By Serena Richards
This article describes incidents that might be distressing for some readers.
In the past few months, concern about the treatment of black girls at school has risen in the news agenda following several cases of young girls being inappropriately strip-searched by police officers while at school.
In March it was reported that Child Q, a 15-year-old black girl was forced by police in 2020 to bend over, spread her legs and her buttocks, whilst on her period because she apparently “smelt of cannabis. This horrific and quite traumatic event happened at a school in Hackney, whilst two female police officers were present without any teachers standing by.
Last month, it was revealed that a 15 year old mixed race girl Olivia (not her real name) had also been strip-searched by police officers and she was so traumatised by the experience that she tried to kill herself. In recent weeks, the Metropolitan Police has said that “at least one further case” of police officers conducting inappropriate child strip-searches will emerge.
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Undoubtedly, in these instances the state and the educational system has failed the young black girls who received abuse by the people we are supposed to put our utmost trust in, in an environment that is meant to represent a safe haven for young people. The violence experienced by Child Q, Olivia and potentially others is a representation of the violence experienced by black girls in schools on a daily basis, who lack support from their teachers to understand their needs.
The success of the educational system can only be measured directly to black girls’ relative failure within it, and the heightened number of prejudice and discrimination within the institution has ensured that black children have remained victims of racism that has grown from colonial assumptions and stereotypes.
Education has always been pivotal in the fight to overcome social and political barriers in society, and the importance of education for black women is vital to their ability to understand and overcome systemic societal oppression. Across modern history, groups such as Black Consciousness Movement during Apartheid South Africa, and The Black Panthers in the United States in particular have emphasised the importance of education when it comes to resisting oppression.
Our treatment in schools defines how we behave towards the state, and prepares us to guard ourselves from the racist threats in the outside world. In 2020, after the outrage of George Floyd’s murder, there was a hope for political and racial consciousness to be implemented in our schools where inclusion and intersectionality would be taken seriously. Institutional racism by the state, is born out of the racism and violence in our schools, and just how Child Q and Olivia were assaulted mirrors the same assault experienced by black women in our streets.
In schools we are denied our childhood, where unnecessary acts of discipline from the governmental authorities seem to be the only way to control our behaviour. Teachers are not prepared to support or help their black students, viewing them as oddities and criminals needing harsher punishment than that of their white students.
Knowing the state’s racist history with the black community and the colonial oppression that results in their behaviour, why are schools so quick to involve the police in unnecessary terms?
Despite schools attempting to protect students’ innocence, this is rejected when it comes to black students where they are forced into a role of criminality from adolescence. There has been a plethora of discussion regarding black boys and schools, having their masculinity interrogated and diminished. However, there has been an erasure of importance when it comes to young black girls’ experience in the schools, having their femininity questioned and accused of not fitting the small boxed expectations of white girls.
From a young age, black girls are seen as having an attitude, being too loud and faced the accusation of being the ‘angry black girl’ – a stereotype that has ridiculed black women for having a voice. They are held to a different standard where their femininity is targeted for not being ‘lighter, quieter and smaller,’ and being persecuted in schools for not being as feminine and too aggressive compared to their white peers.
The microaggressions that black girls face every day, the constant questioning of their culture, prejudice against their hairstyles, and the ridicule of their accents represents how the educational system is not willing to try and understand the lives of their black students, viewing them as oddities themselves. The lack of black history within the curriculum represents how black students are ignored within the institutions.
Last year, the government claimed that institutional racism does not exist in Britain, yet the microaggressions and behaviour towards black students are born out of colonial racism and stereotypes that have mutated and integrated into our society in subtle yet even more dangerous ways.
Colonist superiority attitudes have implemented themselves in our institutions, forcing a type of racism that is only attributed to Britain, where individuals hailing from the countries they colonised are persecuted for not looking nor behaving how they desire. The police, designed to support and protect the state, have had the authority for a number of decades to see black individuals as criminals and a threat to their great powers.
Being black in Britain does not just define skin colour, but it is how you are treated from the moment you are old enough to rebel against institutional rules and regulations. To be black in Britain is a political term, to be faced with interrogations and viewed as an already born criminal.
The outdated attributes that black people steal, are violent and untrustworthy is born out of the racist attitude from colonisation which has led to this traumatic school incidents. The colonial idea that European culture and whiteness represented civilisation, whilst African culture and blackness represented savagery has invaded our institutions and been the source as to why there is so much control and regulations when it comes to black people in the UK.
Some teachers have internalised this assumption of black students where they do not challenge the inequalities that take place in and outside the classroom. This creates a dynamic where black students are forced to learn how to survive in educational institutions where their concerns are ignored. If Child Q or Olivia were white, it is highly unlikely that the police would have been involved at such an early stage, and that she would have even been left without teacher supervision at all.
However, we cannot discuss this incident without seeing class as an oppressive constraint together with race and gender. Working class black women and girls have different experiences at school and at work than young black girls from middle and upper class backgrounds.
The number of policemen in London schools has doubled, but the policing in schools is linked to specific working-class areas than anything else. The working class are punished and policed at a higher rate than any other, and being black means that black people are prosecuted further as they are perceived as being a threat to the state. Having police in schools is meant to prevent crime but providing that the working class and black people have the most negative experiences when it comes to the police, it can only cause confrontations and a need for these two groups to defend themselves against the state.
Black individuals in the middle and upper class are not subject to the amount of abuse and interrogation that the working-class experience, and it is a case where your area and environment does affect your experience with the state, and your experience of being black in Britain. But what schools in these areas need is not more policemen, but more protection, more funding, where students should not be subjected to criminalisation, assumptions and stereotypes.
The harassment from the police onto the black community must be addressed, along with the colonial attitudes linked to their violence and abuse. These cases should never have occurred, and they remind us that despite what the government claims, there is still racism within our institutions from the justice system to schooling. It is clear that the education system is set up to mirror how the justice system treats black people and individuals from working class backgrounds.
There needs to be an investigation within the police force, and for teachers to remove the racist assumptions that traumatise young, black students as they age. Young black kids are not oddities, but our future leaders where they are vulnerable at the hands of the state. The removal of policing in schools is vital as well as a better understanding and willingness to support young black students instead of contaminating their innocence.
Our schools need to take the responsibility of looking after the interest of every student, and our educational system needs to fix their colonial influences which teachers internalise, and as a result projects violence onto black students.
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