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Sonja C. Tonnesen

Sonja C. Tonnesen,“Hit it and Quit It”: Responses to Black Girls' Victimization in School , 28 Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice 1(Winter 2013) (170 Footnotes) (Student Comment)

The first time I walked through the doors of a public high school in West Philadelphia, I was nineteen years old. A security guard at the school's entrance greeted me. I was on my way to help teach a class on healthy cooking and urban nutrition. A backpack filled with groceries, cooking supplies, and large kitchen knives was slung over my shoulders. The guard smiled, nodded, and motioned me to walk through the metal detectors, which beeped as I passed. Concerned, I looked over my shoulder, expecting to have my bag searched like at an airport. Instead, the security guard appeared uninterested, focusing his attention on a group of students walking through the door. As one of the young women, probably fifteen or sixteen years old, walked through the metal detectors, her belt buckle tripped the alarm.

Beep-beep-beep-beep-beep. The guard asked her to remove the belt and walk through again. She placed it on the conveyor and walked through the second time without incident. The guard handed back the belt to the young woman, and she continued on her way, laughing with friends. Moments later, a young man offered to “help” the girl put her belt back on, making a sexual gesture with his hands; she told him to “shut up” and rolled her eyes. The security guard chuckled at the exchange. In the school for less than thirty seconds, I had already witnessed (1) my White privilege in action and (2) the first of what would be several sexually harassing comments and behaviors aimed at young Black female students throughout the day. The adults who overheard them took few seriously.

African American girls and young women are uniquely susceptible to gendered violence and its effects. In trying to explain Black girls' experiences with violence, scholars have pointed to the structural aspects of African American neighborhoods, state and institutional violence aimed at Black people and families, the impact of slavery and a long history of oppression on Black women and girls, the combined effects of patriarchy and racism, and the lack of social and state services in poor, urban communities where many Black families live. This Commentary is much indebted to such research and hopes to build upon existing conversations through the lens of implicit bias.

In a nutshell, implicit bias or “implicit social cognition” is a field that “focuses on mental processes that affect social judgments but operate without conscious awareness or conscious control.” Social cognitive science has shown that race is a “highly salient and chronically accessible” category facilitating “automatic classification of individuals” into racial categories. This Note argues that the failure of school personnel, Title IX, and Zero Tolerance policies to respond effectively to sexual harassment and victimization of African American girls and young women in school is due in part to implicit biases, informed by racial stereotypes, myths, and attitudes that Black girls are unworthy of help and/or bring sexual harassment upon themselves by acting sexually and physically aggressive.

Such implicit biases are likely enhanced in the context of under-resourced schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods where overburdened teachers and administrators have wide discretion and little time to make decisions about infractions of school rules. Under stressful circumstances, many under-resourced schools turn to Zero Tolerance policies and the criminal justice system to solve school conflicts, including the problems of sexual harassment and gendered violence. These administrative responses often lead to the criminalization and arrest of students, which are disproportionately targeted at boys of color and, increasingly, against girls of color. In particular, criminalization, expulsion, and suspension of sexual harassers fails to meet the stated needs of African American girls and young women who experience sexual harassment at alarmingly high rates in primary and secondary schools.

More perversely, school administrators, teachers, and people working for the criminal justice system often misidentify Black girls who physically defend themselves against their harassers as the aggressors, a phenomenon that can be linked to findings on implicit bias that Black girls and women are perceived as more masculine than girls and women of other races. Even when perpetrators of sexual harassment are correctly identified, the criminal justice system reinforces racism by perpetrating violence against youth of color, further isolating and dehumanizing them and denying African American youth authentic legal protection. While suspensions, expulsions, and arrests may quickly remove a perpetrator of sexual harassment from school property, they ultimately deny young Black women and girls the ability to influence school responses and reinforce racist stereotypes of young Black men and boys as criminals.

African American girls and young women deserve better--from their peers, schools, the law, and society. Their experiences deserve a space in political and legal discourse. To date, this group has been under-researched and under-theorized. When scholars do write about Black girls and young women, their schools, and their neighborhoods, they tend to focus on “problem behaviors such as gang participation, drug sales, and violence,” rather than exploring the harms and victimizations they suffer. This Note takes the position that African American girls' and young women's experiences with sexual harassment and gendered violence at school can reveal broader lessons for racial, gender, youth, and social justice. Using an intersectional approach that places Black girls at the center of inquiry, this Commentary aims to encourage people of diverse backgrounds to question where, why, and against whom sexual harassment occurs and how we as a society and in our local communities can better meet the specific needs of those affected by gendered violence.

Part I of this Commentary presents research showing that African American girls are uniquely susceptible to school-based sexual harassment, gendered violence, and their effects. It goes on to describe the failure of traditional school discipline policies, criminal justice system interventions, and Title IX to address this problem.

Part II argues that the findings of implicit bias research inform one of the root causes of these failures. This Part offers a historical overview of stereotypes and media representations of Black women and girls to explain how implicit bias is produced and sustained.

Part III analyzes how implicit bias manifests in school administrators' application of existing interventions and legal frameworks to respond to sexual harassment against African American girls and young women.

Finally, Part IV argues that improving the outcomes for Black girls who experience sexual harassment at school will require reform of Title IX and existing school interventions to acknowledge the reality of implicit bias and girls' lived experiences.