The Adultification Bias: Short-changing Black Teens

Racism has permeated black lives in multifarious ways. Despite having abolished slavery decades ago, racial stereotypes and white supremacist behaviors continue to thrive even today right under the nose of a judicial and law enforcement system that’s supposed to check its spread.

The latest hot topic that’s been doing the rounds in the black community is the problem of adultification. Adultification is, simply put, the practice of viewing and treating ‘young black children’ as older than they actually are. It is the process of deeming black teens, especially girls, as adult-like by teachers, law enforcement, and even parents. This results in them being harsher on a black kid even as young as five as opposed to a white kid of the same age.

The 2017 report Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood, prepared by Jamilia Blake (Ph.D., a psychologist and associate professor at Texas A&M University), Rebecca Epstein (the Executive Director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality), and Thalia González (Associate Professor at Occidental College) and published by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality revealed shocking truths about society’s general perception of young black females in contrast to their white peers.

About the study

To examine adult’s perceptions of black girls’ childhood, the Georgetown scholars distributed a survey asking about 365 adults from various social backgrounds how they viewed black and white girls, without giving them any context regarding the survey whatsoever.

The results showed that adults viewed black girls as early as the age of 5 as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers and this perception reached its peak for black girls between the ages of 10 and 14 years old as they were literally considered as sexually active ‘miniature women’. The study found that adults perceived black girls as needing less nurturing, less protection, less support, and less comfort. They were also perceived as more independent and knowledgeable about adult topics and sex.

This study was primarily based on another research that found that black boys are seen as older and more culpable than their white peers. According to the report:

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.

It should be noted that when adults with authority over children’s lives’ trajectories view a black girl as mature beyond her age and ‘knowing everything’ the punitive consequences are much larger than that of white girls who are, on the other hand, considered as innocent and deserving leniency.

But why is this so? How did it all start? Who is to blame?

Let’s find out.

Looking back to the Jim Crow era and beyond – The Roots

The roots really come from racism and the legacy of slavery. Historically, black people have been dehumanized and women especially have been looked at only as sexual objects. The role that Black women and girls were expected to play, back then as slaves, is echoed even in today’s environment suggesting that this is just slavery back at it in a different avatar.

In the 1660s, Colonial American laws encouraged the “sexual tyranny” of African American slaves by slave owners (especially the African American women). Offsprings from the rape of these slaves then increased slave populations and the owners’ economic status. The 15th-century Christian missionary attitudes that berated the “sexual appetite” of Africans helped in the moral justification for their sexual oppression and exploitation by the white owners. 

Stereotypes about the sexual prowess of men and the sexual promiscuity of female African Americans exist to this day. Until slavery was abolished, African American slaves could not seek any legal help for rape. After slavery, the American legal system treated the rape of African American and White women differently. Even today African American women’s sexual assaults are not taken as seriously (as seen in R.Kelly’s case).

Besides, the African American children were not even considered as innocent children deserving of care and support but just as cash cows and commodities for their owners.

What feeds the bias? – Causes

Black women, whether young or old, have always been reduced to stereotypes like loud, sassy, hypersexual, or confrontational, i.e,  the Sapphire, the Jezebel, or the Mammy, thus essentializing black women as if there’s nothing more to them than that. White people in power who may have absolutely no direct contact or knowledge of black culture and realities get their views from such misrepresentational reality tv shows and racist caricatures which in turn drives the impact on public policies, jobs, education, and public perception.

Such stereotypes of black women serve as a contributing factor to adultification bias when they are projected onto black girls. When a Black girl’s behavior is interpreted based on these stereotypes it blurs the line between adulthood and childhood.

It must be noted that even if these kids aren’t involved in any sexual shenanigans they are basically introduced to them by their peers and the society who act as if these things are expected of them, thus kickstarting a vicious cycle of the perception trap.

Another contributing factor to the bias is socialized adultification wherein youth — particularly those in low-income families — take up adult-like roles and responsibilities to meet family needs and consequently display more maturity and resilience than their peers. They learn to behave in ways that are more adult-like than their actual developmental stage. 

Sometimes families and communities themselves train Black girls to be independent, mature, and resilient so that they can counter the structural and intersectional racism they will face. Women, in particular, teach their girls to be more adult-like so that they can thrive in spite of all the societal and structural inequities. They are expected to be strong and withstand any form of adversity. Though such expectations of strength and resilience could have a positive effect on children, when unequally applied to Black girls, it becomes the tool to justify inappropriate treatment and unfairly imposed burdens.

Also when Black girls behave maturely, adults see that as evidence that they do not need protection or nurturing. Mature behavior, therefore, hides a girl’s actual developmental stage and causes more inappropriate behaviors to happen to her. 

 The horrifying reality of today – Consequences

Black girls are suspended from schools at over 5 times the rate of white girls nationally. They are treated more punitively. Black girls are 2.7 times more likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system than their white peers. Compared to their white peers, Black girls are more likely to be trafficked at a younger age. 40% of sex trafficking victims are identified as Black women. Traffickers even believe that trafficking Black women would land them less jail time than trafficking White women if caught.

In a 2015 viral video, a South Carolina police officer was seen body-slamming a black high school student and dragging her across a classroom allegedly for using a cellphone in class. Interestingly enough, the police officer went scot-free, and Niya Kenny, the girl who recorded the confrontation, and the girl he dragged were arrested. The unnecessary excessive force used by the officer over something as silly as an adolescent being an adolescent was completely justified by the media.

In another 2015 incident, at a pool party in McKinney, Texas, the United States, a McKinney police officer, was video-recorded violently dragging and kneeling on a 15-year-old black girl wearing a swimsuit who allegedly trespassed private property. 

Another heartbreaking example is that of Cyntoia Brown-Long, a 16-year-old girl who was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of a man who sexually assaulted her. The Tennessee court instead of empathizing with her repeatedly described her as a “teen prostitute” and tried her as an adult.

What next? – The road ahead

So what can we do to curb this social stigma?

Awareness of adultification bias alone won’t be sufficient. Change can only emerge through meaningful reforms like training the authorities in cultural competency, developmentally appropriate approaches, and improved communication skills. Better communication between black girls and authorities could create room for deeper understanding and empathy. Understanding the realities of girls’ lives, and learning various cultural and community norms of students and their families could go a long way in solving the issue at least to some extent. Proper communication with Black girls can soften incidents and reduce over-discipline. 

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