Black is Beautiful: New Studies Find That Positive Sentiments Around Blackness Improves Black Girls’ Academic Performance

Dr. Sheretta Butler-Barnes of Washington University in St. Louis recently released a study,  “Promoting Resilience Among African American Girls: Racial Identity as a Protective Factor,” that finds that young Black women with “strong racial identity” are more likely to be academically persistent and engaged.

Discussed in an article published in the Journal of Black in Higher Education, the research surveyed 733 adolescent Black girls from middle and high schools across three socio-economically diverse school districts in the Midwest region. In addition to these findings of increased academic engagement, the study found that positive perceptions of school climate and racial identity were associated with greater academic motivation.

Promoting Resilience Among African American Girls: Racial Identity as a Protective Factor” comes after a countering study conducted by Georgetown University that showed that Black girls in the United States are perceived by adults as much less innocent than their White/Non-Hispanic counterparts. “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood” was released in June 2017 and identifies what many Black parents know to be true – that Black girls are sexualized, deemed overly aggressive, and “adultified” from a young age.

These negative perceptions can oftentimes cause resources, support, and opportunity for multicultural girls to be more limited both academically and professionally.

“Persons of color who have unhealthy racial identity beliefs tend to perform lower in school and have more symptoms of depression,” Dr. Butler-Barnes said.

“In our study, we found that feeling positive about being Black, and feeling support and belonging at school may be especially important for African-American girls’ classroom engagement and curiosity.”

“Feeling connected to the school may also work together with racial identity attitudes to improve academic outcomes.”

An additional study published by the University of Washington (Seattle) found that cultivating pride in Black culture in identity led girls to express greater confidence, increased school involvement, and a stronger connection to their culture. In this study lead by Janine Jones, Director of the University of Washington Psychology Program, participants adopted a cultural enrichment curriculum called Sisters of Nia (a Swahili term for “purpose”) and joined an after-school program that met once a week for six weeks. This experience cultivated positive self-imagery and made a lasting impression on the involved students.

These findings further support the work that Walker’s Legacy Foundation is implementing in national school districts. Recognizing the importance of inspiration and education that is provided through these programs, Walker’s Legacy Foundation has partnered with the Browne Education Campus in Washington, DC for its Girls Who Enterprise entrepreneurship program as part of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s REIGN Initiative in DC Public Schools.

Girls Who Enterprise, like in Jones’ research, is specifically designed for middle school aged girls of color and enhances their critical thinking skills and increases their level of self-actualization.

“There are a lot of girls who check out in school when they feel like they’re not seen, not understood or invested in by school personnel. There are a lot of negative perceptions of African-Americans, and the perception they receive is that it’s not a good thing to be black,” said Jones.  “We may think it’s easier to avoid it than to address it. But if we start addressing oppression by countering it with the humanness of who these kids are, we’re more likely to keep them engaged and feeling a sense of belonging.”

The study, “Promoting Resilience Among African American Girls: Racial Identity as a Protective Factor.” was published on the website of the journal Child Development and can be accessed here.
The study, “Using sisterhood networks to cultivate ethnic identity and enhance school engagement” was published on the website of the journal Psychology in the Schools and can be accessed here.


Rachel Hampton

Communications and Special Projects Associate

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Walker's Legacy is a growing global women in business collective founded to establish networks of empowerment and access for women of color in business.