Punishing Black Masculinities in School

Ann Arnet Ferguson’s (2001) book, Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity, is a wonderful school ethnography. I regularly assign what is probably the most reproduced chapter in the book—“Naughty by Nature”—in courses I teach about gender. She deftly illustrates the ways that teachers, administrators, and public schools more generally participate in criminalizing young black boys and masculinities.

The book is probably best known for Ferguson’s conceptualization of what she refers to as “adultification.” “By this I mean their transgressions are made to take on a sinister, intentional, fully conscious tone that is stripped of any element of childish naïveté” (here: 83). Young black boys’ behavior is interpreted through discursive frames usually applied to adults and their bad behavior is understood to stand not only for what they are capable of, but of who they will become. Pascoe (here and here) finds something similar in her discussion of boys’ use of “fag” in school. Black boys were punished more heavily and immediately for using the term while white boys were often ignored.

Ferguson also, however, has a fantastic discussion of physical space in the school—the social sites of punishment. She highlights the significance of the spaces in which punishment occurs in wonderful ethnographic detail. The second chapter of the book—“The Punishing Room”—details two separate rooms in the school reserved for students who misbehave: the “Punishing Room” and the “Jailhouse.”

Ferguson describes the Punishing Room in this way:

The Punishing Room is the name I have given to the place to which children are sent by adults when they get in trouble. The room is one of the smallest spaces at Rosa Parks School. Just two doors down from the school’s main office, the sign on the door identifies the room as the Student Specialists’ Office, a designation that though unfamiliar, seems promising, yet totally mystifying since it gives nothing away about the function of the room or the role of the people in it. The visitor passing down the hallway can see that it is a space like other spaces in the school inhabited by both children and adults. It is clearly an educational space, not an administrative space; children work in this room because the visitor can see them sitting at a table writing. I had been doing fieldwork in the school for several months before I actually went in and discovered for myself the place that the room occupied in the school. (here: 31)

The Punishing Room is a space at school for children (who, in Ferguson’s study, were most often boys and most often black). This is a room for minor offenses or first offenses and is somewhat of a first line of defense in the school. Children are sent here when they misbehave in class. What is interesting is that, though the space is physically similar to other classrooms in the school (which has the effect of concealing the room from outsiders), it is a space put to dramatically different use.

While adults understand the room as a site of punishment, children have a dual understanding of this room as both punishment and pleasure. As Ferguson remarks, “The Punishing Room was not the perfect site of surveillance and order that I had assumed, but a social hub, a space in which children put prohibited discourses into circulation and engaged adults in games of power in a series where wins and losses were chalked up to both sides” (here: 31-32). The Punishing Room is a social space in which identities are crafted, but it also becomes part of the geographic embodiment of a labeling process that has deleterious effects on young black boys’ lives.

The Jailhouse is a room reserved for the more serious offenses and punishments at the school. This is the label that the boys in Ferguson’s study gave to the room. Ferguson’s description of the room is vivid and describes not only the room itself, but the physical location within the school itself—a significant feature that might have been ignored by others. She describes it in this way:

The Jailhouse is the most invisible room in the school. The ordinary visitor to the school would never even know that such a room exists. It is not part of the tour on Back to School night. Few teachers ever go there, and the few that do are there for only a few moments. It was not easy for me to find the room, which appears to be part of the wall of the building on the ground level. The one door opens from the playground, but it is rarely ajar. A large window looks out on the playground; while occupants can see out, it is extremely hard to see in. This is why the room’s existence, what goes on inside, the activities of its occupants remain obscure and forgotten by the other adults and children in the school. The room itself is tiny, the small space entirely taken up by an adult desk and chair, a round table with child-sized chairs, and two children’s desks, both facing the wall of the room… The space feels crowded and is made suffocatingly warm by the morning sun streaming in through the window. (here: 34-35)

These descriptions are wonderful and paint a picture for the reader of rooms that are able to be ignored by those for whom they are not intended. Entries to and exits from these rooms are symbolically laden in different ways for adults and children in the school. So, she not only discusses the spaces, but also pays specific attention to the ways that the rooms are understood by adults and children (sometimes similarly, sometimes dramatically differently).

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