The purpose of this study was to understand the collective meaning-making, feelings, and responses Black girls have to school discipline. I asked three central questions aimed at centering Black girls’ voices. First, how do Black girls make sense of school discipline? Secondly, how do Black girls respond to being disciplined? Finally, I explore how Black girls position themselves in relation to school discipline to illuminate conversations about who is disciplined, for what offenses they are disciplined, and experiences of self-policing among students. Subsequently, my research questions critically interrogated Black girls’ knowledges of structural inequality and how they understand their educational experiences through an intersectional lens.
Using a qualitative interpretivist framework, this project used focus group interviews as its primary method. I worked with 18 girls in 7th-11th grade from the Greater Cincinnati Area to complete 3 focus groups, with 4-7 Black girls in each group, that lasted between 1.5 and 2 hours. All of the girls were members of a girls’ empowerment organization. I used convenience sampling as a nonprobability strategy that allowed me to rely on my networks and proximity to find potential participants (Clark 2007). My sampling strategy allowed me to access this population outside of formal school structures, as a means to avoid potentially violent or toxic school environments that could be traumatizing to the girls in their reflections.
Focus groups allow the research process to reveal the collective narratives, experiences, and meaning-making of Black girls regarding school discipline; it is a reminder that no girl is alone in her experiences even as those experiences may not be identical. I interviewed girls regardless of their direct experiences with discipline because the threat of discipline and being a witness to it are both valuable to understanding how they make sense of their educational realities. From a feminist perspective, focus groups help minimize the power imbalance between researcher and participants, helps contextualize social processes related to co-constructed meaning-making, and can empower populations usually silenced like young girls (Hymas 2004; Wilkinson 1999; Wilkinson 1998). Further, focus groups mirror sister circles, a Black women’s tradition the deconstructs barriers between women, and in this context, draws on the intersections of gender, race, and culture within a historical legacy (Neal-Barnett et al. 2011a; Neal-Barnett et al. 2011b; Gaston, Porter, Thomas 2007).
Black girls understand their discipline experiences as primarily being shaped around their relationships with peers, guards, and teachers, rather than their actions alone. Girls in the study identified passive-aggressive forms of policing and antagonization from teachers as central to creating a culture of hostility and them being defined by their discipline history. In response to this, Black girls perform resistance strategies to defend and protect themselves from the stratified harm they face - including employing sass, arguing their case, and directly describing and confronting the injustices they witness. These strategies allow them to reclaim some power in disempowering school spaces. They recognize the unjust racial and gendered disparities associated with discipline but negotiate around and through these violent realities by shifting their behaviors in response to how they understand these institutions to function, and identifying allies and adversaries among security staff, teachers, and within the administration.
The most common offenses that lead to classroom removal - laughter and talking. When articulating how they are policed differently, Black girls highlighted the ways that Black talk, Black sass, and Black laughter is policed differently but also used as a tool by students to reclaim their voice. As school discipline targets Black girl joy and Black girl sisterhood, girls rally among each other to use their bodies and voice to subvert their silencing and proclaim their power. Black girls challenge educators, administrators, their peers, and the curriculum. As primary stakeholders in their educations, they work to hold their educational institutions accountable at various levels through the ways they maneuver school discipline.
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