By Stephanie Younger •
My advocacy for the abolition of youth prisons is influenced by the discrimination I experienced in school. Feeling unaccepted by my white peers and profiled by my teachers, I quickly internalized the notion that my Blackness wasn’t desirable. I was so consumed in the self-hatred I internalized that I lost my desire to thrive and excel in school. In the second grade, I remember being called a monkey on the playground. My peers would gather behind me to touch my braids without permission, and exclaim how gross and ugly my hair was. My reserved personality came from the experience of being branded as “aggressive” when I would defend myself.
In 2006, my family moved from Charlottesville to a county right outside of Richmond, Virginia, called Henrico. Throughout the 12 years that I’ve lived here, I’ve attended been to many different schools. I went to public school throughout most of my childhood. For 3 years, I was in private school. I spent much of elementary school, and part of middle school in HCPS, where I remember some of my most unsettling experiences with anti-Black racism.
While I had positive experiences with some teachers, I often experienced adultification and was wrongfully punished for the same actions my white counterparts engaged in, being the only Black child in the whole grade. Despite having no concept of physical violence, many white women saw me as “aggressive,” including a white woman who screamed in my face, and accused me of starting a fight when I accidentally bumped into my classmate (her daughter) at the time. That same year, my kindergarten teacher who brought me to the principal’s office for having a panic attack.
In the first grade, I transferred to another school. I increasingly became aware of the alienation I experienced by my peers and teachers, but couldn’t identify why they treated me as such. When my mom was enrolling me into my first grade class at this new school, a secretary at the front desk pulled out a map and told my mom to show her where we lived. My first grade teacher humiliated me in front of my class & threatened to push me out of school when I pulled out a dictionary during a spelling test. I told her that I genuinely didn’t know what cheating was and she insisted that I was lying, even though I never lie. My peers tried to teach me to hate my hair, and my teachers gaslighted me so severely, to the point where I went many years without telling my parents about the blatant anti-Black racism and misogyny I experienced.
In the fourth grade, I transferred to a Catholic school in Henrico. I recall being exclusively punished for playing in the hallway with a white girl who wasn’t punished. Around that time, three white teachers accused me of threatening the same white girl for not getting along. However, when I confided in them when my peers mistreated me, my teachers said, “They treat you that way because they like you and want to be your friend.” An after-school counselor claimed I was lying when a white student was trying to teach and call me the N-word. That year, I joined the school’s robotics team, where the “mentors” gave me negative attention or no attention at all, and refused to let me even touch the robot. In the fifth grade, they allowed me to participate, but they gave my non-Black teammates credit for my work. That same school year, I was the only Black student to have earned a school honor, but my picture was excluded from being placed on the wall. In the 6th grade, I transferred to a middle school in HCPS, where a teacher prevented me from completing work required to move up to the next grade.
What I experienced in Henrico County was misogynoir, a term coined by Moya Bailey, a queer Black feminist scholar in 2008, which she defines as the racialized misogyny against Black women and girls. To me, it means that anti-Black racism and misogyny are not mutually exclusive. Although my experiences with as a Black girl in school are not unique, but they are not without privilege. The conversations we have misogynoir at the hands of the adults cannot gloss over colorism. Light-skinned Black girls are far less likely to be criminalized than dark skinned Black girls. Now that I am nearly finished with high school, I want other Black youth to have the support I did when I was experiencing racism in school, so I began campaigning, lobbying and recently organized and led a march with my friends at RISE For Youth, “a nonpartisan campaign in support of alternatives to youth incarceration.”
In Kimberle Crenshaw’s theory of “intersectionality,” she regards the significance of including the voices of Black girls in conversations pertaining to the school-to-prison pipeline. While it’s important to regard how Black boys are affected by racism in schools, it’s critical to acknowledge how this affects Black girls in a state that nationally has the most occurrences of the school-to-prison pipeline—Virginia. According to the African American Policy Forum, Black girls were six times more likely to be suspended, while Black boys were three times more likely to be suspended than their White counterparts in the 2011-2012 school year.
When Black girls defend themselves, they are labeled as “aggressive,” and robbed of their innocence at a shockingly young age. In 2017, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality released a report entitled “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood.” The report stated that Black girls experience adultification, meaning that adults “view Black girls as less innocent and believe that they need less nurturing, protection and comfort than white girls.”
School is not a place for Black girls to be silenced, overpoliced and criminalized; we should not be oppressed anywhere. Neglecting and severely punishing Black girls for “having an attitude” and “being aggressive” are the root causes of the school-to-prison pipeline. When Black girls are criminalized by their schools, excluded by their peers and profiled by their teachers, they are robbed of their self-worth and their desire to thrive.
“Guide us, don’t criminalize us” – A protest chant created by the young people of Performing Statistics
Stephanie Younger is a 16-year-old student activist and writer who advocates for womanism and the abolition of youth prisons.