Making Black Girls “Ladylike”

This is an article I wrote that is also published over at Wiretap Magazine; Find more stuff @ Kameelahwrites

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I have been convinced that many large public schools function like factory systems. You pop in one student and with the appropriate manipulations, the necessary conveyor belt rides and some pedagogical alchemy and you get the school product: a depoliticized consumer who is more prepared to select the next game system to buy then to think critically about the social context that shapes his financially struggling neighborhood. John Dewey alludes to it, and Paulo Freire explicitly discusses it.

Sure, there is something more nuanced going on here with respect to student agency and the specificity of the school site etc., but follow my logic, even if incredulously so. Maybe, these are just the cliff note ramblings of Marxist critique or the strategic staging for the theatrical introduction of radical pedagogy, but ramblings and stagings that should not be so hastily abandoned.

Humor me for a moment, if we think about this factory model of education seriously, is it possible that schools are a site of (re)production? Do schools try to make certain type of students? What are the implications of this process? A new Gender Public Advocacy Coalition (GenderPAC) report found that teachers tend to view the behavior of black girls as not “ladylike” and therefore focus disciplinary action on encouraging behaviors like passivity, deference, and bodily control at the expense of curiosity, outspokenness, and assertiveness.

Based on two years’ observation at a Texas middle school, the Ohio University study found that teachers’ class-and-race-based assumptions of black femininity made them more likely to discourage behaviors and characteristics that lead to class involvement and educational success.

Sadly, reports like these never seem to surprise me and now I have converted that management of surprise into excavating for deeper ideas and questions. This study makes me laugh, in a serious way of course, at how so many folks want to latch on to this idea of a “culture of poverty” of “hip-hop” or whatever to blame for the academic achievement of Black students, but what about the cultures of gendered muteness, and racialized womanhood rearing that explicitly train young Black women in behaviors that militate against their “educational success”?

Looking at the intersection of race, gender, capitalism and pedagogy, the disciplinary efforts and hidden curriculum are working toward a desired young Black woman — one who does not ask too many questions, accepts the power arrangements in schools and becomes a proper young lady — pink bows and all. Schools since their inception have been focused on the poetics of assimilation and thus are sites of production not only for the ready-made American citizen who does not challenge his government or is a depoliticized consumers, but the “acceptable” Black woman who is docile, domesticated and unchallenging.

Maybe, I am reading too much in to this — maybe, I am making this more teleological than necessary, but something just isn’t right when young Black female students are being punished for participating in discussions and standing up for themselves. Something just is not right when as it is described in Edward W. Morris’ 2007 paper, “‘Ladies’ or ‘Loudies’? Perceptions and Expectations of Black Girls in Classrooms,” that there is “less attention on the academic progress of Black girls, and more attention on their comportment and social decorum.”

In this same paper, Morris argues that there is a desire to have young Black women assimilate to prototypical White middle-class views of femininity that necessitate a certain level of docility and complacency. The GenderPAC report noted that “many teachers described black female students as too sexually provocative in dress and behavior.”

Enter stage left: the endurance of historical stereotypes of Black women and hypersexuality. I am wondering how large the gap is between perception and real life and irrespective of this perceptions, schools should not become informal charm schools for young Black women who haven’t acquired the “proper” accoutrements of “ladylike” behavior.

While the report quickly asserts that “The teachers’ actions appeared to be less the result of conscious racism or sexism than an unwitting tendency to view the behavior of black girls through a different lens than that of their peers,” I am inclined to believe that if these actions are not the result of conscious racism or sexism, then we can look to unconscious racism or sexism.

Possibly, we can look to a sincere, yet dangerous desire to just make young Black women “fit” for the world they will enter. Maybe, there is a power play between young Black women and their perceptions of legitimate authority and the assertion of authority by teachers who young Black women do not feel have the right to assert that power. I do want to make it clear that the GenderPAC study is not about some universal rendering of what it means to be girl; rather, it is a very specific issue about the intersections between race, class, gender, sexuality and how such intersections are articulated in pedagogy.

These are attitudes about the proper roles for young Black women that are articulated in other spaces, out in the so-called “real world.” I cannot tell you how many times my assertiveness and unwillingness to accept unsubstantiated narratives as “being out of my place,” “bitchy” or “aggressive” (read: unladylike). Yes, I have been called a bitch, uppity, you name it. I have been told to shut up. I have been “asked” just to go along with the flow without questions. At first, I thought it was just what it was — I always had an opinion, then it realized that I always had an opinion with too much melanin and without the licensing appendage between my legs.

There was a point in my pre-teen years where I sported black combat boots, over-sized green jeans, a big white tee and sandy cornrows. I always had something to say and usually never backed down from a game of verbal gynmastics, especially with men because I’d been raised on the ethic of never letting people talk down to you, especially men. Still assertive and probably a bit stubborn, now I just rock the hijab, maybe some dark kohl eyeliner for a brief feminine interruption and Etnies or Chuck Taylors to perform such a clever manuveur as not to commit myself to uncomfortable and invasive renderings of how to be “girl.”

Ten years and numerous unintentionally comedic monologues later, I have gotten over my guilt about gendered apostasy and asserted that my vagina should not dictate the way I speak or act. From all my years of womanhood molding, the one lesson I took away (in the process of disposing others) was how to deliver my sarcasm and critique with subtle grace — a seemingly compromising tactic that is actually made my acerbic sarcasm just that much more entertaining (well, at least to me) as folks try to figure out if the quiet girl in the dark hijab intended for her last comment with and underlying ad hominem to be directed at them.

With all the TV ads and teen fashion magazine articles (which I so ardently follow) that have co-opted radical feminism as a trendy apolitical lifestyle and naively argue that women are able to break out of traditional gender roles, it makes me wonder what does being a “girl” mean? and when does being a “girl” start and end? What is ladylike?

I finally caught the video of Ciara’s “Like a Boy” on YouTube and was amused by the responses of folks who were a bit “thrown” by the video. I am wondering if folks were that thrown by the performance of breaking gender roles by seemingly intangible person (sometime celebrity status makes these people “unreal” to me, call it silly), then how must they respond to a real “live” person who thinks that gender roles are choreographed actions that can and must always be interrupted.

If in the real world we must break these choreographed actions, then in classrooms which are often the microcosm of this “real world,” young Black women must also continue to break this choreography as what is learned must be unlearned. Maybe folks are coming around to this idea of schools as sites of (re)production. And if they are such sites, how do we throw a wrench in the machine to halt the production of muted young Black women.

Moreso, how do we disrupt the culture of schooling as a site where students are directed, produced and dealt with en masse? Taneika Taylor, the director of GenderPAC’s “Children as They Are” program suggests that “[i]f our own unconscious stereotypes are prompting teachers to ‘correct’ those behaviors in young black girls, school systems need to look carefully at including this problem of teachers’ perceptions and assumptions in their diversity training.”

Let’s not get me started on “diversity training” or the word “diversity” itself. I am thinking that working on the individual attitudes of teachers is a good start, but disrupting a schooling culture of (re)production and complacency will take more than a weekend retreat at the Hyatt and discussions about celebrating token differences.

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Published on August 23, 2007 at 7:08 pm. 48 Comments.
Filed under racism, women's issues/feminism, sexuality, racial rhetoric, education.