Center on Poverty and Inequality’s research showing that adults view Black girls as older and less innocent than white girls. “It would be laughable if it weren’t terrifying.”
She then shifted from outrage to solutions. “We should ask ourselves, how can we stop this?” she implored the crowd. “You need to take a stand. … You must all embrace Black girls, give us a chance to live up to our full potential, create equal opportunity in schools and communities for these girls to thrive.”
“Fight for Black girls!” she urged. “Make it your priority to change the narrative.”
She also had a call to action for girls. “We need to stand in our power. Our power to learn and educate ourselves,” she said. “To speak out in public… to stand for our cause.”
But not all girls have the tools, or the privilege, to speak up in the way that Naomi can. Some are labeled defiant. Some are sent into the juvenile justice system instead of being heard. But we must heed the brilliance that is layered into different voices to truly achieve justice.
Take “Denisha” (an alias), a girl who was locked up in a detention facility and interviewed by another speaker at the launch event, scholar Monique Morris, author of the wildly popular book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.
“I [knew] that [a similar brilliance as Naomi’s] was sitting inside of Denisha…, but that no one heard her, and so she [had wound up] on the street,” said Morris. “No one could see her brilliance – only her defiance. Only her pain as it was coming out and then criminalized.”
Morris views Denisha’s experience as reflective of a broader trend.
“We miss many opportunities to pull out the genius and the various ways that this genius is communicated by Black girls,” she said. “If it’s seen as something that is an affront to the status quo… and it’s not communicated in a way that adults will elevate and uplift, then we reject.”
The solution, she said, lies in recognizing the brilliance of Black girls.
“See it, and then move out of the way,” she said, “so there can be space for others to come forward and say their truth.”
So let’s look. Let’s listen. And let’s give girls like Denisha the chance to shine just as Naomi has. Then girls themselves can lead the change we need and get the justice they deserve.
* * *