By Coshandra Dillard
Black girls are often denied the opportunity to be vulnerable. Their sense of agency and humanity isn’t always recognized in the world. For example, it’s why there is continued support of R. Kelly, who has a consistently troubling history with underage girls.
That erasure of black girls begins at an early age, according to a report released last month by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality. The report, Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood, looked at a scale of childhood innocence which include items associated with stereotypes of black women and girls. It’s the first study focused on “adultification” of black girls and suggests there is significant bias toward black girls starting at age 5, younger than in previous research on black boys, according to the report.
According to the report, adultification can be a “process of socialization, in which children function at a more mature developmental stage because of situational context and necessity, especially in low-resource community environments.” It can also be a”social or cultural stereotype that is based on how adults perceive children in the absence of knowledge of children’s behavior and verbalizations.” The latter form of adultification, based in part on race, is the subject of the Georgetown report.
In the study, 74 percent of 325 respondents were white, 11 percent black, and the remaining were other races. The authors of the study found that adults see black girls as less innocent and less in need of protection as white girls of the same age. The result of this adultification has strong punitive effects on black girls, as they are five times more likely to be suspended as white girls, and twice as likely to be suspended as white boys, according to the report. In addition, Black girls are nearly three times as likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system as white girls.
“This is another form of bias that looks at the way we treat them in the criminal justice system and the education system,” says Dr. Jamilia Blake, associate professor of educational psychology at Texas A&M University and co-author of the study.
In the days following the release of the study, it received a lot of media attention. Blake said the results of the study was polarizing and among black women, the response was simply “duh.”
As a black woman and mother of two black girls, she understood the experiences of many black women, but as a researcher, she wanted to seek the data to back up what many had already felt was true.
“We run a risk if we just assume that we know something as a truth,” Blake says. “The point of research is to evaluate and know the truth. I want to know why this is happening.”
But upon the results of the study, Blake was taken aback.
“I really did not think I would see it so young,” she says. “That is mind-boggling to me: how can a five-year-old not need protection?”
The adultification and loss of innocence of black girls may evolve into the “strong black woman” trope, which also erases women’s need for protection and support.
“I grew up learning black women are strong,” Blake says. “We’re losing the battle because that’s not realistic. Yes, we’re fabulous and can do all things … But you can internalize stereotypes that people have on you and have negative effects. It may impact you and you may not be conscious of it.”
She adds, “Of course we want girls to be resilient and independent, but it’s not fair to hold a 5-year-old to higher expectations than other 5-year-olds.”
East Texas teenager Destini Jordan recognizes both types of adultification of black girls and that it’s by no fault of their own.
“I do think black girls are more adult-like and sometimes less innocent, but it’s because we have been exposed to so much more than white girls,” says the 16-year-old, who attends a predominately white and Latino school in Rusk County. “While white girls are more open and talkative about it, black girls are more reserved and mature. For example, in slavery times we didn’t exactly have time to be children and enjoy youth. We were basically thrown into adulthood.”
Jordan is somewhat perplexed about the topic as she recognizes the perceptions about black girls could have negative implications. While she lauds the strength and maturity of black girls, she realizes some people can’t get past the assumed tough veneer.
“It is at times unfair because as black girls we already have that label, but I don’t think its negative because being mature is a good thing if you use it wisely,” she says. “It does make us more susceptible to violence but we feel pain just like anyone else does, so I don’t think it’s fair to automatically assume that’s what we are.”
Doing this kind of study evokes more questions and Blake wants to continue research on adultification and racial socialization.
“I want to provide evidence, document and argue for ways to change it,” she says. “I’d love to expand on this work and definitely get the youth perspective and how it is happening. There are many ways to move forward.”
It’ll be imperative to bring parents to the table, she says. In the meantime, she stresses building self-esteem in black girls, instilling pride in their blackness, and teaching their history without engaging in a fear-based strategy.
“We need to be better at educating about our history and in making them conscious … If you don’t know your history you’re in trouble in the future.”