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How Black Girls Can Develop A Strong Math Identity

How Black Girls Can Develop A Strong Math Identity

We welcome this guest blog post by Dr. Nicole Joseph.

Dr. Nicole M. Joseph is an Associate Professor of mathematics and science education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University. She is also the founder of the Tennessee March for Black Women in STEM, an event held every fall which seeks to bring together the Tennessee community to raise awareness of the gendered racism, Black women and girls experience in STEM.

What Is A Math Identity?

What is a math identity you ask? A math identity is how you see yourself as a person learning math. It is how you learn, do, and think about math. Are you interested in math? Do you feel like you can do the math the teacher assigns? Are you recognized by your friends, teachers, or family as a person who can do math? These are questions you could ask yourself to determine what type of math identity you might have.

Have you ever heard someone say, “I hate math!” or “I am not good at math?”

That is a person who does not have a strong math identity.

Someone else might say, “I really like math because I like exploring patterns,” and we would say that they have a positive math identity.

My research has shown that Black girls struggle to develop strong math identities. Other studies have shown that Black girls have higher mathematics career aspirations (i.e., they want to be a computer scientist or engineer) than their White and Latina peers (Riegle-Crumb, Moore, & Ramos-Wada, 2011), yet somehow these aspirations seldom get translated through the K-12 system for them to develop strong math skills to be able to major in math-based majors.

Keep reading to learn a few reasons why.

Who Told You That? – Why Black Girls Struggle With Math Identity

A few things that I have learned from listening to Black girls, conducting my own research, and reading other studies is that schools are not often an inviting place for Black girls to learn.


Black girls have been told that they are unfocused, too loud, talk too much, are not intelligent, do not wear the right clothes, do not care about their learning, and other stereotypical messages from educators. Sometimes these messages are direct and sometimes they are “hidden.” A hidden message could be a teacher choosing to not see the math potential of a Black girl and not recommending her for a more challenging math class. Teachers make these decisions about Black girls every day in our classrooms. 

Additionally, most of U.S. society thinks that girls, regardless of race, do not belong in math. Society also thinks that Black people, generally, are not competent in math. So where does that leave a Black girl? It leaves her vulnerable and invisible; we call this idea intersectionality. A Black girl sits at the intersection of race (Black) and gender (girl) making it difficult for math teachers and educators in general to SEE THEM—to see both the assets they bring to math and the barriers that challenge their math learning.

What Can Math Teachers and Caring Adults Do To Support Black Girls In Math?

I have great news! Math teachers and Caring Adults can choose today to start SEEING Black girls in math and learning how to better support them. You do not have to wait for training! Try these things below and leave a comment to share with us how it is going. Now understand that change takes time especially if a Black girl has been told for years that she is not good at math and she has internalized that message. Someone trying to come and do something different may not work instantly, but keep at it! I promise you, your Black girl will pivot!


Stop using math worksheets as the main way to teach and practice math concepts. Invite your Black girl to share her math story—ask her when was the last time she really enjoyed math and then find out what happened. Ask her what might make learning math more interesting. Ask her what is helping her learn in your class. What is getting in the way of her learning math in your class? I give a lot more detail and other suggestions in my book Making Black Girls Count in Math Education: A Black Feminist Vision for Transformative Teaching

Caring Adults:

Stop saying you were not good in math! You too just did not have the right math teacher to make it relevant and interesting. Our girls can internalize these negative messages and it can become a self-fulling prophecy. Expose them to STEM summer programs and field trips, such as a science museum. Involve her with the ways you use math such as cooking, purchasing a home, grocery shopping, planning party, and other ways. Invite her to “interview” family members to learn about their math experiences. This brings about connection and community within a family about mathematics. It gets the girls talking about math in order to normalize this subject as something that has value beyond school and the classroom.

We About To Party! – Celebrating Black Girls As Mathematicians

I love Black girls! I love helping them to see that they are strong mathematicians! That does not mean that they can do every math problem without help or that they can do the calculations quickly in their head. No way!

  • Being a strong mathematician means that you have the boldness to ask questions when you don’t understand.
  • It means sharing your math ideas and the decisions you made when working on a problem.
  • It also means using pictures, numbers, and/or words to express your problem-solving process.
  • And finally, strong mathematicians MAKE MISTAKES!!!

I am so excited to join Black Girl MATHgic at the Great Pajama Party on Friday, May 12th which is also Women in Mathematics Day! If you would like to join us for a fun evening of activities that offer inspiration, encouragement, support, and connection for young black girls and their Caring Adults, then click here to sign up! Spacing is very limited and first-come, first-served.

Dr. Nicole Joseph is an Associate Professor of mathematics and science education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of Making Black Girls Count in Math Education: A Black Feminist Vision for Transformative Teaching available at Harvard Education Press or Amazon.

Get Dr. Joseph’s Slumber Party and Math Box.

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