How Criminalization Impacts the Mental Health of Black Girls

Jul 14, 2021 12:00:00 AM


From Ruby Bridges to Sha’Carri Richardson, the criminalization of Black girls and the policing of Black Women’s Excellence has historically been woven into the fabric of America's dominant culture. Black women, more than any other group, are expected to be exemplary at EVERYTHING they do! On top of being the most educated group in America, they still have to birth life, be the matriarchs of their families, overachieve in their professions, and be forgiving and faithful partners to us Black men who are given more grace to be imperfect—all while combating pervasive misogynoir.

[pullquote]Can we please discuss how adultification, criminalization, hypersexualization and misogynistic messaging impact the mental health of our Black girls in schools and beyond?[/pullquote] Frankly, this is a harsh reality that doesn’t get centered enough within our conversations around antiracism and requires deep unpacking.     


The adultification of  Black girls is driven by implicit bias. A recent study by the Georgetown Law Center revealed that teachers singled out and severely punished Black girls for displaying normal child behaviors for their age. For instance, it’s not unusual for adolescent girls to have mood swings or engage in disrespectful backtalk, but when it comes to Black girls, they are automatically viewed as always being “angry” and having an “attitude problem”.  

Adultification bias also causes educators to view Black girls as being less innocent than their white counterparts. This was the case for Kiera Wilmot, who found herself on the wrong end of her school district’s zero-tolerance policy after conducting a science experiment that accidentally caused a minor explosion on school grounds. A temper tantrum led to six-year-old Kaia Rolle being arrested and charged with misdemeanor battery. These are just two examples, but I could go on and on. This alarming trend of adultification bias is deeply rooted in anti-Blackness and strips away the innocence of Black girls.


Black girls, compared with their white counterparts, are issued dress-code violations and suspended at disproportionate rates due to discriminatory enforcement. Four years ago, Summer, a North Carolina high school senior and honor roll student, was suspended from her high school graduation and even threatened with expulsion for wearing a shirt that showed her collarbones. Over the years, we have seen Faith FennedyVanessa VanDyke, twin sisters Mya and Deanna Cook, and countless other Black girls threatened with punishment for wearing natural hairstyles in school. The racist policing of Black hair and physical appearance, by far, has greatly contributed to high suspension rates for Black girls in recent years.    


We cannot silo the individual components of our intersectional human identities. Therefore, the fight for justice and liberation cannot be limited to Black cisgender girls. The antiracism movement must also be inclusive of Black transgendered girls who, according to GLSEN’s Erasure and Resilience report on Black LGBTQ+ youth, experience significantly higher levels of victimization in school based on their gender identity and sexual orientation compared to their Black cisgender female counterparts. With the aggressive push for anti-trans legislation taking place nationwide, the targeted bullying and violent attacks on Black transgendered girls in schools will only get worse.  


There has been a recent history of Black girls graduating from high school with valedictorian or salutatorian honors only to be forced to share their honors with white classmates after public complaints and further investigation by their school districts. This happened in Cleveland on two instances where Jasmine Shepard and Olecia Adams fell victim to this fate. A similar case took place just last month when a Mississippi high school broke their “longstanding tradition” to have Ikeria Washington and Layla Temple share their valedictorian and salutatorian honors with two white classmates after an alleged computation error was made when calculating the student’s GPAs.  So let me get this straight … a school essentially broke a longstanding tradition to prioritize white comfort? Got it. You can call me biased, but the frequency at which this injustice keeps on happening is far from coincidental.     


As I shared in the beginning, we must be more intentional in combating the criminalization of Black girls in our schools. We’re so quick to yell out and celebrate #BlackGirlMagic, but what specific measures are we taking, as educators, to protect our Black girls? As a starting point, we can proactively decriminalize Black girls by engaging in the following actions:

This piece originally appeared on Citizen Education.

Kwame Sarfo-Mensah

Kwame Sarfo-Mensah is the founder of Identity Talk Consulting, LLC., an independent educational consulting firm that provides professional development and consulting services globally to educators who desire to enhance their instructional practices and reach their utmost potential in the classroom. He is the author of two books, "Shaping the Teacher Identity: 8 Lessons That Will Help Define the Teacher in You" and his latest, "From Inaction to 'In Action': Creating a New Normal for Urban Educators". Throughout his 14-year career as a middle school math educator, author, and entrepreneur, Kwame has been on a personal mission to uplift and empower educators who are committed to reversing the ills of the public education system in America and around the world. As a staunch ambassador and advocate for teacher empowerment, Kwame has spoken at numerous national education conferences and worked diligently to support the recruitment and retention of teachers of color in the education system. In January 2019, he was one of 35 Massachusetts teachers of color chosen by Commissioner Jeff Riley to be in the inaugural cohort of the InSPIRED (In-Service Professionals Increasing Racial and Ethnic Diversity) Fellowship, an initiative organized by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for veteran teachers of color to recruit students of color at the high school, undergraduate and graduate levels to teach in targeted districts within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. As an InSPIRED Teaching Fellow, Kwame facilitated professional development workshops for aspiring teachers at universities such as Boston College, UMass Boston, and Worcester State University and has served as a guest speaker for non-profit teacher pipeline programs such as Generation Teach and Worcester Public Schools’ Future Teachers Academy. A proud graduate of Temple University, Kwame holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a master's degree in education. He was honored as the 2019 National Member of the Year by Black Educators Rock, Inc. for his unwavering commitment to the advancement of the teacher profession.

The Feed


  • Why Math Identity Matters

    Lane Wright

    The story you tell yourself about your own math ability tends to become true. This isn’t some Oprah aphorism about attracting what you want from the universe. Well, I guess it kind of is, but...

  • What's an IEP and How to Ensure Your Child's Needs Are Met?

    Ed Post Staff

    If you have a child with disabilities, you’re not alone: According to the latest data, over 7 million American schoolchildren — 14% of all students ages 3-21 — are classified as eligible for special...

  • Seeking Justice for Black and Brown Children? Focus on the Social Determinants of Health

    Laura Waters

    The fight for educational equity has never been just about schools. The real North Star for this work is providing opportunities for each child to thrive into adulthood. This means that our advocacy...