By Chanel McFollins and Aireen Kinyanguli, Guest Writers
It was recently brought to our attention that some Thunderbird students were unaware of Black History Month. We wanted to address this not only because it is an American tradition, and we are at an international school where students may not know every tradition we practice, but because it is essential to remember. Therefore, we have decided to write a piece providing some context as to why Black History Month is important, as well as to provide a fuller understanding of America. Ever since our ancestors were seized from the western shores of Africa, there has been an unfortunate but legitimate disconnect between Africans and African-Americans, as the cultures became separate.
While we will not review the complete depths of the atrocities forced upon West Africans during slavery, we have provided a simple timeline that exhibits the 335 years encompassing American slavery and segregation.
1857: Dred Scott case – Blacks are lawfully second-class citizens, regardless if they were free or enslaved
During slavery, black people were viewed as property, and their purpose was to produce cotton or tobacco, tend to household needs, and any other needs deemed appropriate by the master. In order to maintain total control of slaves, reading and writing were forbidden by law. Therefore, native languages, writings and histories were erased, which is how the culture of contemporary blacks began. Sometimes slaves would learn how to read in secret, but the consequences for both teachers and students were grave. Education was not for those of African descent.
1865: After the Civil War ended, all of the people of African descent were freed; legal segregation begins
Moving forward, although black people were “free,” they were still treated as subhuman. Jim Crow Laws exploited blacks economically, politically and socially. Public spaces (including schools, restaurants, beaches, bathrooms, etc.) were segregated by race due to these laws. Even though the 14th Amendment (which gave everyone equal protection and rights under the law) had been ratified in 1868, and the 15th Amendment (which gave black men the right to vote) had been ratified in 1870, discrimination and segregation were a national practice.
1896: Plessy v. Ferguson established the “separate but equal” doctrine that would become the basis for segregation
As mentioned, discrimination and segregation were already a national practice, but now segregation had become legal. The significance here is that the quality of life for blacks and whites was separate and unequal. Lesser schools, books, learning materials, homes, etc., were given to blacks. Regarding education specifically, Black public schools were given less funding than White public schools and were sometimes closed down due to “lack of funding,” while other white public schools remained open. The disparity was evident, but segregation was the backbone for this hypocrisy.
Bonus fact: predominantly white universities, fraternities and sororities did not accept black students which is why, to this day, there are several Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Historically Black fraternities and sororities.
1954: Brown v. Board of Education rules Plessy v. Ferguson in violation of the 14th Amendment
Finally, 64 years ago, it was legally unacceptable to separate students by race, especially since one group of students received worse education, facilities and materials. It is only in recent years that equality has truly shown its face, and we still have a long way to go (which would have to be dissected in a whole other piece). The gag is, full equality and representation are still not in fruition yet.
Still today we need more teachers, professors, doctors, lawyers, scientists, presidents, etc. of African descent, especially women, representing those roles. While black Americans are only 13.3% of the American population, we are still underrepresented in these fields.
As an undergrad at ASU, the only teachers of color I (Chanel) had out of 41 classes were those in my African and African American Studies minor. If I had chosen any other minor, the chances of having a professor that looked like me would have been significantly lower. I can count on one hand the amount of black or African female teachers I had in elementary, middle and high school: only one finger is up. The Harvard study “Representation in the Classroom: The Effect of Own-Race/Ethnicity Teacher Assignment on Student Achievement” discusses the exact sentiments being conveyed here. By seeing little to no teachers of your own ethnic background, it makes it more difficult to see yourself in that field or to excel. The study exhibited that students who had teachers from the same ethnic group did better in reading and math than those who had teachers that were of a different ethnic group. Of course, every teacher should not be of the same ethnicity as the student because diversity is still extremely important, but so are inclusivity and representation.
Similarly, just as the workplace needs representation of all ethnic groups, sexes, genders and abilities, classrooms need the same kind of diversity. According to a study from Journal of Business Studies Quarterly, about 31% of African American women attribute the lack of company role models of the same racial/ ethnic group as a barrier in the workplace (Brown, 2004). Black American and African American females have to work harder just to be successful in school and work. Just like the workplace, school is not an area that should be exclusive to certain types of people based on their racial background; so, every time another student grows up without having experienced having teachers or professors that represent them, the system has failed. Our schools should be a reflection of the people in our society.
Despite the challenges as young women of color at a prestigious international business school, we stand on the shoulders of women who fought for the opportunities we have today. We are confident and equipped to challenge the status quo. We are optimistic that in the coming years more women of color will be in leadership positions and we are ready to influence women empowerment at a global level.
Consistently being a fraction of the classroom or being chosen as a requirement never gets any easier, which is why Black History Month is necessary. It is the month of February and is used to understand and celebrate our past, as we work toward making a better future. But, someone like us, is working every day.