Utilizing an intersectional lens in addressing the violence girls and gender non-conforming young folks experience is a critical, everyday component of our work at National Crittenton–not confined to a month-long observance or single initiative. While these are integral parts of our work, to commemorate Black History Month and Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month we are reflecting on the disproportionate exposure to, and experiences of, violence black girls face, and calling attention to systems that fail to support them and often criminalize their abuse.
In her keynote address at the national Crittenton event, In Solidarity We Rise: Healing, Opportunity and Justice for Girls, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris offered the following directive:
“As a society we must create the conditions so that girls and young women do not have to be surviving.”
Schools should be safe environments where students can access support and services, but black girls can experience schools as sites of initial or continued sexual harassment.
In her 2016 book, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, Dr. Monique Morris explains, “In the hallways, in the classrooms, on the yard, and in the bathrooms, Black girls describe conditions in which their bodies are scrutinized, touched (often without permission), and objectified in ways that make them feel self-conscious and constantly defensive.”
Rather than serving as supportive environments, schools can exacerbate trauma based on sexual violence, including teen dating violence, for black girls. Punitive school discipline policies and the pernicious hyper-sexualization of black girls can compound the negative impact of trauma by serving to push black girls out of schools. Dr. Morris writes:
“The marginalization that occurs from being sexualized (or reduced to their sexuality)–in and out of school–may be too intense to handle, especially without adequate support. From the pullout of girls who are being trafficked to the oppressive school dress codes that irrationally institutionalize adult panic of the morals of girls both cis-and transgender, we see how Black girls continue to live with the burden of underprotection.”
According to the 2017 report, Be Her Resource: A Toolkit About School Resource Officers and Girls of Color, black girls are 2.6 times more likely to be referred to law enforcement as white girls while at school, and almost four times as likely to be arrested at school. Black girls are also subjected to harsh and sometimes violent disciplinary practices, as reflected in cases like the violent actions of a School Resource Officer in Spring Valley High School, the handcuffing and arrest of six-year-old Salecia Johnson, and most recently eleven-year-old Zakiyah.
Black girls are generally viewed as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers. A recent study by the Georgetown Center of Poverty and Inequality labels this the “adultification” of black girls, finding that survey participants perceived black girls as needing less nurturing, less protection, less support, less comfort, being more independent, and knowing more about adult topics (particularly sex) than white girls of the same age.
Legacy of the criminalization of black girls for their own abuse within the context of unjust systems can be traced back through the history of the United States. In her article, “African American Women, Mass Incarceration, and the Politics of Protection,” Dr. Kali Nicole Gross writes about the 1855 case of nineteen-year-old Celia, “an enslaved black woman who was executed for killing her rapist-owner in 1855 Missouri […] Such instances mark the cruel hypocrisies of American justice: black women would be denied protection under the law, only to be fatally condemned by it.”
Celia’s punishment by, rather than protection through, the justice system is echoed in the recent cases of Cyntoia Brown, who was sentenced to life without parole for killing a man who raped her while she was being trafficked for sex at 16 years of age, and Bresha Meadows, who faced the possibility of being tried as an adult for the death of her abusive father when she was 14, and was only released from confinement this month.
Black girls are disproportionately represented in the juvenile justice system; in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, black girls were 36.2% of all girls detained under the age of 18 and 33.4% of all girls committed to the juvenile or criminal justice system.
Black girls also represented 39.6% of all girls in the juvenile justice system whose most serious crime was simple assault, a charge that can result as an unintended consequence of domestic violence mandatory and pro-arrest policies. A 2015 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention National Girls Initiative report explained:
“In many states the definition of domestic violence or family violence is so broad that it includes intra-family disputes between parents and child […] The arrests of girls and young women from intra-family conflict often result in the criminalization of behaviors by girls in their homes that are reactions to their experiences of in-home violence and resulting trauma.”
There are many more girls and young women with stories like Cyntoia Brown and Bresha Meadows, and the reality of the inequities and system failures that push them out of school, criminalize their abuse, and push them deeper into the system are present 365 days a year.
As Patricia Williams writes in her article, “Silenced and Objectified: Black Women in the United States”:
“We know these children for their strength but not for their internal battles. […] The collective cultural suppression of black girls’ complex emotional and intellectual lives has been accomplished by crude ideologies that diminish the cognitive capacities of us all.”
At National Crittenton, this month and every month, we are determined to keep working towards a future where all girls can access the same opportunities to live free of violence and adversity, and experience safety, support, and opportunities. This is work that includes actively addressing the root causes of specific historical and systemic violence facing black girls, and advocating for a cultural shift that celebrates and recognizes black girls for more than their survival of these injustices.