Black Girls in White Schools: School Settings and Racist Actors

School Daze

The relatively new journal, Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Perspectives, has a very interesting article by Tiffany A. Eggleston of the Columbus City Schools and Antoinette Halsell Miranda of Ohio State University on interviews with eleven black adolescent girls in a predominantly white suburban school (Creative Commons License photo credit: Burnt Pixel).


The researchers present interesting data-comments from the students on gendered racism in everyday environments, and conclude with suggestions for teachers/principals concerned with the gendered-racial impacts and isolation faced by such isolated black students in historically white institutions:

1. Teachers should partake in cultural diversity training to help understand the normative behavior of African Americans and other racial minority groups. By learning to understand the nuances of various cultures, teachers will be better able to relate to the students and offer support, thereby helping to lessen the feeling of isolation described by many of the participants. In understanding the different cultural behaviors, teachers may be more apt to discourage the continuation of stereotypes about African Americans and other racial minorities within and outside of the classroom. 2. According to the findings of this study, many of the participants did not feel close to any of their teachers, which was reported to be a disappointment to some of the participants. … Thus, teachers should work to improve student–teacher relationships to help increase the likelihood that the students will turn to school personnel for help or support.

1. Principals should offer and ensure that teachers participate in professional development courses on cultural, racial, and gender diversity to help increase their understanding of African American females. 2. According to the participants, one source of discomfort came from being the only one, or one of just a few African Americans in class. This occurrence was specifically mentioned in relation to advanced (Honors and Advanced Placement) courses and was cited as a possible reason why more African American students choose not to enroll in those courses. Principals should closely monitor African American enrollment in such courses to ensure that students participate. If it is noticed that African American students do not participate, steps should be taken to actively recruit them. 3. Many of the participants were discouraged by the apparent lack of interest in African Americans, even during Black History Month. Thus, principals should develop cultural activities and school presentations that address African American culture. … principals should make efforts to offer courses on African American culture (i.e., African American History, African American Literature, African American Studies). Due to the prominence of racial slurs, racist behaviors, and stereotypical views, students of all races would benefit from learning about African American culture. 4. Principals should make a sincere effort to hire a diverse staff.

There is much that is important and useful in this analysis of the pressures of white images of female-ness in society and in these predominantly white settings, and these young women are quite pointed and detailed in the gendered racism they describe in this school. These is much here to learn from them.

However, the researchers seem unwilling to examine directly and analytically the role of white teachers, white principals, and white students in such educational settings. These white actors certainly appear in the student accounts.

Yet, the words “white teachers” and “white principals” are terms that never appear even once in the article. And “white students” appears but once in a critical comment from a black female student. At no point do the authors examine, substantially and specifically, the white racial framing of the many white actors who are critical to the problems of such oppressive school environments–other than to note, as above, that “students of all races” would benefit from some of the proposed reforms.

The reality of the “racial slurs, racist behaviors, and stereotypical views” is noted, but not attended to analytically much beyond these typical diversity proposals. No terms like systemic racism, institutionalized racism, or structural racism appear in the article, nor is there such a systemic racism analysis. The white racism environment is discussed in terms of the gender ideas imposed on black girls in this environment, but the white imposers are only implicitly considered, as in most social science research of this type. And the solutions are mostly considered and useful but, once again, seem too much like putting band-aids on cancers? Where are the proposals for dealing with the racist white students, teachers, and principals who cause these girls problems, and their white racial framing (their racist mindsets) and their racist everyday actions?

[Note: The journal, Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Perspectives, is a joint publication of The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Office of Minority Affairs at Ohio State University, together with the Indiana University Press. A good journal to know about.]

Social Class, Race, and Intimate Partner Violence

Chris BrownChris Brown’s February 8th assault of his girlfriend, Rihanna, has put the problem of intimate partner violence in the media spotlight (Chris Brown Creative Commons License photo credit: O.M.Gee!). From Oprah Winfrey to Larry King to numerous entertainment and news websites, talk show hosts, commentators, bloggers and others have examined the incident from multiple angles, spinning off questions about abusive relationships more generally. One of the most frequently raised issues is the social class of the couple. As a writer for CNN recently noted:

Both singers are young, apple-cheeked, immensely talented and squeaky clean – the last couple you’d imagine as domestic violence headliners. Perhaps the only good that will come from the Rihanna/Brown publicity is destruction of our culture’s misconception that abusers and their victims can only be universally poor, uneducated and powerless.

Certainly this is an important lesson to be learned and one that domestic violence advocates have been emphasizing for more than 30 years: Intimate partner violence affects individuals in all social classes and racial/ethnic groups; no one is protected by virtue of their class or race privilege. Rihanna_2That said, one of the most consistent findings from research is a strong inverse relationship between social class and intimate partner violence: As social class goes up, rates of intimate partner violence go down. Analyses of large, national surveys, for example, show that women living in households with the lowest annual incomes were five times more likely to have experienced intimate partner violence than women in households in the highest income category, and three times more likely than women in the middle income category (Rihanna Creative Commons License photo credit: Trangdepp).

Poor women, of course, are not a homogeneous group.  For instance, some poor women are homeless or living in temporary shelters, while others are housed. Some are employed, even if only in low-paying jobs without benefits, while others are unemployed or receive public assistance. Although poor women overall are at greater risk of intimate partner violence victimization, studies show that the poorest of the poor have the highest rates. Consider, for example, that nationally representative surveys of the general U.S. population estimate that about 25% of women are victimized by an intimate partner at some time during their lives. That is an unacceptably high number, but appears slight when comparing it to studies of women on welfare, which report a range of 28% to 63% lifetime victimization rates; the majority of estimates from these studies are 40% to 60% (Richard Tolman, “Guest Editor’s Introduction,” Violence Against Women, 5[1999]:355-369).

Research also indicates that poor women have higher lifetime rates of all forms of violent victimization. In a Massachusetts study, for instance, researchers found that among their sample of 216 housed, low-income, single mothers and 220 homeless single mothers in which the average age was 27, only 16% had not been physically or sexually abused in their relatively short lifetimes. Nearly 33% reported severe physical violence by a current or former boyfriend, 60% reported physical violence perpetrated by a male partner during adulthood, 63% reported severe physical violence by a parent or caregiver during childhood, and over 40% reported that they had been sexually molested during childhood. As the authors of this research point out, the majority of the women in this study had experienced only brief periods of safety during their lives (Angela Browne, Amy Salomon, & Shari S. Bassuk, “The Impact of Recent Partner Violence on Poor Women’s Capacity to Maintain Work,” Violence Against Women, 5[1999]:393-426).

One issue that has not been mentioned in the Rihanna/Brown case is the fact that the couple is black. Since the early 1980s, large national surveys have shown that black women are at greater risk of being violently victimized by their intimate partners than white women are. Some researchers have argued that the higher rate of intimate violence among black couples is the result of culturally specific factors that include beliefs about marriage and fidelity along with negative stereotypes of black women. But in studies that have examined both race and social class, differences in rates of intimate partner violence between black and white couples are significantly reduced or disappear completely when social class is controlled. The higher rate of intimate partner violence victimization – and, indeed, all types of violent victimization – among black women, then, is another outcome of racism: the result of the disproportionate number of black people who live in poverty. In her recent research on gendered violence in the lives of urban black girls, the vast majority of which is perpetrated by peers and acquaintances, criminologist Jody Miller informs readers:

This book should not be read as an indictment of young Black men and their treatment of their female peers. . . . [W]e, as a society, have created the circumstances that lead to cultural adaptations to situational contexts that shape urban African American young women’s risks. The indictment is of all of us. (Getting Played, New York: New York University Press, 2008, p. xvii)

Thus, while the attention given to intimate partner violence because of the Rihanna/Brown case is important and welcome, the emphasis being placed on the couple’s social status and how intimate partner violence happens even among wealthy couples should not allow us to overlook the fact that the greatest burden of this violence falls on poor women. And, as a direct result of racism, women of color are disproportionately poor and have the fewest resources available to them to cope with this problem.

Michelle Obama Gives More than Just a Speech

Last night, Michelle Obama took the stage at the Democratic National Convention. She was the keynote speaker of the night, charged with personalizing Barack Obama and, more implicitly, with showing a different side of herself. Michelle Obama has been very negatively reviewed by the press and by Republicans, often described as unpatriotic for her statements about her perceived lack of pride in her country (photo by Jackson Solway, from the DNC via Flickr). Hence, at the convention, her speech had two goals: to make Barack Obama relatable and to define his history as a typical American story, and to “soften” her image and to showcase herself as someone who most Americans could envision as First Lady.

Michelle’s speech touched on all the requisite themes. She explained why she loves America, discussed Barack Obama’s commitment to everyday Americans, his middle-American roots and upbringing, and love for his family. For me, however, what she said in her speech was much less important than having the opportunity to watch her say it.

For many African Americans, there has been a long sense of being shut out from most levels of the U.S.’s social, economic, and especially political systems. Many of us are all too aware of the ways African Americans are taken for granted and/or ignored in national elections, and the ways that Black Americans are often invisible at the uppermost levels of the political spectrum. We see how infrequently loving, caring, happy relationships between Black men and women are depicted, and we notice the scant coverage that polished, smart, passionate Black women receive in the mainstream media. So to see Michelle Obama speaking about her husband with love and pride, to hear him tell her after her speech that she looked “very cute,” and to see their adorable children conclude with “we love you, Daddy!” was an incredible moment for me and many other African Americans who are acutely aware of how infrequently these types of images are shown.

We’ve talked a lot on this blog about the challenges facing Barack Obama, the covert and overt racism inhibiting his historic campaign, and the ways intersections of race and gender have shaped the ways Michelle Obama is depicted as an “angry black woman.” It’s pretty clear that Barack Obama still has an enormous task ahead of him in overcoming white racism. It is unfortunate that Michelle Obama must work so hard to combat gendered racist stereotypes that demean and belittle her. But as an African American woman, it was such a profoundly moving moment to see someone who looked like me included, rather than excluded. Whatever else happens in this election, Barack Obama’s candidacy has been a welcome departure from the implicit “whites-only” norms of presidential politics, and has given a glimpse of America’s opportunity to finally start cashing that check that keeps coming back marked “insufficient funds.”

I have admired and appreciated Barack and Michelle Obama as a couple since he completed his 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, went backstage, and grabbed his wife in a huge bear hug. In the Obamas, I see my husband and I, our friends, and our family members. In many ways, we’re similar to the Obamas– typical, everyday, working professionals, but we are painfully aware that Black Americans like us are rarely the subject of media attention, much less present in a central, defining role in American politics. Watching Michelle Obama speak eloquently and candidly about her love for her husband, her family, and the familiar particulars of her life story, I (and many other Black Americans) experienced a welcome departure from the typical feelings of exclusion and marginalization induced by national politics. Like her, for the first time in my life, I felt not only proud, but represented and included in a way I’ve never felt before.

Continuing Significance of Institutional Racism: Latino Undergrads

The US Census Bureau just released population projections that by 2050, minorities will be the numeric majority of the population. For Latinos especially gains in the percentage of the population are expected to increase dramatically. In an article on cnn.com, Dave Waddington, chief of the Census Bureau’s population projection branch, stated that “Who’s going to do the jobs that are characteristically held right now by certain types of people…All those things are subject to change.” As the white population decreases and the number of people of color increase, it is critical that we take a look at how systemic racism plays out in some of our major institutions, especially education. Change is coming and in so many cases needs to happen in order to prepare for a future that is more diverse (photo: Brewer).

Education is important to Latinos, and universities often claim to value diversity by actively recruiting students of color. This effort by universities can be interpreted either as a cynical effort to enhance the image of their school, or more benignly as a true reflection of a deeply held value of cultural difference on campus. Nevertheless, there is often concern at universities about recruiting and retaining students of color. However, through my interviews with Latino undergraduate students at three universities (“Southern University,” “Southwest University,” and “Midwest University”) across the country, I found that institutional discrimination continues to be a major impediment to student success. Universities are historically white arenas and they continue to be so today, regardless of their rhetoric about diversity.

My research showed that many aspects of the university are still white dominated. Almost universally, students reported an underrepresentation of Latino faculty on their campuses. It was difficult for students to find faculty members that looked like them or that they could relate to. When students did have Latino instructors, they were often non-tenured and/or teaching only in Latino areas (like Mexican American studies or Spanish.)

“I think that that does happen. There probably aren’t that many Latina professors or working as the dean or something like that. And there are more cooks and janitors that are Hispanics or—[Have you had any Latino professors?] No, I haven’t. [How do you feel about that?] I hadn’t really thought about it, but I would like to have a professor who has similar, I guess, cultural background as me. That could connect more I guess, but I haven’t really noticed.” – Southwest University Female 19

Increasing Latino faculty membership and tenure, as well as diversifying departments are important issues that institutions of higher education must face if they truly want to retain Latino students. Most of the adult Latino faces that students saw were those working in lower (and underappreciated) positions at the university. This included food service, landscaping, maintenance, and custodial work. Latino students saw this pattern of work as lowering their status at the university, as well as reinforcing what they see as low expectations from whites about their potential.

Latinos are also underrepresented in the curriculum and symbolically on some campuses. Though Southwest University has done a better job with symbolic representation in terms of artwork, statues, and celebrations that represent Latinos, all three campuses lacked diversity in their curriculum. Latino culture and history are not often discussed in general education classes (like American history) and instead are relegated to specialized courses. Though students are not denying the importance of those courses and departments, the result is that diversity becomes optional. If they do not take those courses, they will not learn about their people, and neither will whites. At Midwest and Southern University, symbolic representation was also a big issue. Latinos were rarely represented around campus in things like artwork and statues, though Southern University students were looking forward to the arrival of a statue of Cesar Chavez. Midwest University did a poor job of representing any students of color symbolically, but students noticed that when they did see art, it was often in the form of photographs from the university’s past—a past that did not include people of color. At Southern University, symbols of white racism are present in the statues of Confederate soldiers and buildings named after racists. These symbols (or lack of symbols) create an atmosphere that is not welcoming to Latinos. Often there are very few places on campuses that they feel they can call their own because of racialized space.

On all three campuses students could point to examples of institutional racism. Institutions of higher education, whether they are in the South, in predominantly Latino areas, or in located big cities, still organize themselves around white ideals and values. Students of color are admitted in greater numbers, but by and large the institutions remain a white place. Because of the changes that are being predicted about our population composition, the institution will have to change and adapt to a more diverse student body.

White Women Who Don’t Get Racism

News anchor Katie Couric has made news of her own recently with her analysis of the male-dominated news business (image from here). Couric didn’t stop there, though. She went on to suggest that there is sexism in the news business and beyond in the larger society, but that “sexism is worse than racism.” Here’s the full quote from Couric, via Politico:

“Unfortunately I have found out that many viewers are afraid of change. The glory days of TV news are over, and the media landscape has been dramatically changed. News is available now for everyone, everywhere, all the time, and everybody fights for the last pieces of the shrinking pie. The corporate pressure and the ratings terror are intensifying all the time, and the situation is not simple. I find myself in the last bastion of male dominance, and realizing what Hillary Clinton might have realized not long ago: that sexism in the American society is more common than racism, and certainly more acceptable or forgivable. In any case, I think my post and Hillary’s race are important steps in the right direction.”

With this assessment, Couric joins a long and growing list of white-women-who-don’t-get-it, when it comes to racism, such as Geraldine Ferraro. As Adia Harvey wrote here back in March, “Making the case that sexism is worse than racism or even that it is the primary source of women’s oppression ignores the experiences of minority and working-class women (who simultaneously contend with racism and capitalist exploitation) and ultimately alienates these women from feminism and feminist causes.” Couric, like Ferraro, is no doubt speaking from her own experience in which she certainly encounters sexism but doesn’t encounter racism. Why would she? Given her skin-and-class privilege, it’s almost certainly the case that the only kind of inequality Couric faces in gender inequality. And, she’s right to call it out for what it is. But this doesn’t mean that Couric is right about racism, or about sexism’s significance relative to racism.

Instead, Couric’s comments simply reveal that she’s clueless about the pervasiveness of racism in this society because she’s never encountered it herself.

She’s not alone. Another white woman in the news recently who has revealed her lack of recognition about racism is Elisabeth Hasselbeck, a celebrity co-host on the television show “The View.” In an exchange with Whoopi Goldberg last week about the use of the “N-word” and the fact that racism is pervasive in our society, Goldberg asserted that she and Hasselbeck live in “different societies” at which point Hasselbeck broke down in tears. This isn’t the first time that Whoopi and Elisabeth have gotten into in about racism on the show. Back in March of this year, when Hasselbeck said she was “offended” by the fact that Barack Obama referred to his grandmother a “typical white woman” who would be fearful if she saw a group of African-Americans on the street. Elisabeth explained that she is a “typical white woman” herself and would never be afraid of a group of black kids on the street. Whoopi, however, didn’t buy it, and called her on it. At the end of the exchange, Hasselbeck pleaded with Whoopi for a “rule book on racism,” basically admitting that she didn’t get racism.

I think it’s understandable, really, that the privileged white women like Couric, Ferraro and Hasselbeck don’t get racism given how little analysis of it there is in our society.

Tasteless Satire at the New Yorker

On the cover July 21st issue of the New Yorker magazine, the Obamas are the subject of extreme racial and religious stereotyping. Their patriotism, religion, foreign policy and character are all called into question through a controversial, some say tasteless, satirical cartoon.  Andrew Malcom, blogging at the LA Times, writes this description of the cover:

The cover of this week’s New Yorker magazine depicts Obama in one-piece Muslim garb and headdress fist-bumping his booted, Afro-wearing wife Michelle in camo clothes with an AK-47 and ammo-belt slung over her shoulder beneath a portrait of Osama bin-Laden while the American flag burns in the fireplace — in the presidential Oval Office.

The cover image plays into the “dangerous black man” and the “angry black woman” racialized and gendered stereotypes.   It also further fuels racist perceptions of the Obama campaign.  This cartoon adds one more racial reference, one more false identification of his religious background and another fabricated depiction of Michelle Obama.

Together, these combine into a powerful image of what many white Americans are already thinking about the first African American candidate for presidency. The problem with this image is its openness to individual interpretation that relies overwhelmingly on the white racial frame.  Regardless of the artist’s (and the magazine’s) satirical intentions, there will be voters who interpret the image as an accurate depiction of Obama will use it to bolster racially-based stereotypes already in place.  For others who realize that Obama is not what the cover suggests will get the joke, understand the punch line and perhaps, disregard it as tasteless (like both campaigns have done).  In many ways, this is related to the issue that Jessie posted about yesterday, about racism, satire and the questionable humor of the “technigga” incident.

The question becomes, when faced with tasteless and racist humor, how do you respond?   What do you think?

~ Amanda & Hannah

Amanda and Hannah are advanced undergraduate students at Texas A&M University doing a major research project on the numerous racial aspects of the current U.S. presidential campaign–with a special focus on the unique reality and impacts of having the first Black candidate for a major political party in the campaign. They will be guest blogging with us on their research findings over the next few months. ~ Joe