Voices United in Liberty: Young Women of Color in the American Educational System

The American narrative story is one that is always inherently at odds with itself, constantly rewriting it pages as it struggles to make real the stated values and highest ideals of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Within the illustrated representations of the American body politic, the nation’s spirit is captured in the form of Liberty, a magnanimous and powerful woman striding across the Great Plains of the America, spreading democracy and freedom. Justice is seen blindfolded, holding the balance of society in her hands, her foresight and intuition unhindered by the illusions that mark our world. At the same time, we might also consider how those images work to instill and reinforce gendered stereotypes and assumptions about women. For instance, Liberty is always drawn in the racial likeness of a White woman, pure and radiating in light. The Black slave woman, on the other hand, is left to the wayside of history, having born the bitter fruit of the nation by the skin of her back and the innocence of her youth, her stories lost to the winds of time. Women are the natural transmitters of culture in communities, passing down familial and cultural knowledge through the art of storytelling and language, inculcating social norms and customs into young citizens. Here we will explore and address how the U.S. educational system has worked to actively suppress the voices of women, particularly those of Women of Color. Through the examination of the institutional structures inherent within the system, the essay will also consider how race and gender play into identity formation, and ways in which students, educators, and parents can work to resist repressive narratives.
The irony that the representative body of the nation resides in the form of a woman is troubling because it masks a legislative government historically governed and enacted largely by White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) men. American and world history has been overwhelmingly dominated by the philosophical idealism and colonialist exploits of a few greedy, White, rich, middle-class men. The lives and narratives of women and children have largely ignored by cultural historians, even as they struggled against unequal opportunity and protection under the law. In her 1997 book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Spelman College President and race-relations expert Beverly D. Tatum reveals how “dominant groups, by definition, set the parameters within which the subordinates operate… hold[ing] the power and authority in society… Determining who gets the best jobs, whose history will be taught in school, or whose relationships will be validated by society (Tatum, 1997). Certainly, upon reflection and close examination of the historical relationships between men and women, it has unmistakably been one of dominance and oppression through use of sexual coercion and economic exploitation. The interpersonal dynamic between the sexes have been reinforced through religious customs, cultural norms, and traditional gender roles, perpetuating the idea that women are subservient to the will of men, and their only source of value lies within their ability to reproduce offspring, rather than imagination or ingenuity. In order to interrupt and combat racist and sexist ideological thinking, Tatum argues that parents and educators should engage in reflective self-analysis that challenges their own deeply held beliefs and prejudices (Tatum, 1997).
As women continue to progress within the system, they find themselves at odds with a curriculum that discounts “herstorical” narratives, dismisses their collective experiences, and silences their voices. In his 2001 book, Manufacturing Hope and Despair, educator Ricardo Stanton-Salazar writes about students who feel alienated from the collective learning process, and actively engage in outward resistance to overtly racist and sexist practices within the prescribed school curriculum (Stanton-Salazar, 2001). The process of alienation works to dehumanize individuals, which has resulted in the sexual objectification of young women everywhere, opening them up to the dangers of sexual harassment and assault.
When girls are subjected to viscous attacks on their personhood, their experiences can be interpreted as microaggressions, indirect insults on the basis of gender and/or race. Instances of microaggressions towards women may include but are not limited to sexist language, jokes, and aggressive use of force and/or coercion. In the documentary “Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary”, director Laura Angelica Simón interviews a nine year old student Mayra, a 5th grader who fears that she will be deported back to El Salvador with the controversy surrounding Prop 187, and undocumented “illegal aliens”. A self-aware and precocious little girl, Mayra is a natural leader already involved and active in student government, and dreams of helping others when she grows up. When asked if she thinks she is pretty, Mayra responds that she is unsure, that sometimes she thinks she is, but when she plays with the other children to judge who is the prettiest, she always comes up last. While Mayra is a beautiful little girl with a resilient and ambitious spirit, she is caught up in a predatory system that devalues her worth, and categorizes her as an undesirable other.
As it exists today, the U.S. educational system has been designed to perpetuate inequality on all levels of the K-12 public schooling system, creating vastly different outcomes in higher educational outcomes and socio-economic success. Educator and activist Jonathan Kozol reveals the exploitative business model at work within the system, operating to mold children into a singular homogenized product that will meet the demands of the capitalist market economy (Kozol, 2005). Young women are indoctrinated into the belief that their greatest contribution to society can come only through their service as mothers. In the HBO documentary film “Hard Times at Douglass High”, Erin, a 17 year old young woman, is shown in counsel with her mother, her infant baby, and academic advisor. Erin was at risk for failing out of the educational program after having incurred excessive absences during and after her pregnancy. The tragedy of Erin’s situation is that her mother may have also been a teenage mother, forced to compromise her education for the sake of raising a family. Robert Teranishi writes about the disadvantage many parents face in advocating for their children’s future, and negotiating the challenges they come up against within the system (Teranishi, 2007). “Educational attainment”, he writes, “is a form of human capital… a common measure of socioeconomic status. Parental education is an important factor for the mobility of students because it affords them with access to the knowledge, skills, and experience of their parents” (Teranishi, 2007). Without a solid formal education that would otherwise allow them to interpret and maneuver through the social institutions that reproduce educational inequality, parents of marginalized students do not have the cultural or linguistic resources to help their children succeed academically.
American public institutions have a history of employing school administrators who police, threaten, and expel chronically late or absent students, one even going so far as to characterize them as “parasites” and “leeches” (Kozol, 2005). In a New York Times article, “The Civil Rights of Children” (2014), the paper cites “data show[ing] that black and Hispanic students are disproportionately and unjustifiably subjected to suspension, expulsion, or even arrest for nonviolent offenses, [and that] minority children … [are] at greater risk of dropping out are being ejected from school and denied the right to an effective public education”. The legacy of racial apartheid continues to police and frustrate intellectual and academic development within segregated communities of Color, barring students from receiving an education through predatory administrative policy, and trapping young women within the self-perpetuating cycle of poverty.
In order for communities to effectively combat racist and sexist narratives and stereotyping within the school system, students, parents, and educators must actively engage counterstratification efforts to challenge systemic hierarchies of oppression (Stanton-Salazar, 2001). It is imperative that educators develop culturally relevant pedagogy that inspires “students learn to make connections, between their community, national, and global identities” and to engage with their inherited cultural wealth and knowledge (Terashini, 2007; Yosso, 2005). Robert P. Moses and Charles E. Cobb, Jr. also call for new methods of teaching math literacy to prepare students of Color for a highly developed and skilled technological market, citing that teachers can no longer “[attempt] to pour knowledge into the hears of students who sit passively like inanimate vessels” (Moses and Cobb, 2001), or what Brazilian educator Paulo Freire referred to as the banking concept of education (Freire, 1970). Women have historically been underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, and have struggled to break the glass ceilings that have prevented them from moving into research positions in higher education. Students in Oakland used their creative cultural wealth to produce and perform in a video that highlights the accomplishments of scientist Rosaline Franklin and her contributions to molecular science with her X-ray photograph of DNA.
Women have been at the forefront of many great American historical moments, including the Abolitionist movement in the nineteenth century to rid the nation of institutional chattel slavery. Again, they were active in the years after the turn of the twentieth century in their collective struggle for Woman’s suffrage and emancipation, coalescing in their winning the right to vote in 1920, and indeed, were also instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s and 60’s, canvassing neighborhoods in the South for voter registration (Moses, Cobb, 2001; Kozol, 2005; Tatum, 1997). Yet the struggle to gain economic and education equity remained an elusive force within society, a luxury that was granted only to the daughters of those wealthy few who could afford to send them to private institutions and boarding schools. Working poor and immigrant families were tracked into low-wage factory labor where they endured grueling work conditions and long hours (Kozol, 2005). In the American South, the Black community continued to suffer racial discrimination and psychological terrorism at the hands of the White-supremacist dominant culture, and were politically silenced for fear of violent retaliation upon their homes and families (Tatum, 1997; Moses and Cobb, 2001). For those who made a conscious effort to cast their ballot in election, the vast majority of freed Black men and women were disenfranchised from participating in the political processes of government through the use of predatory literacy tests. This historical practice of discrimination and exclusion has taken root in the American educational landscape, as students of Color continue to be systematically subjected to racial bias and disciplinary action within the school system.
In spite of their political voices being actively suppressed in local, state, and national elections, Black Women of Color have been the rallying force behind the political movements that have come to define the nation. Civil Rights activist and Vice-Chair the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Fannie Lou Hamer, was such a force to be reckoned with as she displayed tenacity and indomitable strength in the face of White-supremacy. During the Freedom Summer of 1964, Hamer canvassed neighborhoods with the Students for Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) in Southern Mississippi, registering Black people to vote, and organizing them for collective non- violent action (Moses and Cobb, 2001). Her courageous spirit was showcased in the PBS series, “Eyes on the Prize: Is This America?”, the name taken from the political address she gave at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Her televised speech was prematurely cut-short when President Lyndon B. Johnson interrupted her coverage with an emergency address. The President’s
actions can be interpreted as yet another instance of overt discrimination and a microassault upon the dissenting voices of Black women of Color.
It is critical that young women of Color struggling to come into their own identities be exposed to strong heroine role models representing a diversity of racial, ethnic, gendered, and class backgrounds (Tatum, 1997). Young women need strong female figures that go beyond the socially accepted norm of motherhood to look up at and aspire to, women who have been successful in transgressing boundaries that had set out to confine them, and raise their voice in opposition to the social injustices that plague society. California State Representative and UCLA alumni Shirley Weber continues the work of racial and gender inequality in education, arguing passionately about the need for culturally relevant curriculum that engages students to explore their personal narratives, build off of their collective cultural wealth, and rediscover their herstories.
Women of Color and their allied Sisters, stand at the forefront of a new day and age in the 21st century. Today, more women are attending college than their male cohorts. In deepest respect and gratitude to the courageous efforts made by Women of Color like Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Josephine Baker, Rosalind Franklin, and Shirley Weber, women are coming into a political feminist consciousness that seeks to dismantle systems of oppression and exploitation within the educational and economic systems. These Women of Color and ethnic diversity are the true representations of Liberty, the resilient and unwavering American spirit manifested in female form. It is for us to accept our responsibilities to the age; to meet the challenges we have inherited head-on, united in compassion and love for our brothers and sisters, and the desire to see justice done.
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