What It’s Like to Be a Black Girl Who Is Assaulted in the Classroom

Nsenga K. Burton Ph.D.
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In 1978, when I was 6 years old, a female teacher assaulted me in a classroom. I was a rambunctious, intellectually curious child who talked a lot in class. I loooooved my homeroom teacher, Ms. S., who was kind and treated me nicely, which was important for a black girl growing up in post-civil-rights-era Lynchburg, Va., because that was rare, even from adults.

Most whites I came in contact with at that time were committed to reminding me that I was “nothing but a n—ger”—yes, I was called n—ger every day in elementary school, and sometimes by my white neighbors while playing outside at home. Ms. S., who was white, was different. She was nice, gentle and patient. I felt like she was my friend.


If I became too unruly, she would gently place her hand on my shoulder and say, “Nsenga, please stop talking and do your work.” Guess what? I would stop talking and do my work because I wanted to make her happy. Ms. S. became pregnant and went on maternity leave to start a family, so we got a permanent substitute. I was a sensitive kid, so I really grieved losing her. 

Ms. F. was nothing like Ms. S. She was mean and impatient and one of those white folks who took every opportunity to remind me that I was “nothing but a n—ger,” even though I was the smartest kid in the class. I knew this, and she knew this and hated it. How did I know that she hated it? Unlike Ms. S., who looked at me with kindness and spoke softly to me, Ms. F. looked at me with hate and spoke to me in harsh tones, berating me at every opportunity. Even though I was only 6 years old, I knew the difference between love and hate.

On one particular day, I was being my normal happy, energetic and chatty self. From across the room, Ms. F. told me to shut up—I told you she was mean. I remember being shocked and embarrassed, but based on her tone, I actually shut up. One of my white classmates at my table was chatty. Ms. F. walked over to our table and told me to shut up again. I tried to tell her that I wasn’t talking this time, but before I could even get the words out of my mouth, she snatched me by my neck, pulled me out of my chair, dragged me across the room and spanked my bottom, all the while yelling, “I told you to shut up!”

When she caught herself, I was crying and said I was going to tell my mom. She then took her long fingers, with long, ruby-red nails, and pinched my cheeks as hard as she could, leaving marks on them, and shoved me into a bathroom (each classroom had one) with no light. I was afraid of the dark and small spaces, so I screamed at the top of my lungs because I was terrified. No one came to see what was happening. Not another teacher, not a classmate, not a staff member. No one helped except my big sister, who heard me crying from another classroom and came to get me. She promptly went home and told my mother what happened.


When I saw the video of the teenage girl in South Carolina being tossed around like a rag doll by former Sheriff’s Deputy Ben Fields in the presence of a teacher—with the only person coming to her aid being another black girl student—I thought back to that day in elementary school. I still remember feeling helpless, terrified, embarrassed and humiliated. The next day, my mother went to school and met with the principal and Ms. F. I was 6 years old, so I don’t remember exactly what was said, but I do know that I was moved to another classroom and Ms. F. was not at that school the following year, which brings me back to this latest incident.

Why is this young girl experiencing in 2015 what I experienced in post-civil-rights-era 1978? The climate of hate and judgment that existed then is pervasive in our society now. She is a black girl who cannot be victimized, even when the world watches and knows it, which is why people are asking silly questions such as, why did she refuse to give up her cellphone, or what might she have done to provoke this incident? While I receive at least one email a day asking me to march for, sign a petition for or do something politically active in defense of a murdered or assaulted black boy, I hear crickets when something like this happens to a black girl.


America has a problem with black women because we are truth tellers, self-reliant and resilient. The same sickness that made Ms. F. want to keep me in what she had determined was my place is the same sickness that makes a grown man beat up a teen girl on video and have other grown men and women support his actions. We are a violent, misogynistic culture that hates women and girls in general—and in the case of this country, black women and girls specifically.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The policing of black women’s bodies is as American as apple pie. Instead of recoiling, folks welcome images of black women’s bodies being beaten and abused because it is normalized (see videos of Janay Rice and Sandra Bland or any reality show repeatedly being looped in the media). These images fit neatly into dominant ideologies about women’s bodies in general, and black women’s bodies in particular.


This violent incident reflects the dominant narrative that black girls and women should do what they are told and never ask a question, resist or exert any independence or individuality, and if we do, people like Ms. F. and former Deputy Fields exist to remind us in the most base and violent way that we are “nothing but a n—ger.”

Some say that had the girl complied with the officer, then he wouldn’t have had to physically assault her. Others believe that what happened in that classroom should never happen to a child, regardless of her disposition. Some say that this incident is the exception and not the rule regarding what happens in some classrooms. As a professor and as a child assaulted by a teacher in an elementary school, I’m saying that there is something far worse happening, and it has nothing to do with cellphone policies. 


Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.

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