White Feminism & The School To Prison Pipeline

Sometimes, feminism needs a reminder of what it means to be a movement for the advancement of all women. This is particularly true when we talk about issues that only impact some women because of their race and socioeconomic status. The criminalization of black female bodies starts almost as early as the hypersexualization of them, with black girls facing a disproportionately high risk of landing in the school to prison pipeline. This has held true for girls like Georgia preteen Mikia Hutchings, who is facing criminal charges for participating in a childish prank (her white accomplice isn’t facing criminal trespassing charges or juvenile probation) that fact is brought home early. Much like honor student Kiera Wilmot—the 16 year-old in Florida whose science experiment initially led to her being expelled and hit with felony charges for possession/discharge of a weapon on school grounds and discharging a destructive device—Mikia is looking at the possibility of one bad decision ruining the rest of her life.

These aren’t isolated cases. Black girls are suspended from school at six to ten times the rate of white girls, for the same offenses. They face much harsher levels of discipline with a greater risk of police involvement. Expelled students are three times as likely to end up in the juvenile justice system. Recent events in Missouri, Ohio, New York, California, and Utah mean more people are talking about police brutality. Unfortunately it is often framed solely as a racial issue, one that disproportionately impacts black men, erasing the impact on young black women. We know far fewer names of black women who have been victims of police brutality. There is little discussion about their risk of sexual assaults, arrest, and even death. The fact that fewer black women die from police brutality supports the erroneous idea that to be a black woman is to be safer from oppression than a black man. Different risk factors aren’t the same as no risk factors. We don’t talk about over policing or police brutality as feminist issues, yet for women of color, policing can be a major source of structural oppression.

So why aren’t we talking about policing as a feminist issue? The awkward reality of the school-to-prison pipeline is that black youth are most at risk from the conscious and unconscious biases playing into the decision of involving police in school discipline. Teaching is a profession that is predominantly white and female. According to a study published in 2011 by C. Emily Feistritzer for the National Center for Education Information approximately 84% of teachers in public schools are white. 84% of teachers in public schools are female.  Although those numbers do not directly correspond, there is a significant overlap between those two groups. How do you discuss over-policing and discrimination as a feminist issue, when women who fit the mainstream idea of feminism are most likely to be complicit in a particular form of oppression?

The answer, of course, is to confront the problem; for feminism to examine the biases that contribute to school administrators seeing a white girl’s vandalism as a prank resolved with restitution, and a black girl’s vandalism as a crime requiring judicial intervention. Just as we can all be oppressed, we can all act as oppressors to someone. The sooner we confront that, the sooner feminism actually becomes a movement that embraces all women. Racism inside feminist circles has been a problem since the Seneca Falls Convention that many erroneously think of as the beginning of feminism. And yes, it is important for women to work together against gendered oppression. But what women? What forms of gendered oppression? After all, cis women can and do oppress trans women, white women have the institutional and social power to oppress women of color, able bodied women can oppress people with disabilities, and so on. Oppression of women isn’t just an external force, it happens between groups of women as well. While the oppressed can and do fight oppression, what happens when the people are who are supposed to be your allies on one axis are your oppressors on another?

If you are a school-aged black girl, and unexamined internalized racism makes your teacher perceive you as a threat when you act out in the same way as a white classmate, what is your recourse? What happens when your empowerment is a threat to the status quo? If you don’t fit in as one of the “good girls” because of your skin color and your hair texture, how do you become a part of the community? None of these questions have easy answers, but it is not up to the kids to come up with the answers. Nor, to be honest, is it the duty of adult black women to convince white feminists of their humanity or the right of their children to exist and have access to the same opportunities as anyone else.

In order to tackle over-policing and police brutality, mainstream white feminists will have to start talking about the racism of white women and the harm that it does. Whether it is the way that white women in schools can wield institutional power against youths of color, or the message sent in New York when teachers in Staten Island wear shirts to support the police officer that killed Eric Garner, the conversation is long overdue. Calls for solidarity or sisterhood have to begin with the idea that all women matter, that all of their issues are feminist issues. If the idea that a black girl could be innocent enough to do the wrong thing and still deserve a future is anathema to you, then you don’t belong in a classroom, and you don’t belong in the feminist movement, either. Not until you can look at little black girls and envision the same possibilities you do for little white girls.

"printed with the permission of Milkfed Criminal Masterminds"
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2 thoughts on “White Feminism & The School To Prison Pipeline

  1. I am a white teacher in my first year at a nearly all latin@ school, and not only do I agree with you, but I feel like new teachers are pushed to be very strict in ways that make me uncomfortable. It’s not that I’m against discipline — it’s just that, when I was a kid, in private school, then magnet school, I was never spoken to this way. I never had to wait to use the bathroom or the pencil sharpener or the water fountain. My friends talk about the hidden curriculum — a Marxian idea that we teach students in a way that prepares them for what we believe they will become. Well, at my school, it seems we believe they will become criminals.

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