Black Lives Matter

Published on March 17th, 2022 | by Guilaine Kinouani


On Raising Black Children and School Violence: Excerpted from LIVING WHILE BLACK

When she was six, my daughter came home upset and asked me to redo her hair. She had gone to school with two ponytails, two Afro puffs to be precise, and two cornrows at the front and two at the back of her head. She looked alarmed and anxious. “The teacher said my hair is too big—I can’t wear a hat, and I need to change it, or I won’t be in the school play,” she exclaimed. I reassured her. I said I would not change her hairstyle and that her hair was perfectly fine. The following day her father took her to school and explained to the teacher her comments were out of line and that she needed to be included in the school play whether her hair could fit into a hat or not. Furthermore, he showed her how to gather her Afro puffs into one to fit a hat. In the afternoon I picked her up, and one of her braids at the back of her head had been cut. She had not realized. Only the teacher had touched her hair, to put it in a hat. I contacted the school; they had no idea. The head teacher wanted to double-check that her braid had indeed been cut, in case I was mistaken, I presume. She agreed, then confirmed that children had had no access to scissors. I explained to her the conflict around my daughter’s Afro hair. I insinuated that this might have been an act of malicious retaliation. The head teacher was outraged. She could not fathom that racism could be taking place in her school. This was beyond the realm of possibility. She disclosed to me that she had mixed-race grandchildren and since she herself as head teacher had grandchildren of color whom she loved very much, no racism could possibly be taking place in her school. We never found out who had cut my girl’s hair. We never heard anything further either.

Photo by Mieke Campbell on Unsplash

Raising Black Children

We often say there is no manual that can really teach you how to be a parent. That is certainly true. The aim of this essay is not to provide a manual for parents on how to raise Black children. To a large extent, the task of raising Black children is the task of raising any children. We do the best we can with what we have and what we know. Nonetheless, in addition to general concerns around supporting Black children to become independent adults, the task of the Black parent is also to help their children navigate racism and, as far as is possible, to protect them from its harm. No blueprint to facilitate this overly complex task can ever exist. Black children are usually invisible from conversations around racism’s traumatic effects. Few studies look at the impact of racism across a lifespan. This essay aims to center the needs of Black children.

Black children start to become aware of race and racism at an incredibly young age. Our racialization or socialization to racial constructions as social beings starts early. By the age of three or four, often much sooner, children become aware of skin color. They start to understand racial categories and show evidence of racial biases and preferences consistent with general societal attitudes. They begin to identify with one or several racial groups. By age four most are adept at recognizing racial differences and what they signify for them. These may include awareness of the differential treatment they are afforded by people around them because of the color of their skin. Children’s racial socialization is influenced by their parents’ own experience of racism, racial attitudes, and their coping or survival strategies.

Hence our child-rearing practices, identity, history, and social positioning are, to a large extent, inseparable.

Photo by Kiana Bosman on Unsplash

School Violence

There is nothing more heartbreaking to a parent than leaving your child at a gate of a school knowing they will be subjected to racism and fearing that if you challenge the school, your child may be subjected to even more racism. Witnessing their children experience racism can lead parents to racial trauma and/or activate memories of their own experience of racist violence in school or in other settings. Which then also has the potential to lead to further distress in children, leading to a cycle of wounding. That introductory extract at the start of the essay is from an article I wrote in June 2019, “On School, Institutional Racism and Everyday Violence.” The article came about after I was heavily trolled on social media for suggesting that schools are as structurally and institutionally racist as the police and that they are continuing, by and large, to get away with it. Teachers reacted defensively to my tweets to assert that they had never seen or experienced racism throughout their career. I wrote this piece to challenge their narrative but also to force many of those who refused to confront the realities of so many Black parents to see it. It is interesting that after the piece was published, most, if not all, of those who were initially engaged in denial turned silent. Hundreds of messages followed, mainly from Black parents and other parents of color. Many shared their stories of racism in school.

It is concerning to me that even though what Black families experience is quite common, white people and schools continue to act shocked when we speak out. The racial disparity in the US education system is widespread and well-documented. Several factors lead to inequality in education access, experience, and outcomes. They include government policies, informal segregation, unequal resource allocation to schools along racial lines, and teachers’ bias and racism.

Recent data from the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Database suggests a significant rise in racial disparities in Black students’ arrests and referrals to police.

  • During the 2016–17 school year, schools suspended 2.7 million students. This number was about 100,000 students lower than when federal data was last collected, in 2013–14.
  • Black boys made up 25 percent of all students suspended from school, and Black girls made up another 14 percent—even though each group only accounted for about 8 percent of all students.
  • Black children, about 15 percent of all students during 2015–16, were 31 percent of those arrested or referred to police for in-school behavior.
  • Data from 2013–14 collected by the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights shows that Black K–12 students are 3.8 times more likely than their white peers to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions.
  • Three factors have been found to increase risks of preschool exclusions: being Black, being male, and looking older than their classmates (Foundation for Child Development, 2005).
  • Teachers have been found to be more likely to stereotype Black students as troublemakers and recommend harsher discipline than white counterparts engaging in similar infractions after repeated misbehavior (Psychological Science, 2015).
  • In 2014, the high school graduation rate for white students was 87 percent and 73 percent for Black students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
  • Teachers have been found to be less likely to spot Black students who excel academically (Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 2016).
  • When evaluating the same Black student, white teachers are 12 percent less likely to predict that the student will finish high school, and 30 percent less likely to predict the student will graduate from college, than Black teachers (Economics of Education Review, 2016).

The above inequalities are the tip of the iceberg. Schools are arguably a pillar of white supremacy and a site of trauma. This is what the expression “school-to-prison pipeline” seeks to highlight, that school policies and practices create conditions that increase the likelihood of social exclusion and later incarceration, to protect the dominance, superiority, and privileges of white groups.

So, what does it say to us as Black parents that when we reflect on racism, so many white teachers still feel the need to defend, argue, and deny?

Read more on Raising Black Children in Living While Black: Using Joy, Beauty, and Connection to Heal Racial Trauma by Guilaine Kinouani (Beacon Press, 2022) from which this essay was reprinted with permission

Feature photo (girl on slide) by Paris Lopez on Unsplash

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About the Author

Guilaine Kinouani is a UK-based French radical and critical psychologist of Congolese descent. She is a feminist, a therapist, and an equality consultant, as well as the founder, leader, and award-nominated writer for Kinouani is a senior psychologist and an adjunct professor of Black and Africana studies at Syracuse University, London. Kinouani heads Race Reflections and its academy, providing workshops on anti-racism, racial trauma, and self-care. She tweets as @KGuilaine.

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