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February 1, 2022

For Black Educators, Equity Starts with Resisting Harsh Discipline

An assistant principal reflects on navigating “double consciousness” in schools. 

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In 1954, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education desegregated schools, making it possible for Black students to bring their physical bodies to school buildings occupied by white students. However, it did not give their Blackness permission to be seen, heard, or protected within the school system.  
As a Black girl growing up in San Francisco in the early 2000s, I didn’t encounter a Black teacher until 8th grade and a Black administrator until 11th grade. For me, that was damaging. I lose count now thinking about the sheer number of times white teachers and leaders negatively influenced my view of school and sense of belonging. Times when white teachers expressed their pity, preconceived biases, and deficit thinking.  
Undoubtedly, white people, especially those working in schools, need to grapple with their white privilege, acknowledge and address their implicit biases, and identify their role in the fight for equity and racial justice. They can’t be let off the hook in this imperative work. But this reflection can’t be relegated to white educators alone. With equity and social justice initiatives on the rise, more educators of color are being tapped as experts in dismantling anti-Blackness in schools. We, too, need to engage in some serious reflection. It’s important for Black educators to consistently acknowledge our privilege, reflect on the biases we may have internalized, and identify ways to actively disrupt inequitable practices impacting children of color.  

An Internalized Message  

When I was young, I had to grapple with the internalized narratives that the few Black school staff I interacted with curated in the conversations they had with me related to my behavior. These were carefully crafted stories outlining the tactics I needed to remember to survive being Black in America. For example, I was told to lower my voice when speaking to an adult, not challenge inequitable rules like dress codes, and speak proper vernacular in the presence of white people. While these are general expectations of all students, including my white peers, it was made clear that the stakes and consequences were higher for me, a Black female.  
As an 11th grader, I remember having a Black assistant principal, who was hired to turn around my low-performing high school. She prided herself on tough love and demonstrated it with a strict code of conduct and harsh (mostly subjective) discipline devised primarily to prevent gang affiliation and student-teacher disrespect. On several occasions, before she suspended me (more on that later), she had what she called “real” conversations with me that reinforced the idea that I needed to act a certain way, especially in the presence of white people. She made it clear that to survive in this world, I would have to understand that there were outsized consequences for my actions—and being Black was already my first offense.  
I can still recall her tone of voice when she would explain how “they” already believed I was dumb and on my way to jail. “They,” which I now know referred to white people and people of the dominant culture, already assumed I was a failure. It was natural to internalize these messages when I was reminded of them so often. I felt as if my assistant principal thought those things about me herself since she kept repeating them. Did she eventually suspend me—for subjective insubordination, dress code violations, and classroom disruptions—so that I would learn my lesson before the world would teach me a much tougher one? I can’t answer that. But what I do know is that my non-Black peers’ sarcastic inquiries were accepted, their intellectual pushback was embraced, and their (less-sexualized) bodies were not considered distractions. They were able to learn freely.  

A Cycle of Disproportionate Discipline 

The disproportionate discipline of Black children in America has been a topic of discussion for as long as I can remember. In 1975, the Children's Defense Fund published a study illuminating the racial disparity in suspension rates and the negative effects exclusionary discipline had on Black students. A plethora of research has since admonished zero-tolerance policies and shed light on the school-to-prison pipeline. Still, significantly few studies highlight how Black educators participate in this harmful system through either conscious decisions or internalized beliefs. 
Schools have historically functioned as systems that perpetuate dominant social ideas, hierarchies, and oppression (Morris, 2016). In a qualitative study, Black male educators expressed being hired specifically to be disciplinarians in urban schools and feeling pressured to participate in a culture that dehumanizes Black children (Brockenbrough, 2015). This is not a new phenomenon, but it’s one that must be unpacked. Black educators' experiences of disciplining Black students while trying to grapple with white gaze, racial injustices, and anti-Blackness should be acknowledged and explored by education scholars. Such explorations could ultimately support Black educators in navigating the perils of internalized biases and untreated trauma. 
As a Black woman living in America, I have experienced how racial expectations can coat perceptions, practices, and policies that impact Black students. As an assistant principal, one of my duties requires me to police poor Black children. I know police is a harsh term, but the reality is that I am responsible for enacting policies that often remove Black students from classrooms. During my first year as an assistant principal, I found myself engaging in conversations with Black teachers about how we set students up for failure when we do not teach them consequences in school. I argued that if we fail to punish our children early, society would teach them life lessons through even harsher discipline like lengthy prison sentences and overt discrimination.  
In these conversations, Black teachers and I typically reassured ourselves that the discipline decisions we were making were in the student's best interests. Most importantly, we reminded ourselves that we did what we had to do because Black students needed to know that our society would not be lenient on them. Instead of addressing our school discipline data's disproportionality in holistic ways, we unconsciously used students' race as the first step in progressive discipline—skipping over smaller consequences in favor of harsher ones. We felt compelled to do this because we know the act of not respecting and listening to authority later in life can end fatally, as we have seen replayed over and over in the deaths of Black people at the hands of police.  
No doubt these whitewashed ideals—that Black students deserve punishment and need to be assimilated into the dominant culture’s expectations—were instilled and ingrained in the fabric of my being by my own experiences as a Black child in an institution where Black survival relied on others' perspectives of my ability to comply with certain ideals.  

The Interplay of Double Consciousness 

Black school leaders' decision-making in this regard is crucial to understanding the Black struggle in America. That is, their experiences shed light on the “twoness” that Black people must operate within to maintain their Blackness and Americanness. Du Bois (1903) argued that Black folks must consciously look at the world with two perspectives: They must be aware of how they view themselves and critical of how the world sees them.  
Crawford and Bohan explain that Du Bois's theory of double consciousness is the belief that marginalized groups of people try to blend into the dominant culture by adopting multiple identities for survival (2019). In this sense, Black educators may feel coerced to adopt the dominant culture's expectations and implement punitive discipline methods they may disagree with. “[This] conflict lies in the choice between being wholly themselves or being divided; between ejecting the oppressor within or not ejecting them . . . between speaking out or being silent” (Freire, 1968, p.46).  

Black educators' experiences of disciplining Black students while trying to grapple with white gaze, racial injustices, and anti-Blackness should be acknowledged and explored by education scholars.

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Teruko Dobashi-Taylor

My personal explorations of “double consciousness” have shaped how I now view school discipline and have impacted how I prepare Black students to thrive. As a K-12 student, I had been forcefully removed from a class, excluded from opportunities, and tracked into easier courses due to teachers' perceived understanding of my behaviors. Now, after initially repeating these patterns with my own students, I refuse to allow low expectations, subjective discipline, and exclusionary practices to fast-track Black students into the school-to-prison pipeline.  
I urge Black educators to similarly embrace their identities in schools, and at the same time, to become aware of how negative perspectives about Black students influence their decisions. The late bell hooks said, “True resistance begins with people confronting pain . . . and wanting to do something to change it” (1999). I believe that Black educators can address these internal conflicts and the cycles of pain these conflicts produce.   

Rejecting Anti-Black Discipline 

Based on my own reflection—and conversations with culturally responsive and socially just educators—three approaches to combat anti-Black discipline and to acknowledge the impact of double consciousness come to mind: (1) the ability to reflect on perceptions of self and to acknowledge biases; (2) the use of transformative discipline that helps change behavior and repairs harm in a restorative way; (3) the courage to push back against anti-Black and subjective discipline embedded in school systems.  
On this journey, I sometimes feel defeated, depleted, and full of despair. However. I leverage these approaches daily with the support of critical friends. 

1. Engage in Self-Reflection  

Black educators are products of school systems that are rife with structural biases and often deeply harmful to their sense of self and belonging. We must now see ourselves as responsible for preventing harmful, anti-Black, inequitable practices from infiltrating our schools. Through critical self-reflection about identity, experiences, implicit biases, and privilege, Black educators might become more aware of their position as a cog in the system that has historically and violently oppressed Black students. In schools led by Black school leaders and classrooms taught by Black teachers, self-reflection is non-negotiable.  
We who are Black have likely experienced the perils of racism and white privilege firsthand. Our views of ourselves and our communities are grounded in our own experiences and expectations others have placed on us. Indeed, our personal encounters with prejudice and oppressive discipline shape how we educate our students: We want them to survive in a society that has deemed them inferior. But we must be aware of the discipline approaches we leverage to ensure we are not funneling our Black children into the school-to-prison pipeline by exerting tough and exclusionary discipline. 
We must also understand that as educators, despite our Blackness, we carry privilege in the form of things like our educational attainment and socioeconomic status that can sometimes separate us from the students we serve. This can play a pivotal role in the cultural competency work we need to engage to provide student support.  

2. Use Transformative, Not “Tough,” Discipline  

Too often, the word "tough" is haphazardly thrown around in the Black community. There is an expectation—one that is upheld by the way society views Black children—that we are equipped with an exterior layer of ruggedness. “Rigid gender norms and the unimaginability of Black boys as children compound to delegitimize these boys’ right to experience fear or anger or sadness, to be anything but ‘tough’ ” (Dumas & Nelson, 2016, p. 34). Similarly, Black girls are treated as more responsible and adult-like. Black girls are perceived as needing less protection and less comfort, as being more informed about sex, and more likely to take on adult responsibilities and roles which may have implications on discipline disparities (Epstein, Blake, & González, 2017). Moreover, research substantiates that Black children are often judged as less innocent than their white peers (Dumas & Nelson, 2016).  
From my personal interactions, some Black educators think that tough discipline might be the best mitigation so that Black children don’t become the nation’s next martyr, dying then surfacing as a trending hashtag for the week. However, we should not have to replicate harm inside our schools to prepare students for what they may encounter when they leave us.  
To combat disproportionate discipline in schools, we need to transform tough consequences into learning opportunities. Learning happens by giving students alternatives to violence and defiance. For example, we must spend more time teaching students conflict resolution skills and implement alternative discipline methods like restorative practices and peer mediation. When students do make mistakes, we must hold the mirror up to them and remind them of the potential they have to be the best version of themselves.  
Black educators also need to know the perils of subjective discipline and how it can be riddled with hegemonic social expectations. We must work diligently to create and embody adult norms in our buildings, refine and align school policies, and promote understanding and respect of diverse students. Norms—like seeing the positive potential in students even in their worst moments—help nurture a school culture that upholds discipline with dignity and love. Furthermore, by welcoming students' diverse cultures and being cognizant of how policies may invalidate Black students’ humanity, Black educators can close discipline gaps and identify promising practices that keep Black students in school.  
In this connection, Black educators must acknowledge how trying to fit into mainstream culture impacts who we discipline and why. For example, Black girls who have Black female school leaders have expressed that they are punished more harshly than their peers and are often recipients of “tough love” policies (McClellan, 2020). As a Black woman, I now know that protecting and setting high expectations for Black students does not require me to encumber them with the weight of oppression that our society is all too ready to place on them. 

3. Push Back  

Finally, fighting against anti-Blackness requires courage, power, and truth. Black educators must have the courage to be critical friends to white teachers, their Black colleagues, and most importantly, themselves. This courage aids in addressing biased thinking and inequitable assumptions that harm Black children.  
Additionally, there is power in curriculum. Black educators should challenge curricula that lack multicultural representation and culturally responsive activities. As an alternative, we should cultivate classrooms that engage, excite, and encourage Black students to be their authentic selves, which may show up in ways that decenter school norms.  
Preparing Black students for the "real world" doesn’t mean doling out harsh discipline; it means teaching them about citizenship and voter suppression, community building, and the impact of discriminatory policies like redlining. It’s giving them opportunities to be proud and to construct an understanding of the world around them that will empower them to protect who they are and fight for the marginalized communities they represent.  

Where Black Excellence Begins 

Black excellence begins with loving and liberating our authentic selves. As Black educators, we are models for our students, and sometimes the first adults to help them realize that they, too, embody Black excellence. We must be conscious of how we discipline our Black children to not perpetuate a system that toughens, spirit murders, and incarcerates them. We must fight to expel the anti-Blackness that ruminates inside of us.  
So, I challenge you, Black educator, to wake up daily, look in the mirror, and ask yourself, “What can I do to ensure my Black students are not disproportionately punished?” And, “How can I radiate light, love, and liberation to, for, and with my Black students?” 

Brockenbrough, E. (2015). “The Discipline Stop” Black Male Teachers and the Politics of Urban School Discipline. Education and Urban Society, 47(5), 499-522. 

Children’s Defense Fund. (1975). School suspensions: Are they helping children? Cambridge: MA: Washington Research Project. 

Crawford, T. & Bohan, C. (2019). The double consciousness of African American students who desegregated Atlanta Public Schools. Educational policy studies faculty publications. 33.  

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). Of our spiritual strivings. 

Dumas, J., & Nelson, D. (2016). (Re) Imagining Black boyhood: Toward a critical framework for educational research. Harvard Educational Review, 86(1), 27-47. 

Epstein, R., Blake, J., & González, T. (2017). Girlhood interrupted: the erasure of black girls’ childhood. Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. 

Freire, P. (1968). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury publishing USA. 

hooks, b. (1999). Yearning: Race, gender, and cultural politics. South End Press.  

McClellan, P. (2020) Portraits of Black girls: Reflections on schooling and leadership of a Black woman principal in an age of adultism, Journal of Educational Administration and History, 52(3), 256-269. 

Morris, M. (2016). Pushout: The criminalization of Black girls in schools. New Press.

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