Overcoming Black Girls’ Barriers to Success

by Asia Mangum

Photo Courtesy Imani Khayyam

Black women may be the most educated group in the country, but the employment and salary rates don’t match up, and they often face barriers to success in the workplace.

Some young women of color worry that predominantly black schools are not providing the same level of education that students in predominantly white schools or private schools can get.

“Schools like Jackson Academy and Madison Central are way more advanced then we are,” said Roshanda Townsend, a 16-year-old student at attends Callaway High school, a predominantly black school. “Because of our race, I guess, they dumb it down for us.” That is, the expectations can be lower for students of color. JA is a private school that is predominately white, and Madison Central is a public school with 68 percent white students, 25 percent white and a small percentage of other ethnicities.

Madison Stanton is a 16-year-old African American girl who attends Jackson Academy. She says prejudice may not be the reason, but expectations for excellence are high at the school. “It’s more focused on certain things and more advanced,” Stanton said.

Other students say it comes down to particular situations. “It depends on the educator,” says Selena Walker, a 16-year-old who attends Murrah High School, a predominantly black (98.7 percent) school in Jackson that still has the highest proportion of white students of any Jackson public high school with 1.8 percent. “Most teachers try to work with those who care (about their education). But when it comes to race, we (black people) have to want it. Because there are no hand-outs.”

Whether at private or public school, the pressure is on for high school students to go on to, or at least to consider, college. Private-school students are expected to go to college. The expectations are not always at the same at predominately black schools, these students say. “My family wants me to make it because black people don’t like have a lot going for us,” Townsend said.

For black girls, it can come down to sexist attitudes, some young women say. “People still (think) women don’t need education,” said Terri Ely, 16, who also attends Murrah. “I think it’s a choice to get an education to prove we’re more then housewives.”

Plagued by Stereotypes

Regardless of education level, racial bias can follow black women everywhere, which can make finding a job a difficult task. “Stereotypes such as we act ghetto or we have a bad attitude affect our chances of having a successful career,” Walker said.

Professional, high-paying jobs, such as in law or medicine, are still predominantly white fields. A black women could have all the qualifications, a bachelor’s degree and master’s, and a perfect GPA, but still might not get the job. If she does get the position, it is a good chance she will endure workplace prejudice. “Compared to white people, (who) have more privilege, you have to make yourself known that you are just as successful,” Stanton said..

Many people believe black woman live off of other people for money. Of course, some black woman are are “gold diggers,” but so are women of other races. “Black people are perceived to be lazy, but we are actually very determined,” Townsend said.

Then there are the hardworking black women who do not get any credit. In some offices, successful, determined women can be labeled with the title of an “angry black woman”—a dehumanizing racial epithet.

Held Back by Standards of Beauty

Not only do stereotypes jeopardize a black woman’s chances of leading a successful career, but their appearances affect chances of finding a job, especially if they choose not to straighten their hair. Relaxer sales continue to decline immensely, meaning more black women are embracing their natural hair.  Mintel’s Black Consumers and Haircare executive summary, published in 2015, showed that hair relaxers sales had steadily fallen. Relaxers, CNBC reported while citing the study, had fallen to just 18 percent of the market share for African American hair-product sales, from 34 percent in 2009.

Still, black women are often told that their natural hair is against dress-code policy because it is inappropriate or unprofessional. Young women like Townsend see that as a standard of beauty that can block black women’s success. “I have hopes and dreams, and I would hate for someone to stop me from doing that,” Townsend said.

In February 2017, Black Enterprise reported on a new study that found implicit and explicit biases against women’s natural hair that, in turn, can hurt their success in the workplace.

“This study confirms what most black women have known and experienced: wearing natural hairstyles has deep political and social implications,” Alexis McGill Johnson, co-founder and executive director of Perception Institute, told Black Enterprise. “From the classroom to the workplace, bias against natural hair can undermine the ability of black women to be their full selves and affect their professional trajectory, social life and self-esteem. This study also demonstrates how research with an intersectional lens can help us create new metrics … and drive new conversations.”

Black girls are often told from an early age to keep their hair relaxed and straight, making them feel as if their hair isn’t beautiful. Natural hair is often called “nappy,” which is highly offensive. Black women can even find guides to hairstyles considered less offensive in the workplace.

Ultimately, young black women want people to judge them on their individual merits, not on their race, hairstyle or another stereotype. “We are not the people society perceives us,” Ely told the Youth Media Project. “I’m just like every other 16-year-old. I don’t want to be judged by (my) race, but by (my) character,” she added.

Walker agreed. “Women are women, and we shouldn’t be categorized,” she said.

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