The Colonization Of Black Women’s Work In Education

Sister Syllabus
9 min readJan 2, 2023

By Mia Street, MEd, Michelle Neely, EdD, Aleah Rasshan, MEd

The act or practice of appropriating something that one does not own or have a right to — colonizing.

Workplace culture sets the tone for how employees see themselves as either valuable or not. Either it invites employees to stay or go. Since the shutdown, educators are finding that the institution of education is fueled by toxic workplaces that seem to believe educators are easily replaceable. Then, the great resignation began. While school districts across the country are seeing educators at all levels resign in record numbers, they are doing very little to change the culture of the workplace to make educators want to stay.

If we are honest, the COVID-19 pandemic amplified issues in education that were swept under the rug. One main issue is the lack of diversity and representation of Asian, Latinx and Black American educators. Brown v. The Board of Education was an historical tipping point but it yielded unexpected negative results. This landmark case was praised for integrating students of color into classrooms; but what was waiting for them when they arrived was hostile school environments, racialized trauma, culturally incompetent educators and educators who operated in deficit mindsets. Horrible bussing practices removed Black students, who were the intellectual capital of their communities and placed them in classrooms with educators who benefited from Jim Crow and other systems of racism. It placed them in spaces in which their very humanity was questioned.

For as good as it was imagined, the negative impacts of integration are still felt today. Desegregation caused the dismissal, demotion or forced resignation of nearly 80% of experienced, highly credentialed Black educators. Black educators were cultural pillars, living libraries of our communities and were regarded as expert educational practitioners. After the decision of Brown v Board, tens of thousands of Black teachers and principals lost their jobs as White superintendents began to integrate schools but scoffed at the mere thought of putting educators of color in positions of authority over White teachers or White students.

Today, Black and LatinX educators are still acutely underrepresented in the workforce; while students from each demographic make up the majority of students being served in public education, nationally 43% (Black and Hispanic) 45.8 % White and 5.4% Asian. We know that disproportionality in student achievement, access to rigorous coursework and disciplinary actions are adversely determined by what educators believe about students of color. That same mindset also determines how educators of color are seen, treated, given opportunities to advance and considered for leadership roles. If an organization is comprised of people whose beliefs and behaviors align with those who would have allowed Rosa Parks to be placed in the back of the bus and not those who would have stood up and protected her, the workplace culture will reflect ubiquitous animus for its Black employees. For Black educators, the uphill battle has always been against the rhetoric of diversity, equity and inclusion versus the actual cultural shifting work that needs to be done that will entice us to stay and be a part of the organization.

As Black women in education, we have seen how the angry Black woman trope penetrates the workplace culture and this pervasive stereotype characterizes Black women educators as more hostile, aggressive, ill-tempered, bitter and prickly. Conversely, we are the weapon of choice when it comes to doing the hard work of teaching students who have behavior and learning issues; the heavy lifting of being placed in low performing schools; the unspoken burden of keeping students of color “in line.” Our experiences in education informs us that Black women can assist, create, but rarely are we given the opportunities afforded to our White colleagues to lead. Our history in this education system is marred with tenets of invalidation and mistrust, the Black, female educator sets out to do her work in a protective state. Moving with the strategic precision and stealth of a ninja, she protects her innermost self while simultaneously pouring herself into every magical thing she produces. Black women are seen as shoulders, staples, ‘the help’, but often not allowed or expected to lead. Our work often goes without being acknowledged or even worse, it is colonized.

The colonization of our work may be the most demeaning yet predictable of things to happen to Black women in education. In short- we get “Elvis Presley’d” so much that it is the norm. Ron Clark is famous for incorporating a variety of culturally relevant strategies including using dance and rap to engage students. Teachers who attend his training at his academy speak as if they saw Jesus (or Tupac, whichever speaks most to you) himself. Most have never seen anything like the academy and feel like they have the keys to unlock the minds of all Black kids, at least.

But have we heard of Gloria Jean Merriex?

Before Ron Clark, Gloria Jean Merriex, a Black educator, developed materials and strategies of her own as she wrote raps and dances to do with her students for learning math vocabulary and basic processes. She used call and response in the classroom and her work transformed Charles Duval Elementary School, located in the center of an eastern neighborhood filled with crime and poverty, in Jacksonville, Florida. Her work helped to turn Duval’s F rating into an A, year after year. Merriex’s work was out of the norm of teaching sequential math concepts instead, she jumped from one math subject to another in ways that defied conventional approaches. Her pedagogy was not based on the set curriculum; it was tailored to and developed for the children of that neighborhood, a neighborhood Merriex had known her entire life.

Merriex was of the community she served and I am positive she taught how she was taught. She believed in being a part of the village as she visited homes, cared for students’ non-academic needs and provided instruction to entire families. Like Black women educators before her, Merriex made her classroom a home, she cooked classroom meals, mended school uniforms, holistically nurtured students and made sure they learned. She refined and reflected, developed and grew more materials that made the learning “stick”. So, while Ron Clark gets praised and acknowledged for his work, we forget that the pedagogy of Black educators, like Merriex, has always been full of rhyme, rhythm and culturally responsive because WE are the culture.

What we know is that 80% of Black women were dismissed from their role as teachers by the U.S. educational system at the point of integration, shortly after Brown vs Board of Education. There are 70 years of deep hurt in education as it relates to the Black female and within those years, we have been useful but easily dispensable and when we create new initiatives, our work is often stolen and reimagined by those who benefit from the majority cultural values.

Colonizing… to take control of (a people or area) especially as an extension of state power.

There are many Black women in education like Gloria Merriex whose work, work ethic, practitioner prowess and innovative pedagogy are simply unmatched. Their work, OUR work, then becomes primed for takeover. For some, it happens to them in their first year teaching bilingual students; working after-school for free for the entire year because they are just that committed to helping students grow and perform at or on grade level. When students meet or exceed that academic goal, the success will be attributed to the department, campus or superiors. For others, it happens in meetings when Black women educators know we have to sacrifice some of the credit so that a goal can be accomplished. We have to feed an idea to a White (or White adjacent) colleague who gets whatever they want, so the vision can be carried out. Colonization of our work also looks like holding one of the highest positions in a district and being excluded from meetings about the very work that is within your expertise; work that at minimum, was created based on your knowledge and skill set; work that you oversee and created. Colonizing the work of Black women in education also looks like using systems of power in the work space to create roadblocks and barriers to promotion, growth and overall success. These roadblocks do not just impact Black teachers but also well established and experienced administrators who are oftentimes the “only one” at the table in district leadership. Even when tasked to build and lead the development of specific departments, Black women educators are often not given the same opportunities to be promoted compared to White colleagues. The rate at which Black women in education reach superintendent status perils in comparison to our White counterparts. Moreover and maybe more hurtful is when the colonizer is a person of color. We know colonization can happen vertically, and Black women in these environments, over long periods of time, take on the character of colonizers, often playing the roles of White adjacent operatives.

Personal experiences teach us that colonizing our work is a symptom of racist structures embedded in an organization. What in one moment feels like freedom to create and to do work that you love, becomes a colonized reality. Author, Dallas NAACP Education Chair and longtime educator, Mia Street describes her experience with this very concept of colonialism in the workplace:

After being 1 of 5 Black women in district leadership, I witnessed everything from racialized micro aggressive behavior toward Black educators to some very real egregious racist exclusionary acts. For me, I was given space to create our College, Career and Military Readiness (CCMR) programming and webspace, as the College Career and Military Readiness for At-Risk Specialist for the district. Being the only Black woman in that department at that time, my work was always colonized. After creating and ushering in of the first CCMR webspace, they even went so far as to remove my name from the site while keeping my nearly year long work and curated content. I introduced the cyber security pathway to the district, partnered us with Bank of America, secured grants and that too was colonized by my White colleagues. I partnered each high school campus with a college / university partner to provide free college prep support each year at each campus — that work was colonized too. Even after being promoted out of that very racist, toxic, unsafe department, my work would continue to be colonized. I was given the responsibility to lead restorative practices initiatives and centers throughout the district, but considering the punitive nature of public education system, my former district’s history of disproportionately disciplining Black and Brown students and the current political climate particularly in Texas, this work required a heavy lift and mind shift that was not welcomed. Soon district leadership changed as it became even less diverse and my work with restorative practices and the centers were colonized by and reassigned to the White women from my former department. It was not a coincidence, they quite literally and in the most deplorable way, took claim over the very program that I was leading extremely well. I knew to document everything and report the ongoing targeted attacks but that was not enough- I needed to leave and I did.

We know it is imperative for our voices to be heard, to share the pains of being Black in education along with the many successes despite the very real roadblocks. However, equally as important is sharing solutions and tips for Black women and those in education who want to see systemic change. What we know is there are some very strategic ways to support the work of Black women in education. Here are some tips and suggestions that will help to create a workplace culture that celebrates the work of employees in general and specifically for Black women:

Action steps —

  • Give credit for innovation to whom it is due in a timely manner.
  • Besides accolades and credit, money talks! Symbolic thanks is great, but if the idea is making money, there should be monetary rewards.
  • Design a process with Black women to ensure that Black women are accurately capturing and discussing their contributions to the organization that corresponds to the grading period (so whether 6 weeks or 9 weeks, they have a mini summative to discuss their contributions).
  • Push Black women to take risks and try out their ideas. Provide a ‘think-tank’ space where you listen to and determine means of supporting their ideas.
  • Create a system where women of color connect to one another to share their best practices and train one another. Professional development presentations would come from the expertise of women within the organization.
  • BELIEVE BLACK WOMEN- trust us. We are professional, purposeful, intelligent assets.
  • Do not question our success. Our success is nearly always a result of intentional, strategic, demanding and innovative work that is led by our knowledge and expertise. It is never a fluke.

Black women educators bring a wealth of knowledge, professionalism and creativity to the spaces where they serve. Yet, they are often overlooked, ignored and worst, their work is colonized. Districts have an opportunity to improve how Black educators are engaged in the school system.

ABOUT: Mia Street, MEd, Aleah Rasshan, MEd, Michelle Neely, EdD are 3 educational administrators who are co-authoring a book entitled Sister Syllabus. Sister Syllabus is a project that examines the experiences of women of color in education across the education continuum. This work aims to reveal the critical consciousness of women educators of color, across all domains of our lives. Plans for the book to be released by Summer 2024, for more information, go to SisterSyllabus.com .

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