Fighting for Black Girlhood

A new study reveals that American adults think black girls are less innocent than white girls, among a slew of other biases differentiating black girls from their white counterparts. While the study is the first in its kind to center on black girls, it confirms a disturbing national trend of characterizing black girls as adult-like and therefore held to a different standard from their white peers, which the study has termed the “adultification” of black girls.

U.S. Air Force photo by Jerry Saslav

The study—“Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood”—was released by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality earlier this week. For the study, 325 adults from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds were asked to complete a questionnaire that was meant to measure their perceptions of either black girls or white girls. Authors Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Blake and Thalia González then used a scale of child innocence adapted from a 2014 Phillip Goff study on perceptions of black boys to find that adults carry a significant amount of biases toward black girls. A majority of the participants were white—74 percent—and female—62 percent—and 69 percent had an advanced degree.

The scope of the survey’s results are broad and troubling. The report reveals not only that black girls seem older than white girls of the same age to adults, but also that respondents believe that black girls need less nurturing, less protection, less support and less comfort than white girls. Additionally, adults see black girls as more independent than white girls, and more mature—black girls were viewed as knowing more about adult topics and sex than white girls. The most significant differences in opinions toward black and white girls spanned from the ages of five to fourteen.

This long string of biases confirms the well-established fact that black girls are disciplined differentlymeaning more harshly—than their white counterparts. The study links these views to statistics on the high rates at which black girls are disciplined: black girls are five times as likely to be suspended as white girls, and twice as likely as white boys; they are 3.7 times as likely to be referred to juvenile justice and 1.2 times as likely to be detained than white girls, and prosecutors dismiss white girls’ cases much more often than those of black girls. Although black girls only account for 16 percent of girls at school, they comprise 28 percent of referrals and 37 percent of arrests.

While a 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Education showed that black girls are suspended more than girls of any other race and most boys, it did not expand on the causes for these high rates of suspension. “Girlhood Interrupted” fills the gaps and says what has not before been officially acknowledged: prejudice and stereotype harbored against black girls causes them to be treated more harshly. The views that black girls are less innocent and older than their peers enable educators and school-based police officers to believe that black girls should be held more culpable for their actions for the same behaviors in which their white counterparts engage.

The biases against black girls that begin at such young ages can also reflect black women’s reproductive justice and the erasure of black women’s experiences. “These findings show that pervasive stereotypes of black women as hypersexualized and combative are reaching into our schools and playgrounds and helping rob black girls of the protections other children enjoy,” said Blake. Views of black girls as in need of less nurturing and comforting than their peers echoes in the lack of attention placed on mothers whose children are killed by police. Views of black girls as needing less protection perhaps reflects itself in the lack of coverage of police brutality against black women in the media. While links between police brutality, reproductive justice and violence against black women are clear, black women’s experiences often go unnoticed or erased by the media, and this study illustrates just how deeply this erasure stems.

This erasure of girlhood, rooted in racist stereotypes, led the authors to call for change. They suggest that further studies be conducted on the adultification of black girls, and that educators and law enforcement officials be trained on this adultification to be able to identify and counter their own biases.

It’s time to recognize the effects of these harmful biases against black girls and to work toward eliminating them—in our schools, in our justice system and in our society. We must fight for black girlhood and for black girls.

Maddie Kim is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a sophomore at Stanford University, where she studies English and creative writing. Her poetry and prose have been recognized by the Norman Mailer Center, Princeton University, Sierra Nevada Review and Adroit Prizes. She is a prose reader for The Adroit Journal. When she’s not writing, she likes tap dancing and taking blurry photos of her dogs. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.

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