Sexual harassment does not suddenly begin at the age of eighteen. Most school-aged youth report that they have been sexually harassed, with highest severity and frequency reported by girls, especially African American girls. Studies disagree upon the sources and causes of the racial disparities of gendered violence. Many researchers point to structural racism and income inequality as the root causes of the disproportionately high victimization of African American girls. Other scholars blame the media, in which negative and demeaning stereotypes of African American girls have existed since slavery and where African American girls continue to be portrayed as highly sexualized, victimized, masculinized, and dehumanized. Many scholars also connect contemporary gendered violence against African American girls not only with these demeaning stereotypes but also with the long history of white supremacy that has been historically encoded into American law.
This Commentary focuses on the lived experiences of Black girls and their victimization at school for a number of reasons. School is a place where children spend a large portion of their waking hours. Additionally, the law has traditionally been able to intervene to protect young people at school to a greater extent than in private locations like the home. While African American girls experience sexual harassment frequently on the street, at home, and in their communities, schools often act as a training ground for young boys to test which girls are most vulnerable to being sexually demeaned and attacked. Due to their age, children are at a unique disadvantage in resisting sexual harassment and conceptualizing their victimization. Due to their intersecting identities as racialized and gendered people, Black girls are uniquely vulnerable to gender-based violence and its potential effects. Finally, African American girls and their experiences are under-researched, under-theorized, and under-valued in academia. Further research must not be race- and class-blind when confronting the problem of school-based sexual harassment against children.
School authorities have failed to adequately and effectively intervene against sexual harassment and gendered violence aimed at Black girls and young women in school. A significant body of social psychological research exists on implicit bias that helps to explain such failures. When the media portrays Black girls as carbon copies of historical stereotypes, as masculine youth who can handle themselves in sexually violent situations, as undeserving of society's sympathy, or as altogether invisible, this influx of images and misrepresentations builds up racial and gendered biases that manifest as prejudice against African American girls and women. If school officials and teachers see Black girls and young women as “racial others” or see them through a lens of racialized and gendered myths, if schools do not see them as deserving of sympathy or assistance, or if schools do not see them at all, then Title IX's provisions to prevent and remedy sexual discrimination and sexual harassment at school will have also failed.
J.D. expected May 2013, U.C. Berkeley, School of Law; B.A. University of Pennsylvania.