When United States of America Vice President Kamala Harris graduated from law school in 1989, two of the most influential women in her life were present: her mother, Shymala, and her 1st grade teacher, Mrs. Frances Wilson. In a 2019 interview, Vice President Harris spoke fondly of Mrs. Wilson and said, “She instilled a sense of hope and courage within me during the formative years of my life and believed in me every step of the way.”
Harris became the first African American and Asian woman to be elected vice president of the United States. But this was not Harris’ “first.” She is a Black woman achieving greatness in pioneering positions and roles. Just how did Harris achieve such greatness in her life?
It can be argued that she began with a head start—both of her parents achieved advanced degrees. She attended some of the best institutions of higher learning in the United States. And it seems like Harris has a natural fire in her belly. But I’d also argue that teachers such as Mrs. Wilson helped plant some important seeds in Harris’ mind.
As I consider some of the great achievements Harris has accomplished, I cannot help but think about the role that educators play in the lives of Black girls and how we can all work to dismantle racism and oppression. Educator Nahilah Webber argued that if we really want to change race relations in the United States, we have to change the way we educate white children, which you can read about here.
I wholeheartedly agree with Webber’s argument that we need to disrupt the educational system that is rife with racism and is also inherently anti-Black. And I’m going to take it a step further: As educators, we need to teach in a fashion that identifies, acknowledges, validates, loves, honors, respects, and affirms the importance of young Black girls.
The election of Vice President Harris underscores the richness, complexity, and diversity of Black girls—there needs to be more instances of this in our society. This piece is a prompt for educators to transform their approach to teaching Black girls or teaching for and about Black women. After all, we need Black girls not just to survive but to thrive. Informed by an upcoming publication on Teaching Beautiful Brilliant Black Girls(2021), I outline some ideas that will help educators transform their teaching so that it is balanced, equitable, and illuminates the importance of Black girls.
Recognizing and Embracing Intersectionality
Black girls are entering learning spaces within an intersectional lens—they are interacting with educators based on their experiences with multiple forms of identities and oppression. In the case of Harris, she is African American, Indian, and grew up with the impact of parents who divorced each other. All these social-group identities—race, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic status, family unit, and lots more intersect with each other and result in who Kamala Harris is.
As educators, it’s important that we acknowledge and affirm these identities. For white teachers especially, it’s important to acknowledge that your whiteness is a privilege. How does your privilege impact your decisions as an educator? What are you doing to dismantle and eradicate the pervasive oppressive institutions that Black girls consistently must navigate through?
In the text We Want to Do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching, Dr. Bettina Love challenges educators to take action against oppressive institutions. Love argues that by becoming abolitionist teachers, educators will be using anti-racist teaching practices, disrupt oppressive institutions, and activate for educational justice. And this idea expands far beyond the classroom, as abolitionist teachers must refuse to perpetuate zero-tolerance policies. In addition, they must hold colleagues, families, and school districts who devalue and denigrate black students accountable.
Celebrate Brilliance and the Voices of Black Girls
When educators acknowledge and affirm the intersectionality that Black girls possess, it’s important to encourage Black girls to speak in a tone that not necessarily pleases you but engages them to express their ideas authentically. Doing so positions Black girls to be understood or respected in an educational space. Black girls exhibit brilliance in various ways and will thrive if educators authentically engage with the brilliance they demonstrate in learning spaces.
Black girls are consistently penalized for minor infractions such as being too assertive. Rather than using a single lens to conclude that Black girls are loud and have an attitude, I encourage educators not to silence young Black girls.
Can you imagine if U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., was labeled as loud and having an attitude? What if she had been suspended so often that she was finally expelled and had quit school altogether? Could she have ended up channeled into that cyclical pipeline to prison? If not Waters, then who could have become the first woman and first African American chair of the House Committee on Financial Services?
Creating Culturally Engaging, Responsive, Relevant and Sustaining Curricula
As an educator, it is your responsibility to acknowledge, respect, and embrace the identities of all of your students. As you work to engage young Black women, you must ask yourself: Do Black girls see themselves in what you teach and how you teach? Is your content relevant and engaging? Do you know what their preferred cultural learning styles are? In what learning spaces do they thrive? Engage families, community, and experts well versed about Black womanhood so that you can use it to connect and engage with Black girls in your classroom. Remember that how you present Black girlhood and womanhood in your curricula is critical as it must reflect and affirm the diversity of their beauty and experiences.
By embracing the beauty and brilliance of Black girls—whether they are beginning kindergarten or finishing high school—you use equitable practices that are just for Black girls. And in doing so, you are helping to develop young women who can lead our nation and the world.
Just think: If Mrs. Wilson had not provided Kamala Harris with the agency to believe in her greatness in the 1st grade, would she have achieved so many great “firsts” in her life?
The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.