This week, a new report issued by Georgetown Law's Center on Poverty and Inequality made headlines worldwide, and for good reason: it provides conclusive proof that, in American society, young black girls are viewed as more adult, less innocent, less in need of nurturing, more independent and more knowledgable about sex and adult topics than white girls. The study found that this often results in young black girls being punished as adults, given the emotional responsibility reserved for adults, and seen as more culpable for their actions. Study authors executive director of the Center Rebecca Epstein and professors Jamilia Blake and Thalia González paint a precise picture of the extremely harmful ways in which this shapes the young black female experience in America, from schooling to the juvenile justice system.
The report itself, "Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure Of Black Girls' Childhood", is a groundbreaker, because the specific intersectional experiences of black girls in America have not often been examined in-depth by researchers. But Epstein, Blake and González trace the "adultification" of black girls both back into history and into the contemporary realities of their harsh treatment in the media and in their everyday lives. Professor González spoke to Bustle about the research, what it might change, and why viewing black girls as grown-ups far before their time is so destructive.
The History Of The Adultification Of Black Girls
The study of the "adultification" of black children isn't new, but most previous research focused specifically on young black boys — an experience Professor T. Elon Dancy described as being "scripted out of childhood." The racist perception that black boys possess the attributes of older people has meant, according to various studies, that they're habitually viewed as older and less innocent than white boys by authority figures like the police, and attract the most negative attention and harshest punishment in classroom situations. For example, a 2000 study found that teachers didn't talk about black boys as possessing "childish naivete" in the same way they did when they discussed white boys.
The new research opens up a new avenue — examining how the intersection of race and gender for black girls results in a specific form of adultification that harms them uniquely. According to González and her fellow researchers, the history of attributing adult traits to young black girls in the U.S. can be traced back to slavery, during which black female children were both forced to work at a very young age and were constantly vulnerable to sexual abuse. It's clear to the researchers that this past landscape of oppression continues to impact black girls today. It causes, Blake wrote in an earlier piece of research, teachers "to interpret Black girls’ behaviors and respond more harshly to Black girls who display behaviors that do not align with traditional standards of femininity in which girls are expected to be docile, diffident, and selfless."
"We all understood from our own areas of expertise," González told Bustle, "that there is disproportionality that exists in the treatment of black girls. We were very keen to understand how adult perceptions might influence the lived experience of black girls in public systems in the same way or in different ways, more importantly, than boys. We entered into the research asking that as a question."
And it was answered — to a truly horrifying extent.
Black Girls Are Perceived As More Adult Starting At Age 5
The researchers interviewed 325 different adults from around the US about their perspectives on black and white girls of different age brackets, from 0-5 all the way up 15-19. They were asked to respond to statements like "How much do Black [or white] females seem older than their age?" and "How much do Black [or white] females need to be comforted?" It was, González told Bustle, important to the team that gender be a key part of the equation. "A lot of times," she said, "conversations around disproportionality, in particular in public systems, really lean towards a discussion of race, as opposed to an intersectional perspective."
And the results, in González's words, were "shocking". The report found that black girls were seen as more adult, more likely to take on adult responsibilities, and less in need of nurturing and support than their white peers — from an incredibly young age.
"These perceptions that are following them through racial and gender stereotypes are reaching further back into their childhood, which is really stripping them of identity of innocence as children at a critical stage in their life, and in their overall development."
The bit that particularly shocked González, she said, was "the data point about how young adults perceive girls to be older, more adult-like or less innocent, or in need of less nurturing: as young as five years old. To put that in perspective, that means that you’re saying that little girls in kindergarten and first grade need less protection, less support and less nurturing than their white classmates. That’s shocking. Because in comparison, the prior studies done with boys only reached down to age 10."
Black girls, according to this data, suffer from adultification and its consequences earlier than boys. "These perceptions that are following them through racial and gender stereotypes are reaching further back into their childhood," González said, "which is really stripping them of identity of innocence as children at a critical stage in their life, and in their overall development."
Being Viewed As "Adult" Harms Black Girls On Many Levels
The consequences of being viewed as adult at so young an age, the report explains, are grim. The researchers focused on two main areas, schooling and the juvenile justice system, and traced the increased punishment rates and harshness of discipline used against black girls back to this adultified status. "Simply put," they wrote, "if authorities in public systems view Black girls as less innocent, less needing of protection, and generally more like adults, it appears likely that they would also view Black girls as more culpable for their actions and, on that basis, punish them more harshly despite their status as children."
The idea of black girls as more adult sets up situations in which 9-year-olds are handcuffed and female black children are more likely to be suspended, disciplined for minor rule violations, or detained by law enforcement. González also told Bustle that her own research centers around how this might affect the mental health of incarcerated children. "When we start to think about the internalization of thinking that you need less nurturing, less protection, that you shouldn’t be comforted, there are significant impacts within the context of mental health," she said. "I look at the role that mental health plays in juvenile girls when they’re incarcerated. You can see how all of this is interconnected."
"We’re talking about kids," she said. "We’re talking about the potential for decreased education opportunities, for higher rates of entry into the juvenile justice system, and harsher treatment. People really understand that that is no longer acceptable and that we have to be not just recognizing it but also taking steps to make change."
How Do We Stop Adultification?
Now that their research on this inequality is in the spotlight, González and her fellow authors hope that these findings act as a call to action for radical change. "We want this to be highlighted across systems," she told Bustle. "We want there to be engagements and policy change, and there should be more research, but we also need to see change so that a 15-year-old doesn’t have to have the experience of a police officer kneeling on her back to restrain her when she’s at a pool party in a bikini. Or that a young kindergartener isn’t removed and handcuffed from the classroom."
Pragmatic, practical change is what's on their minds — particularly through training and understanding. "We want to ensure that training starts to occur for anybody in a position of authority who’s coming into contact with black girls, so that decision-makers can start to understand how negative attributes and perceptions can affect their judgement," González said. That extends from school to the criminal justice system, and beyond. "You can imagine very quickly how teachers, resource officers, police officers, probation officials and officials in the child welfare system could have access to a different type of education and training relative to these issues," she noted.
"We’re in a political environment where there has to be a deeper inquiry into intersectional issues for women. We want to ensure that people view all girls equally, and invest in the future of all girls... Let’s stop the perpetuation of gender and racial stereotypes that are negatively impacting the lives of black girls."
Training designed to educate people out of deeply ingrained racial and gender-based biases is an increasing area of research. But on the ground, González told Bustle, the consequences of adultification for girls need to be addressed head-on. "In schools, how can we see that there is a substantive shift away from policies that punish black girls more often and more severely for minor subjective offenses?" she asked. "What is it to know that the practice in a juvenile justice facility isn’t to immediately handcuff if a girl talks back, but that there are other avenues available that are being used with other children?"
It's a particularly pressing question now, at a historical moment where the healthcare and rights of millions of American women are under threat from a government led by a president with a strong history of both racist and sexist behavior. "We’re in a political environment where there has to be a deeper inquiry into intersectional issues for women," González told us. "We want to ensure that people view all girls equally, and invest in the future of all girls. If adultification is changing that, then that’s what we want this report to really start to stop. Let’s stop the perpetuation of gender and racial stereotypes that are negatively impacting the lives of black girls." Black girls deserve to be carefree, and innocent, and equal. But this report shows just how much work our culture needs to put in to achieve that goal.