School is one of the most important early environments to foster future success in a child, and teachers play a huge part in crafting what their students' future lives and careers will look like.
But when teachers play such an important role in guiding young and vulnerable mini-adults through the world, what happens when certain children aren’t given the same attention as their peers? When a child is seen as needing less nurture and support than their classmates, what kind of long-lasting impact can this have?
In 2017, Georgetown Law’s Centre on Poverty and Inequality released "Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls' Childhood", a study that provided data showing that "adults view black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers, especially in the age range of 5-14." Because of this, they are seen as needing "to be comforted less" and are assumed to know more about "adult topics".
Perceiving black girls as "less innocent", the study continues, may lead to "harsher punishment by educators and school resource officers". Additionally, if black girls are viewed as more independent and in need of less support, they could find themselves granted "fewer leadership and mentorship opportunities in schools".
The study concludes that there are very real and dangerous consequences of adult perceptions and bias against young black girls. If they are seen as older than their age, aggressive and disruptive by teachers, it’s little wonder that the Department of Education’s 2016 statistics on exclusions in England showed that black Caribbean girls are twice as likely to be excluded when compared to all female students.
According to Dr Feyisa Demie and Christabel McLean, authors of the study "Black Caribbean Underachievement in Schools in England", one of the key contributing factors to the underachievement is low expectations from teachers. "A growing body of research suggests that the expectations a teacher sets for an individual pupil can significantly affect the pupil’s performance," they say. If the expectations are made based on pupils’ characteristics such as race, family income level and indicators of previous attainment, then they can cause teachers to "differentiate their behaviour towards individual pupils". This can include providing less positive feedback after correct answers or failing to give some pupils the opportunity to answer at all.
Many young black women still feel the effects of their schooldays. A lasting memory for Aliyah*, now an adult and working as a civil servant, was when her teacher told her that she most likely wouldn’t get the grades she needed to study the subjects she wanted at A-level: "The teacher bluntly informed my mum and I that I was unlikely to perform well enough in my GCSEs [to study politics and government, sociology, English language and history] and if I was to stay on [for sixth form] I should be more realistic and focus on BTEC courses."
She implored me when reading aloud to 'do the accent'. I refused but she would not let it go, citing 'but they're your people' and 'it's just Creole'.
Rita*, now a full-time university student, remembers how she was taught literacy by a teacher who constantly gave her the lowest level books to read, despite her having a higher reading age than her peers. "The teacher would never allow me to progress in class on any task," she tells Refinery29. "I was never picked to answer questions even if I was the only person with my hand up. She constantly discouraged me and made me hate learning and education. On one occasion, she told my mother that I would never amount to anything and that I was stupid."
For Heather*, now a bookseller attempting to get back into academia, her experiences at school act as an example of how class and race are inextricably linked. For secondary school, she got into a grammar school in Kent. "I was from Croydon and was continuously called out for mispronouncing words or dropping a 'g'. My teacher said I was in need of elocution and would encourage students to openly correct me while I was reading aloud. It was utterly humiliating."
When she reached her A-levels, Heather found that attempts to set her apart from her peers during classes continued. "My teacher picked me to read excerpts from Wide Sargasso Sea [a 1966 anti-colonial response to Jane Eyre set in Jamaica with a Creole protagonist], imploring me multiple times to 'do the accent'. I refused but she would not let it go, citing 'but they’re your people" and 'it's just Creole'. I was excessively uncomfortable and told her so, but she laughed it off and then attempted to do the accent herself."
It is not surprising that years of being expected to underperform, facing open ridicule and being overlooked in favour of their peers can have a lasting detrimental impact, leaving these girls feeling isolated and unable to ask for help from teachers, the authority figures who are meant to be supporting them.
Amber Dee, professional counsellor and founder of Black Female Therapists says that not feeling protected and nurtured by teachers at a young age would have a significant impact on any child, but it would, she says, be felt especially deeply by a young black girl as "[she] is not afforded the same childhood benefits as a young white girl." This will, she says, come into play when she's forming her early views on her place in the world and her relationships with others. Dee says the lasting effects of this are clear, citing the numerous reports which show black women struggle more with depression and anxiety than any other gender or ethnicity. This can lead, she says, to "higher dropout rates which leads to fewer job opportunities, fears of being vulnerable, and having to overcompensate, which lead to many other complications in life, including mental and physical health issues."
I wish teachers had paid closer attention but it feels like, as a working class black girl, my lack of success was never seen as something that needed to be examined.
Mary* felt that it was expected at school that she wouldn’t do well in English, despite getting A*s in other writing-based subjects. So in her final year of her degree, she decided to get tested and discovered that she has dyslexia. "[After my diagnosis] was the first time I truly felt the impact of being supported in my education," Mary says. "Although I was doing well in my degree, I was really upset that I had accepted that I was stupid and lazy. I wish I had known I was dyslexic from a younger age so I understood that I was struggling, not just incapable."
While Aliyah believes that her educational experience has pushed her to achieve and become successful, she finds that it has also given her a complex. "I question myself a lot. I’ve tied my self-worth to doing well in education and work, which means I can exhaust myself trying to prove that I’m good enough." Yasmin, an activist, agrees: "When you’re in school, you trust your teachers, you value their opinions, they shape your own understanding of yourself and the world around you. When your teachers make you feel like there’s something wrong with you, it sticks with you for a long time."
Mary adds: "I wish teachers had paid closer attention but it feels like, as a working class black girl, my lack of success was never seen as something that needed to be examined."
In order to combat these issues and move forward, the "Underachievement in Schools" report makes several suggestions, such as the provision of community-led black mentoring projects, and suggests targets for recruiting (and keeping) black staff at all levels within education. They also call for national and regional targets for reducing black Caribbean permanent and fixed term exclusion.
Meanwhile, Dee believes that black parents have a critical role to play in attempting to break the cycle that silences young black girls. "Being able to check in emotionally with yourself and your child is ideal. It’s a great way for the parent to stay involved with their child and it also teaches the child that it’s okay to express their feelings and concerns."
*Names have been changed