A study released Tuesday reveals what many of us already know: Black girls in the age range of 5-14 are viewed as less innocent than their white counterparts, revealing that race is often a factor in how a child’s actions are perceived.
“Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood” (pdf) was released by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Equality, and it builds on a similar study conducted by professor Phillip Goff in 2014 that found that black boys as early as age 10 are more likely than white boys to be misperceived as older, to be viewed as guilty of suspected crimes and to face police violence if accused of a crime. For a reference point, think of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
The study found that survey participants believe that black girls need less nurturing, need less protection, need to be supported and comforted less, are more independent, know more about adult topics and know more about sex. These results have far-reaching implications and can be a contributing factor to the disproportionate rates of punitive treatment in the education and juvenile-justice systems for black girls.
As an example, in the education system, black girls may receive harsher punishment by educators and school resource officers, and being perceived as not needing nurturing, protection and support means that black girls may lose out on leadership and mentorship opportunities in school.
In the juvenile-justice system, the belief that black girls are less innocent and more adultlike may contribute to greater use of force and harsher penalties.
Although this news is nothing new to black people, and most especially black women, since we have experienced this all of our lives, it’s important to look at this data and the implications it has across a broad spectrum of public systems, including education, juvenile justice and child welfare.
The implicit bias that these sets of beliefs create place black girls, and later black women, on an uneven playing field that can be conquered only through legislation and policy change.
The authors use the term “adultification” to describe the phenomenon that leads to black girls being perceived as less innocent and more adultlike than their white peers.
The authors write:
Ultimately, adultification is a form of dehumanization, robbing Black children of the very essence of what makes childhood distinct from all other developmental periods: innocence. Adultification contributes to a false narrative that Black youths’ transgressions are intentional and malicious, instead of the result of immature decision-making—a key characteristic of childhood. In essence, “the adultification stereotype results in some [Black] children not being afforded the opportunity”48 to make mistakes and to learn, grow, and benefit from correction for youthful missteps to the same degree as white children.
Read the full report here (pdf).