When you imagine the face of a leader, what does it look like? Go ahead, close your eyes and think about it. Did the face you imagined look familiar? Did it look like yours? According to a recent study, many girls of color don’t need to close their eyes to envision a leader — all they need is a mirror.
Girls of color see themselves as leaders, and proud of it! 75 percent of African American girls, 72 percent of Latina girls, and 66 percent of Asian American girls see themselves as leaders, compared to 56 percent of white girls. They also said they already have leadership experience, and rated their leadership skills highly.
Unfortunately, girls of color face unique barriers to success in school that make it harder for them to realize their dreams. For example, African American girls are suspended and expelled from school at six times the rate of white girls and higher than the rate for any other group of girls, and white, Latino, and Asian American boys. Often they are suspended for minor offenses such as dress code violations or subjective offenses like “defiance.” In addition, African American girls report higher rates of sexual harassment and assault and dating violence than their white counterparts. But stereotypes of black women and girls being “hyper-sexualized” contribute to their being punished when reporting harassment and violence instead of supported by their schools.
These stories and statistics are awful, and absolutely need to change. But remember that leadership survey, and the way girls of color described themselves. Even when their schools failed to provide them with sufficient opportunities to put their leadership skills into action, girls of color believe strongly that they could do it.
As we prepare to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we’re reminded of his dream that his children would someday “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” — that they would be judged for what’s on the inside, not the outside. Sadly, people still often judge black and brown girls by what’s on the outside and make assumptions about them based on stereotypes and prejudices.
But when girls of color look inside themselves, they see bravery. They see boldness. They see big ideas, and the skills and confidence to bring those ideas to fruition. They see themselves building and leading coalitions to make their own dreams reality.
We owe it to these girls to see them as they see themselves, and to support and encourage their leadership.