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Disrupting Racism: Giving Black Girls a Chance to say “I am a Mathematician”

posted Jun 14, 2016, 11:13 AM by Furthering Girls' Math Identity   [ updated Jun 16, 2016, 3:10 PM ]
The Voice of Peshine1

“Um I have really good ears so like even when I am in the car and like the radio is really loud I can hear it. Really good ears, I have really good senses. And I think I am kind of smart and I do really good on my tests in math and stuff.”

“I don't know it's like some people they are born knowing how to draw, they are born knowing how to dance, how to sing, I am just born knowing how to, I just I was born smart like I don't know.”

“Math, I've never really had a problem. Like I am really good at math. Like all my grades in math have been consistently good like that is not a subject I have to worry about. The lowest math score I've got 82.”

“Not really unless it's really, really hard and it's like it's been like five times and I still can't get this question right. I get frustrated, I don't give up but I get frustrated.”

An Illustration of #Blackgirlmagic2 in Influencing Mathematics Identity

These are words from a Black girl in 6th grade mathematics where 90% of the students are Black and 90% are eligible for free or reduced lunch in the eastern region of the United States. These quotes suggest that she has a robust mathematics identity. Even though it seems that she holds a perspective that people are “born smart,” she understands some of the important factors for developing identity—interest, confidence, and persistence. Peshine discussed how her mother was her first teacher to teach her to count and that she gets opportunities to “have a little power” in her math class. An example of a time when she felt more in control of her learning rather than “just be fed to you like you know stuffed down your throat” was when “we had to get with a partner and you had to come up with word problems to go with the equations. Yeah you had to draw pictures about the equations. That's fun.”

The Intersection of Race, Gender, and Mathematics Identity

How do we get all Black girls to develop and further their math identities? A lot of my own research, coupled with 12 years of teaching Black girls in public schools and coaching mathematics teachers, suggest that race matters. Educators’ awareness of the ways in which race operates in our classrooms, schools and society is an important driver in improving Black girls mathematics identities. Race matters in the development of a math identity because some of the factors that influence math identity have to do with interest, socialization, and performance expectations in mathematics—constructs that elude many Black girls because our educational system is entrenched with racism. We know that Black girls face racism in schools because there is a national movement in the United States right now (over $200 million dollars in research and development) about understanding the inequities Black girls face in our schools as well as a call to create the political will to publicly acknowledge their achievements, contributions, and leadership. Black girls are devalued (i.e. viewed as hypersexual, loud, and disrespectful) in many areas including the media, and usually society comes to know who Black girls are through these mechanisms in decontextualized ways. I am sure that not many people know about Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. This book is being made into a movie that will be the untold story of NASA’s Black female mathematicians.

Developing and Furthering Black Girls Identity: A Need to Think Outside of the Box

Peshine can be considered an anomaly. It is not necessarily a normative thing to see and hear Black girls saying “I love math,” or “I am a mathematician.” I think mathematics educators and researchers have an opportunity to leverage the Black girls’ movement to establish interdisciplinary collaborations that focus on public scholarship and research that engages in praxis—acts which shape and change the world. Acts which shape and transform the way we engage in mathematics for all girls, but especially for Black girls. Acts such as eliminating tracking in schools, making race and other social identity constructs a part of the curriculum we use in math teacher education programs, transforming the teaching of math to be more culturally relevant, and engaging mathematicians and mathematics educators in racial projects to discourse and transform. These are structural factors that under-gird racism and limit many Black girls’ opportunities to develop a math identity. This work takes risk, courage, a lot of time, and navigating a political minefield in savvy and strategic ways. But Black girls deserve this focus and effort because we are missing a group of talented women that can help us solve important STEM problems and their unique perspectives, ideas, and experiences as racialized beings in mathematics can provide the field with innovate ways to broaden mathematics and increase participation for other underrepresented groups. Let’s work together to improve these outcomes for Black girls so as to develop more girls like Peshine.

[1] Peshine is a pseudonym and is a participant in a current analysis of Black girls’ experiences in secondary mathematics classrooms being conducted by Joseph, Hailu, and Matthews (forthcoming).
[2] Black Girl Magic is a term used to illustrate the universal awesomeness of Black women. It is about celebrating anything we deem particularly dope, inspiring, or mind-blowing about ourselves. Retrieved from

Nicole M. Joseph, PhD
(Click name for contact information.)

Nicole Joseph is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education at Vanderbilt University and a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow. Her research focuses on understanding the experiences of Black girls and women in mathematics across the P-20 pipeline.

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