A 2017 study by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality told many of us what we already knew: Black girls are seen as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers. While this phenomenon, called adultification, can be observed across all age groups from 0-19, it is most prevalent among ages 5-14. The results are heartbreaking. Responses to a survey indicated that people perceived that Black girls need less nurturing, protection, support, and comfort than their white peers. They also believed that Black girls know more about adult topics, including sex.
These perceptions of Black girls as “grown” and “fast” are bad enough. But they also lead to serious consequences as they reveal what the study authors identified as “a potential contributing factor to the disproportionate rates of punitive treatment” when it comes to Black girls in educational settings and juvenile justice. In other words, these perceptions are part of the reason that disparities in school discipline exist. Black girls are 2-3 times more likely to be disciplined for disobedience, disruptive behavior, fighting, and bullying than white girls—even when they do the exact same things.
Recently, the study authors released another report on adultification. This time they spoke with Black women and girls about their experiences. They conducted focus groups across the country with participants ranging in age from 12-60+.
Here’s what they learned:
- Explaining the concept of adultification to Black women and girls is like telling us that the sky is blue: there’s nothing new about it. There were almost no participants who said that adultification was something they had not experienced. Apparently, even with varied ages, geographic locations and education, being treated as less than white women and girls is a common experience among us.
- The negative stereotypes that are associated with Black women (aggressive, angry, loud) are also assigned to Black girls. Have you ever been told you have an attitude problem? I certainly have. Black girls today are being told the same thing. In school, this results in their actions being seen as disrespectful and threatening. The report notes that when Black girls express strong views, the adults around them interpret it as challenging authority or assume that they are just plain “bad.”
- People routinely think that Black girls are sexually active and promiscuous at an early age. Focus group participants talked about being hypersexualized by school employees. This included being asked by school nurses about their sexual history in middle school, equating their clothing choices with a desire for sexual attention and more. White girls can wear Daisy Dukes and everyone thinks its fashion. But when Black girls do it, it’s a sign of something sinister.
- Adults have less empathy for Black girls and, as a result, they are less likely to protect them. Participants in the focus groups ages 17-29 said white girls are often seen as innocent and worthy of protection, especially when they cry. Meanwhile, they noted Black girls aren’t afforded innocence or youthfulness. One person said, “I think people associate them [white girls] with innocence a lot. And then Black girls don’t get the innocence we deserve…”
What do we do about all this? Well, as per usual, Black women and girls have an answer to the problem. The same focus group participants identified specific solutions to overcoming adultification bias against Black girls. They said that the way to fix this is to build awareness and commit to action; engage educators in cross-cultural competency and gender responsiveness training; train school authorities on communication and help school officials learn and understand developmentally appropriate communication techniques.
But all of this can be boiled down to eight simple words: See Black women and girls as human beings.
Everyone has biases, including Black women and girls. That’s not how we are born but it is how we are raised and socialized. Still, Black women and girls deserve better than this. We deserve to be seen like any other human beings in all of our complexity. We have thoughts, feelings, opinions, and experiences like anyone else. And we should be seen as people rather than caricatures of human beings who are always angry, sexually promiscuous and defiant against authority. But if all else fails, and people simply can’t see us as individuals and not stereotypes, we can always demand one more thing. Treat us like you treat white men and boys. Lord knows they stay winning. And if there’s any group of people that deserves to win, it’s definitely Black women and girls.