Beyond Title Ix Article Review: Using EPD to Interrupt Problematic Ideologies about Black Girls

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Black girls and young women (BGYW) face multiple manifestations of sexism and racism in school despite over 45-year-old Title IX legislation prohibiting it. Unfortunately, BGYW and youth not identifying as male/masculine have been excluded from present-day national reform conversations like Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) call to action to build ladders of opportunity for boys and young men of color.

Though I love the MBK movement’s energy and leading local efforts, where is the research, rally, and resource for BGYW (Ricks, 2014)? They are a compelling interest; we must collectively “talk back” (hooks, 2015; Marcano, 2009) and confront this omission. bell hooks (2015) defines “talking back”: moving from silence into speech is for the oppressed, the colonized, the exploited, and those who stand and struggle side by side, a gesture of defiance that heals, making new life and new growth possible. (Forward, para. 1)

My call to action in the form of a scholarly personal narrative (Nash, 2004) intersperses my story of being minoritized (Harper, 2012) as a Black girl educated in the Midwest in the 1970s and my story of being a teacher with my present story of being a mommy and “talking back” (hooks, 2015; Maranco, 2009) by empowering a critical mass of Equity Influencers™ (EIs) to create systemic equity in education. One way I equip EIs is an equity professional development (EPD) offering for educators called, “Intersectional Gender Equity in the Classroom: Beyond Title IX” (IGEC)—the focus of this chapter.

Specifically, I unpack here my IGEC design and implementation experience in the same urban Midwest district in which I was educated, in which I taught, and to which I sent my five children. As primary presenting scholar, I reflect on how we challenged problematic ideologies disguised as microaggressions about Black and other marginalized girls through concerted interruption. Before diving into the strategy which includes an action planning guide, I set context including a literature review. While discussing the strategy, I provide examples of 10 interrupted common problematic ideologies encountered often disguised as microaggressions; after, I conclude with recommendations.

Context

Overview of the Opportunity

When Minnesota Humanities Center (MHC) asked me to design and facilitate gender EPD for Omaha Public Schools (OPS), I was thrilled and trepidatious. I would be a rookie addition to a tight-knit MHC family and unfamiliar with the broad strategy. To wit, this is the same district I resigned from over a decade ago and am hyper critical of now as a mother and community leader—especially through social media rants and TEDx Talk called Is Schooling a Mechanism for Racial Control? (Henderson, 2017). It resembles a love/hate sibling relationship: I can punch you, but if someone else dares, I will drag them with you.

Unapologetically, I posit myself as a cisgender Black woman raised by White parents who surrounds herself with legacy shero narratives and neo-counternarratives and also leverages intersectional theory as radical Black Feminist praxis for concerted other-mothering, allyship and collective liberation work (Carruthers, 2018; Cooper, 2018; Escayg, Butler, Webb, Murray, & Henderson, In press; Grant, 2011; Khan-Cullors & Asha, 2018; Oluo, 2018; Taylor, 2017; Watson, 2016). I create safe zones and brave spaces (Arao & Clemens, 2013; Bolger, 2018; Love, Gaynor, & Blessett, 2016; Poynter & Tubbs, 2016) that set intention, then apply skillful facilitation (TerraLuna Collaborative, 2019a) to problematize and action plan.

When folks blunder and offend often unknowingly, I confront them, call them out or call them in, conveying that an racist or sexist slight has been made, as experts would say (Bright & Gambrell, 2017; Byrd, 2018). Black women not only have a history of resistance (Escayg et al. : Ricks 2014), we are also vivid today in how we talk back, clap back, read, collect and gather folks, as my teen daughters would say—all of whom have been in trouble at school. However, I temper pushing so hard that educators’ feelings freeze them into inaction and dishonor why they attend (Love, Gaynor, & Blessett, 2016).

IGEC was one of nearly 15 EPD offerings available in 2018-2019 to OPS by MHC. Over a decade earlier as I was leaving the district, a private foundation approached MHC about co-creating transformative EPD with and for OPS educators. TerraLuna Collaborative evaluated the broad strategy using Patton’s (2016) developmental approach. Six principles emerged from their five-year, multi-method evaluation including surveys, interviews, observations and online-focus groups. Across mutually reinforcing EPD resources, MHC/OPS Education Strategy sessions espouse four core values and six supporting principles which educators expect because they improve relationships and decrease student gaps (TerraLuna Collaborative, 2019b):

Core Values (Guide Reflection and Decision-Making)

Supporting Principles (create conditions for success)

  • Build and Strengthen Relationships
  • Recognize the Power of Story and the Danger of Absence
  • Learn from and with Multiple Voices
  • Amplify Community Solutions for Change
  • Co-creation
  • Coherence
  • Commitment
  • Disruption & Risk-Taking
  • Humanities-Based
  • Personal & Professional Growth

Centering these, I offered four sessions monthly on Tuesday nights for a fall cohort and repeated for a new spring cohort:

  • Gender Equity & the Non-Sexist Classroom: The Mirror, Microscope & Binoculars
  • SHE Said: Intersectional Gender Socialization of Girls & Implications for the Classroom
  • HE Said: Intersectional Gender Socialization of Boys & Implications for the Classroom
  • The Danger of Normalized Binaries: Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity & Expression

Waiting list and all, 90 educators enrolled (45 each cohort); 72 completed and were given certificates and stipends including a balance of elementary and secondary teachers joined by school/district personnel: administrators, school psychologists, social workers, librarians, paraprofessionals, secretaries, security officers, student teachers, and alternative educators for suspended/expelled students and students requiring language services and refugee resettlement support. IGEC educators were majority White—culturally mis-matching their historically marginalized students (Gonzalez, Hernandez-Saca, & Artiles, 2017) and culturally hegemonic (Warren, 2015; Grant, 2011), exemplifying difference and dominance. Other profile nuances include: White women teaching Black girls, men trying to understand girls, and religious individuals struggling with serving gay or gender-queer students who identify as girls, to name a few. Some IGEC educators also identified as members of historically marginalized groups but newly interrogating the meanings of gender, gender inequities, and implications for their school roles; most were accustomed to race-focused EPD.

Lastly, I recognize my own lenses and limitations. I chose a non-educator, but dynamic equity-focused, male co-facilitator. Each session we offered absent narratives: OPS alum and community-based leaders. Insights throughout weave in voices of my co-facilitator, guest presenters, educators, alum, MHC, TerraLuna Collaborative—the collective “we” referenced.

Review of the Literature

Underlying assumptions about BGYW stem from societally-constructed and perpetuated, toxic notions about them which unchecked manifest into microaggressions, unfair treatment and disparate impact. While the popular, grey and scholarly extant BGYW literature unmasks multiple manifestations of gendered racism, few offer strategies effective at interrupting and extinguishing them root and branch—from training to transformation, from symptoms to systems.

Manifestations of gendered racism. Whether BGYW learn in traditional classroom settings, gifted and talented programs, or environments for system-involved youth, their experiences with schools as places of marginalization (Morris, 2018a) are similar. They face overt and covert discrimination sometimes stemming from policies about their hair and dress (Morris, 2018a), experience stereotype threat, and some feel pressed to be invisible adopting a race-less persona (Ricks, 2014) or tend toward perfectionism (Anderson & Martin, 2019). They perform to norms reinforced by the very adults who have the power to push them to the bottom of good lists, to the top of bad lists (Burrell, 2010) and disproportinately push them out altogether (Morris, 2018b).

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If you ask them, BGYW will tell you they are objectified, face colorism (Joseph, Viesca, & Bianco, 2016), and they are neglected and overlooked (Ricks, 2014) thus lacking support and clear guidance (Watson, 2016). They are adultified (Binlot, 2019; Morris, 2018a) and criminalized before they can prove themselves otherwise and then face harsher discipline than their peers for misbehaving (Annamma et al., 2019; Gonzalez, Hernandez-Saca, & Artiles, 2017). Educators often rely on their available judgement heuristics (Kahneman, 2011) and mis-read resistance and misbehavior which may be BGYW’s response to unreported, unresolved violences: harassment and assault (Chaudry & Tucker, 2017; Morris, 2018a; Onyeka-Crawford, Patrick, & Chaudhry, 2017). Our failure to recognize and address trauma and other adverse experiences impedes learning and damages BGYW’s self-efficacy.

Interruption of gendered racism. During IGEC, we prioritized disruption and risk-taking to “explore dominant norms, values, narratives, standards, or aesthetics, exposing what has been hidden, posing new ways of being, and modeling new forms of engagement, ” (TerraLuna Collaborative, 2018) because greater awareness of the problem is insufficient (Gorski, 2019). We challenged pluralistic ignorance (Martin, 2017) about BGYW rather than staying in our comfort zones (TerraLuna Collaborative, 2018). We practiced multi-leveled, actions for concerted interruption. Bright and Gambrell (2017) acknowledge that “there are multiple times throughout a each day wherein we might speak or act in ways that unintentionally oppress or wound those around us. As each individual carries and enacts a uniquely constructed and evolving cultural identity” (p. 218). These enactments should be interrupted.

However, calling out single harmful messages in the moment (Byrd, 2018) is not the same as naming and redressing problematic ideologies and the systemic factors that shaped those single-actor words and the behaviors behind them.

Dramatic shifts in consciousness start us on the path to creating change (Bright & Gambrell, 2017), but we must press further. EPD discourse provides space for making these slights visible, calling them in, then scrutinizing, re-working and eliminating them (Bright & Gambrell, 2017). Seeing us interrupt and practicing it during exercises increases the likelihood that educators risk disrupting them in schools (Byrd, 2018). It is not easy to decide how to interrupt. In IGEC sessions, I used good judgment and prior experience. For individual-level interruptions, I leveraged combinations of the Microresistance Response Considerations Framework in Ganote, Cheung, and Souza (2016), the eight Microaggressions Self-Defense strategies in Byrd (2018), and the six step ACTION interruption method in Cheung, Ganote, and Souza, (2016). For systemic interruptions, I leaned on resources like Gorski’s (2019) Direct Confrontation and Prioritization Principles.

Strategy

While we have discovered that hosting MHC/OPS EPD disrupts district-wide and societal hegemonic power structures (Bright & Gambrell, 2017; TerraLuna Collaborative, 2018), I planned disorienting dilemmas (Bright & Gambrell, 2017) for educator discourse, concerted interruption, and action planning. Equity Influencers™ must unlock their agency, reflect through three lenses (McCarthy, 2013) and plan specific intersectional equity actions at four entry points (Gender Spectrum, 2017) for impact at four levels (Lawrence & Keleher, 2004). Cooper’s three lenses reflection model as cited in McCarthy (2013) was previously used for service learning reflection; I extended the mirror, microscope and binoculars metaphor to educators’ reflection on gender equity. This approach not only helps clarify which lens matters most in the moment but also allows educators to leverage their agency for targeted action—internally, interpersonally, instructionally and institutionally.

Mirror: Self Becomes Clearer

Reflection as a mirror helps educators understand their gender journeys and how gender intersects and interacts with other identities. EIs reflect on how they see themselves, how they perceive others, and how others perceive them. Specific actions at internal entry points require educators to reflect on their understanding of student social identity formation, to unlearn and to go learn more. This process involves reflecting about how their bias and judgements impact their work—especially with BGYW and other students who differ from them. This self-discovery provides impetus to leverage their agency and build capacity to lead change. Mirror interruptions. Doing Mirror Work challenges educators, but this internal entry point is crucial for the other entry points to be effective. Educators are accustomed to being knowers and not accustomed to being vulnerable. The most common problematic ideologies and gendered racism we interrupted in this area stemmed from:

  1. Essentializing the “Black girl” as homogeneously monolithic (Fletcher et al., 2017), us as norm and the perpetuating an “us versus them” binary: They are all alike/can be treated the same, so my colorblindness is valid (Bright & Gambrell, 2017; Gonzalez, Hernandez-Saca, & Artiles, 2017; Joseph, Viesca, & Bianco, 2016; Love, Gaynor, & Blessett, 2016); they are so unlike us.
  2. Pathologizing BGYW as broken and incapable based on negative, available judgement heuristics and tokenizing “good” girls: They all struggle the same and all cause trouble the same and need to be fixed (Gorski, 2019; Joseph, Viesca, & Bianco, 2016) with the exception of the fortuitous or beneficiaries of meritocracy (Bright & Gambrell, 2017).
  3. Emoting fragility (DiAngelo, 2018) through feelings of blame, shame, guilt and grievance, and centering self: I feel attacked listening to people talk about racial, gender, and heterosexual privilege and the plight of Black girls. My feelings matter. I feel thrown into the fire (Love, Gaynor, & Blessett, 2016) and am afraid to discuss this for fear that what I say wrong might be interpreted as who I am (Bright & Gambrell, 2017).

Microscope: Small Becomes Larger

Reflection as a microscope helps educators look deeply within their spheres of influence to understand the impact of their interactions and choices. Specific actions at interpersonal entry points include acknowledging various ways words and interactions can positively reinforce or negatively sully stated commitment to inclusion. Specific actions at instructional entry points include identifying how educators can leverage their day-to-day roles and choices to create safe, brave spaces for BGYW to learn about their own social identity and student-led social justice and also how they can make better curricular, pedagogical, and behavior management choices that keep BGYW learning and safe. Further, “higher-order pedagogies, relevant curricula, and a full range of course options” (Gorski, 2019, p. 59) should open to BGYM more than they are.

Microscope interruptions. During IGEC sessions, surfacing problematic ideologies and gendered racism we interrupted stemmed from educators:

  1. Silencing BGYW’s concerns and about gendered racism, toxic masculinity or assault: What they are experiencing is untrue, exaggerated or not attributable to their identity. They may have even brought it on themselves.
  2. Adultifying BGYW as miniature “angry Black women” and subsequently escalating incidents: They interact differently than we prefer and feel equipped to manage,
  3. Bifurcating some BGYW as unworthy of support: I can wrap my mind around helping with issues related to racism, but I have a problem suporting gay and gender-queer or pregnant/parenting Black girls because I don’t understand or don’t agree with them,
  4. Displacing responsibility to others to address known assault, abuse, discrimination of BGYM or expressing barriers to responding (Byrd, 2018): It is not my job to know or act – I don’t recognize it when it’s happening, or I don’t have to know the law, student rights or who the Title IX Coordinator is. If I respond, I may face hostility (Gorksi, 2019).
  5. Omitting positive images of Black women so BGYM view models and start seeing themselves through non-deficit lenses (Ricks, 2014) or failing to make gender inclusive materials available: How was I supposed to know that my classroom practices were homogenous, exclusionary or binary or that these sheroes and community-based resources existed?

Binoculars: Distant Becomes Closer

Reflection as binoculars helps educators identify larger, more pervasive societal, historic and systemic inequities. It expands their understanding of root causes and consequences. Specific actions at institutional and structural (systemic) entry points include school, district, and national-level recognition and respect for intersectional gender equity and actively creating partnerships, policies and practices that do no further harm and unlock potential for BGYW locally and beyond.

Binocular interruptions. Mid session, here are examples of problematic ideologies and gendered racism surfacing that we interrupted stemming from educators:

  1. Positing that historical oppressions and current systemic factors have little relevance in schools today (Fletcher et al., 2017; Ricks, 2014): I neither know nor am I responsible for the history of misogynoir or negative media portrayals of Black women and have limited energy to worry about more than my work. The past is irrelevant; we live in a Post-Racist/Sexist Society (Bright & Gambrell, 2017; Ricks, 2014).
  2. Allowing local and national policy-making and reform that impacts BGYM to go unchallenged: I know that the people making decisions are often not educators and that I represent the front-line, but my voice won’t matter. Besides, they think I’m the problem.

Recommendations

No doubt, the system of schooling is designed for some students to thrive and for others to survive—or not. hook’s (2015) call for us to leverage our agency and make daily gestures of defiance can individually and systemically interrupt this, but that is understudied (Annamma et al., 2019; Ricks, 2014). Really talk to BGYM (Joseph, Viesca, & Bianco, 2016; Watson, 2016) with empathy in gender-inclusive, healing spaces about experience, affirmation, and social justice (Morris, 2018a). Let them talk back (Watson, 2016) and let their voice guide strategy (Gonzalez, Hernandez-Saca, & Artiles, 2017). Consider Ford’s Female Achievement Model of Excellence (F2AME) to foster academic social-emotional success or Rick’s Connection, Awareness, Retraining, and Encouragement (CARE) Model to prevent BGYM from falling through the cracks—both as cited in Ricks (2014).

Allow for discourse in EPD to interrupt problematic ideologies like the 10 that we encountered. Do not pack EPD content so tightly that the presenter is the solo voice. When they misspeak—and they will— “decouple intention from outcome” and teach apologizing skills (Bright & Gambrell, 2017, p. 227) and confrontation skills (Byrd, 2018). Educators are members of a broader community of concern for BGYW, yet they feel isolated. Connect them to seasoned Black women educator mentors (Escayg, et al. ) and outside sector professionals for collaboration (Fletcher, et al., 2017). Talk back (hooks, 2015; Marcano, 2009) in EPD because “silence reifies dominant social meta-narratives”, normalizes it, (Bright & Gambrell, 2017, p. 219) and makes you complicit.

Stop prioritizing the comfort of educators who have the least interest in racial and gender equity (Gorski, 2019). If we get EPD right, our resulting discomfort about the causes and consequences of gendered racism in education should nudge us from what, to so what, and on to now what, from inaction to action. Provide incentives, actionable opportunities, and accountability in EPD. Lastly, my utmost peeve about EPD is that presenters rarely explain how to prevent harm or to create change. Show them how; let them rehearse concerted interruption and other strategies (Byrd, 2018).

At the systemic level, Title IX must jump to prominence in education reform conversations (Joseph, Viesca, & Bianco, 2016) rather than face frequent threat of elimination. While concerted interruption is often associated with labor union strikes, a critical mass of EIs must be equipped to demand change until we get it—decrying on behalf of Black girls, enough is enough, all of us or none of us.

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