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  • Tamra Simpson

“What Does it Mean When a Black Girl Rolls Her Eyes?”


I imagine that you have read the title of this post and may be thinking this is an unusual title for an educational blog. If that thought is running through your mind, I would like to say you are absolutely right. This title is … highly unusual for an education related blog posting. But, I want to share some commentary around this question. So, let me just jump into it.

On Monday, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend an instructional coaching training. The learning environment was just amazing in the room. Everyone in the room was engaged and ready to become forces of change for our school districts. Then, the speaker asked the crowd, “Do you know the number one reason why black girls are sent to the office with referrals?” Some people started whispering answers around their tables, others looked around the room awkwardly. After a carefully planned pause, the speaker proceeded to say “the number one reason listed on the referrals for black girls is disrespect and defiance for eye rolling.” Everyone in the room mumbled and nodded as if to say, I should have known. The speaker than went on to discuss the need for cultural competency in education, highlighting how teachers are misinterpreting the behaviors of students of color. This sentence immediately made my eyebrows raise and my ears perk. I instantly had a feeling of worry about the information that I was hearing. I felt worry not because of the fact that the speaker was talking on a controversial topic, but the fact that she was misrepresenting a major issue for students of color.

It became clear that the message being spread to a room full of educators was that when students of color roll their eyes it means something other than they disagree with what is either being said or done. So, the speaker goes on to say “the last time I said this someone asked, so what does it mean when a black girl rolls her eyes?”. The speaker laughs a little, pauses and says “I replied, it means the same thing as it does when a white girl does it.” The room chuckled uncomfortably for a minute and the conference continued on from there.

I couldn’t quite move on from there because I was still stunned by what had just happened. In my mind, this educational leader had mislead their audience. Then, they had the nerve to give a snappy reply, when someone asked a logical question based on the premise they had set. Let's dissect this situation.

I would argue that eye rolling is just as universal as sticking your middle finger up. It is a nonverbal cue for disagreement. Now that we have that premise established, let’s talk about the real reason students of color are sent to the office disproportionately for eye rolling. It really has nothing to do with misinterpreting the meaning of the nonverbal cue. It has everything to do with the fact that, we live in a nation where people of color were once seen as property. They were not allowed the right to the same freedoms as their Anglo counterparts. Translation, the implicit bias that exists in all of us, takes over and causes the teacher to become more annoyed by the fact that a student of color rolled their eyes. The heart of the matter is that even though we say freedom of expression applies to everyone, it truly does not. Students of color do not receive the privilege of verbal or nonverbal disagreement with authority. This harsh reality has roots in the history of our nation and those roots are firmly planted into the subconsciousness of all its citizens. These subconscious messages have effects on our behavior, they cause us to commit micro-agressions. Micro-aggressions are the unintentional hostile behaviors that people take part in, during everyday life. Teachers will say, "No, I was not being discriminatory towards that student; they did something wrong." I would argue, while that may be true the student did give a nonverbal cue for disrespect, but so did all the other students in your class. So, why haven’t you written a referral for everyone?

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