Why Michelle Obama Must Specifically Address Black Girls with #62MillionGirls

By Jaimee Swift

Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama generated media attention with her appearance at the Apollo Theater as part of the Let Girls Learn initiative. During her appearance, Mrs. Obama discussed the #62MillionGirls campaign, which brings to the forefront the international lack of access to education for girls. In a message to the White House email list, she highlights the tenets of the girl-centered education campaign, and how many girls face barriers to their education and how cultural norms and traditions also play a role in affecting their academic livelihoods.

Although the campaign serves to address the pervasive gender inequalities in education, the initiative emphasizes more so the inequities of girls across the world. However, the First Lady’s action must also leave room to discuss the dwindling quality of domestic educational opportunities for Black girls and the racial and gender cultural norms in the United States that prevent them from attaining it.

report that was released earlier in the year by the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) and Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, where Black boys are suspended three times more often than white boys, Black girls are suspended six times more than white girls. The report, which is entitled “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected,” also cited that Black girls are generally given more severe reprimands and punishments in school than their white female counterparts and are often targets of unjustifiable suspensions and expulsions by administrators.

According to another report released last year by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Women’s Law Center, the disciplinary inequities that Black girls experience are potentially intertwined by racialized, gendered norms and stereotypes that characterize Black girls as “loud, confrontational, assertive and provocative.” Both reports emphasize that the unequal allocation of school resources, triplicated by racism, sexism and classism, affects Black girls’ educational livelihoods and ultimately their overall sustenance.

Along the same vein with the #62MillionGirls campaign, last month, the United Nations released the 2030 Agenda for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which is a universal agreement to be implemented by all countries. The fifth goal charges to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” by 2030 and focuses on how women and girls face much discrimination and violence in every part of the world due to their gender. Stating that “gender equality is a right,” the SDG aims to provide women and girls with equal access to education, healthcare and decent work and representation in political and economic decision-making processes, which will fuel economies and societies and ultimately benefit humanity at-large.

Although the First Lady provided important heteronormative points on how girls should focus on school rather than boys so that they can excel in their studies, institutionalized societal and racial barriers that Black girls face cannot so simply be reduced to ignoring romantically-inclined relationships in order for them to succeed in life. Nor can a Sustainable Development Goal for women and girls be thoroughly implemented without discussing, openly admitting to, and identifying the historical and contemporary racist and sexist manifestations that affect Black girls’ rights to education and equality domestically.

Now, more than ever, it is time for the U.S. government to use race-specific rhetoric, color-perspective statistical analyses and initiatives to address the plight of Black girls in America. If gender equality and empowerment for all women and girls is to be achieved, the inclusions of the intersections between race and gender cannot be ignored under the guise of universality. The race-neutral terms of “women,” “girls” and “gender” cannot solely be used to denote incorporation of empowerment and equality for all, especially when it comes to women and girls of color.

For Black girls and Black women, the insertion of race must always be included in the gender equation. Always.

Although Mrs. Obama was slammed for declaring that “Black girls rock” during a speech at the Black Girls Rock Awards in April, it is so crucial that, as the first African-American First Lady, Mrs. Obama uplift Black girls through her initiative because she is a shining exemplar for Black girls and Black women around the world.

So, just like President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Campaign, First Lady Michelle Obama’s #62MillionGirls initiative must be inclusionary of the voices of little Black girls in America – or else they will continue to be forgotten and lost.

Photo: Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

Jaimee A. Swift is a graduate of Howard University and Temple University with a Master of Arts in Political Science and a Bachelor of Arts in Communications, respectively. A writer and truth-seeker at heart, Swift is contributing writer at For Harriet. You can follow her on Twitter @jaimeeswift.

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