Monique Morris: Why Are Black Girls More Likely To Be Punished In School?

Mar 29, 2019
Originally published on March 29, 2019 10:13 am

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Confronting Racism.

About Monique Morris's TED Talk

Black girls are disproportionately punished more often in schools. Monique Morris says schools should be a place for healing rather than punishment to help black girls reach their full potential.

About Monique Morris

Monique W. Morris is an author and social justice scholar whose work focuses on education, civil rights, and social justice. She is the author of Sing A Rhythm, Dance A Blues and Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools.

Dr. Morris has written articles, book chapters, and other publications on social justice issues and lectured widely on research, policies, and practices associated with improving juvenile justice, educational, and socioeconomic conditions for black girls, women, and their families.

She is the Founder and President of the National Black Women's Justice Institute (NBWJI).

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about confronting racism.

MONIQUE MORRIS: My name is Dr. Monique Morris. I am the founder and president of the National Black Women's Justice Institute.

RAZ: Monique's also an author and an educator. But when she was a student...

MORRIS: Sixth grade is difficult for most young people.

RAZ: Monique did something that was kind of out of character, something that could have derailed her if her teachers had handled it differently - because she got into a fight at school.

MORRIS: What I remember most about that fight was how frustrated I felt.

RAZ: A boy who was taller and stronger had been taunting Monique for weeks. And that day in PE class, he stepped on her shoe.

MORRIS: His refusal to apologize was such a tremendous trigger for me. And in hindsight, it was a reflection of multiple things that were going on in my life at that time.


MORRIS: So filled with anger, I grabbed him and I threw him to the ground. I'd had some previous judo training.


RAZ: Morris continues her story from the TED stage.


MORRIS: Our fight lasted less than two minutes, but it was a perfect reflection of the hurricane that was building inside of me as a young survivor of sexual assault and as a girl who was grappling with abandonment and exposure to violence in other spaces in my life. I was fighting him, but I was also fighting the men and boys that had assaulted my body and the culture that told me I had to be silent about it.

A teacher broke up the fight, and my principal called me in her office. But she didn't say, Monique, what's wrong with you? She gave me a moment to collect my breath and asked, what happened? The educators working with me led with empathy. They knew me. They knew I loved to read. They knew I loved to draw. They knew I adored Prince. And they used that information to help me understand why my actions and those of my classmate were disruptive to the learning community they were leading. They didn't place me on suspension. They didn't call the police. My fight didn't keep me from going to school the next day. It didn't keep me from graduating. It didn't keep me from teaching.

You know, I think about that time as a critical moment in my own life and development. But it was certainly one of those incidents that, had it gone a different way, there could've been a radically different outcome, not just for me at that moment, but certainly for other things that happened in my life.


MORRIS: But unfortunately, that's not a story that's shared by many black girls in the U.S. and around the world today. Black girls are seven times more likely than their white counterparts to experience one or more out-of-school suspensions, and they're nearly three times more likely than their white and Latinx counterparts to be referred to the juvenile court.

A recent study by the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality partially explained why this disparity is taking place when they confirmed that black girls experience a specific type of age compression where they're seen as more adultlike than their white peers. People perceive black girls to need less nurturing, less protection, to know more about sex and to be more independent than their white peers. The study also found that the perception disparity begins when girls are as young as 5 years old and that this perception and the disparity increases over time and peaks when girls are between the ages of 10 and 14.

RAZ: So as you said in your talk, black girls in the U.S. are disciplined more often than white girls, but it's not that they're acting out more, right? Is it that administrators are more likely to punish them?

MORRIS: So oftentimes, you know, when we see the data reflect a disparity, you know, our inclination is to believe that they're in trouble more. But what we're finding is that their behaviors are interpreted as more problematic, and the censure is immediate and harsher for them.


MORRIS: This is not without consequence. Believing that a girl is older than she is can lead to harsher treatment, immediate censure when she makes a mistake and victim blaming when she's harmed. It can also lead a girl to think that something is wrong with her, rather than the conditions in which she finds herself. Black girls are routinely seen as too loud, too aggressive, too angry, too visible, qualities that are often measured in relation to nonblack girls and which don't take into consideration what's going on in this girl's life or her cultural norms.

RAZ: And does it affect even young girls - 8, 9, 10-year-old girls?

MORRIS: Oh, it affects girls as young as 5 or even, you know, preschool age with respect to suspensions. We see incidents where girls are as young as 6 and 7 years old being arrested in school for having a tantrum or being handcuffed. Adults are reading risk and threat in the bodies of very young black girls.

RAZ: So when a girl at the age of 7 or 8 is all of a sudden being disciplined for behavior that a child who is not black may not be disciplined for, what does that start to do to that little girl? What does that - how does it affect her self-image?

MORRIS: What happens is that they begin to feel alienated from the learning environment, and school becomes associated with part of the tapestry of harm in their lives rather than a place where they can go and be safe. And being punished for some of the things that you see other kids not necessarily punished for - having a phone, chewing gum - they start to feel singled out. They start to feel that there is an overtone of racial bias in their learning space. It leads to what we call avoidance, where they are more inclined to not want to go to school, to not participate in school. You know, young people begin to feel like this is just not a place where they want to be. The energy in the room shifts for them.


RAZ: As you know, kids have a strong sense of fairness and unfairness, right?

MORRIS: Absolutely.

RAZ: That's not fair.

MORRIS: That's right. And that's not fair. They'll point it out right away (laughter).

RAZ: And what you're talking about is not fair. A 10-year-old child, an 8-year-old, a 5-year-old child knows that, internalizes that idea of fairness. That, I have to assume, that stays with them for life. I mean, that becomes the the sort of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

MORRIS: Well, it's interesting because, for a lot of the girls who end up in trouble, they are normed in many ways to respond to this injustice by speaking up and speaking out about it. But their act of speaking up and speaking out about it is then perceived as disruptive and sometimes combative, sometimes willfully defiant and an actual violation of the law if there are disturbing schools laws in that jurisdiction. And so these girls who are speaking up and speaking out are then criminalized in some ways.

We saw this in South Carolina, where the young woman had the incident with the school resource officer who tossed her body across the classroom. The girl who videotaped it was charged with disturbing schools, right? She was actually charged with a crime for recording it because she dared to say, this is not fair. What are you doing to this girl, right? This is not what should be happening in our schools.

RAZ: And presumably, you know, when these girls experience this kind of discipline and punishment and when they conclude that there must be an issue of race involved - and you've got the data, the data bears it out - they face a backlash of people. It's like, oh, every time you - something happens, you're always throwing out racism or playing the race card or something like that. I have to assume that that's the response that they often get, maybe you get with your research.

MORRIS: Oh, definitely (laughter).

MORRIS: Here's the thing about that. This country has not reconciled its race problem. When black girls and boys say this is because you see me differently, there's this denial in the mainstream that there is anything wrong, right? But it's deeply rooted in this idea that we have to get over a trauma that was never fully reconciled.

The historical trauma associated with race and discussions about racism in this country affects us all. But the thing to understand about historical trauma is it's a collective disenfranchised grief. And because we haven't had these kinds of conversations, we try to bury them. And burying something is the same as pushing it away, right? It doesn't resolve the issue.

You have to confront these notions, confront these constructs, fully engage in this conversation not just about black girlhood and black identities. We also have to have conversations about constructs of whiteness. What does that mean? Why does it have power in this society? Without our, you know, sort of intellectual, spiritual, emotional commitment to engaging in that hard work, we will always feel like whenever there is an incident of racial bias, that the person who is victimized by this racial bias is the one who has the problem.

RAZ: Yeah.

MORRIS: It is, you know, one of those things where we have to continually engage in the reflection that is the actual hard work because it's part of how we build a society that is going to have legitimate relationships that are not about, you know, something that is as superficial as denying a core part of who we are.

RAZ: That's Monique Morris. She's president of the National Black Women's Justice Institute and the author of "Pushout: The Criminalization Of Black Girls In Schools." You can hear Monique's full talk at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.