By Elayne Clift, Womens Feature Service
Hiding in the closet playing games with younger siblings until Mom gets home because of drug violence. Pretending to be lesbian to escape sexual assault. These are just some of the strategies Black girls in New York City use to cope with the challenges of their daily lives, which are “riddled with hardship and sometimes danger,” according to a new report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) in Washington, D.C.
The report, ‘Black Girls in New York City: Untold Strength and Resilience,’ was commissioned by the Black Women for Black Girls Giving Circle (BWBG), a funding initiative of The Twenty-First Century Foundation, The Sister Fund and New York City Mission Society. Through original qualitative research, coupled with a review of existing literature, the project’s aim was to providing an in-depth examination of the lives of Black girls living with the city. It revealed not only a set of unique social factors that impact Black girls – most of whom live in poverty – but the extraordinary resilience with which they face daily challenges.
The study sought to answer questions that are often overlooked, according to Barbara Gault, Ph.D., vice president and director of research at IWPR. What are the key issues that Black girls face with regard to their physical and emotional well-being, safety and security, and relationships with self, family, and potential romantic partners? Where are their safe spaces and what are their sources of support? What are their greatest challenges? How can individuals, institutions, communities, and the nation as a whole best support and guide them as they navigate a society that puts them on the outside of both race and gender privilege?
One thing is clear from the report: The impact of poverty is especially acute in the lives of Black girls who, like all Black children, are at higher risk of living an impoverished life. And urban poverty brings its own risks, including violence, limited educational opportunities, and a lost or severely compromised childhood.
Many Black girls in the communities studied take on “a mountain of adult-like responsibilities,” according to Avis Jones-DeWeever, author of the report, including working many hours a day in order to help their families financially. They often act as surrogate parents to younger siblings while their parents struggle with multiple part-time jobs. And they face special challenges in educational settings. Research has shown that teachers often focus more on the “social decorum” of Black girls than on their academic performance so that they will be perceived as “ladylike.” Over time, negative classroom environments have been shown to thwart long-term academic success and to “stunt the long-term aspirations of Black girls.”
Safety is another prime concern of Black girls. Sixty per cent of girls surveyed said they worry about their personal safety, largely because of drug activity, gangs, school fights, and violent crime in their communities. One respondent put it this way: “I worry about my safety every day. You never know when it’s your last day, you never know which crazy man is walking behind you… You need to worry, that’s important…ya’ll need to worry about ya’ll safety every minute.”
In spite of these influences, most of the girls interviewed for the study “seemed largely satisfied with themselves,” according to Dr. Jones-DeWeever of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). “Perceptions of femininity within the American context have historically been based on ideals that are directly counter to those physical and behavioural qualities typically associated with Black girls,” she wrote. “Yet, the Black girls in this study seemed largely satisfied with themselves. Roughly nine-in-ten indicated that they loved themselves, loved being a girl, and loved being Black. As one girl put it, “Big butt, little waist, big chest, and all of that – not everybody can get that…that’s not the way God made you. We got to be us…[if] we don’t have straight hair, we don’t got straight hair. … Just be yourself.”
Still, one-fifth of the girls interviewed indicated that if given the opportunity, they would change something about themselves, ranging from getting better grades or changing their bodies or hair, to being able to contribute more to their households. Skin tone was mentioned by only a few of the survey participants although it was came up frequently in focus group discussions. Often, the desire to be lighter-skinned had more to do with how whites treat Blacks than with any internal perceptions. As one girl said, “I feel like if I’m too Black, when I get older the Caucasian people might treat me slavish or some stuff like that…so I think I would get myself bleached a little bit.”
Among the factors positively affecting Black girls’ lives are valuing spirituality and having an excellent relationship with a primary caretaker. A strong sense of racial identity and being able to resist the allure of the dominant culture are also important. “The remarkable thing,” says Erica Williams, study director at IWPR, “is that in the face of it all, these girls continue dreaming and working toward their goals. They are doing everything they can to fulfill their dreams and we need to do our part to ensure they get there.”
Kanyere Eaton, executive director of The Sister Fund, says the study was inspired by the book, ‘Daddy Was a Numbers Runner’ by Louise Meriwether, published in 1970. The memoir recounts one Black woman’s experience of living with poverty in New York forty years ago; not much has changed, Eaton says.
Recommendations offered in the report include debriefing sessions with community leaders, policymakers, faith leaders and others; involving parents and school personnel in developing and implementing approaches that address the needs of Black girls in educational settings; providing adolescent Black girls with accessible reproductive health services; developing affinity groups where Black girls can gain a sense of racial identity; and supporting parenting and mentoring programs and faith-based organizational alliances.
Despite the usual funding problems associated with this kind of social research, the report has generated wide interest within the communities it represents. On the day a discussion was to be held about the findings, a blizzard blanketed New York City. Still, 300 people from affected neighborhoods showed up to talk about it. More than 40 community organisations have since asked for presentations based on the report. And perhaps most gratifying, the girls it highlights – who often feel invisible – responded positively.
As one of them put it to Eaton, “We need you.”