According to a new study released Tuesday from the Georgetown University Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, adults view black girls, especially those between the ages of five and 14, as less innocent and needing less protection than their white peers.
The report, titled "Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls' Childhood," is the first of its kind to look at adult perceptions of black girls. It builds on 2014 research that found that black boys as young as 10 are considered more adult-like and perceived as guilty compared to their white counterparts. This phenomenon, called adultification, essentially robs black children of their innocence. "Ultimately," the study's authors write, "adultification is a form of dehumanization."
Researchers surveyed 325 adults of varying ethnic, racial, and educational backgrounds and asked them to share their opinions on children's development in the 21st century. Among the list of questions, participants were asked how much older they thought black or white girls appeared than their age, how much they thought black or white girls needed to be supported, and how knowledgeable they thought black or white girls were about sex. The survey was broken down by age brackets: Zero to four, five to nine, 10 to 14, and 15 to 19 years old.
Overall, the survey's respondents thought black girls were more adult than their white peers. They also said that black girls as young as five years old needed less protection and support, and were more knowledgeable about adult topics, such as sex.
The implications of these misguided notions are far-reaching, and could help explain why black girls are treated differently from white girls in both the school and judicial system. (Not only are girls of color five times more likely to be suspended than white girls, but they're also almost three times as likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system.) "Simply put," the study's authors note, "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."
Rebecca Epstein is the executive director of Georgetown Law's Center on Poverty and Inequality and lead author of the report. She says the research was inspired by the desire to create change. "Girls—especially black girls—are often invisible in research," she tells Broadly. "Even though the statistics are clear that black girls are treated more harshly in our schools and juvenile justice systems, there is precious little research measuring the root cause of those differences. If we don't know the causes, we can't effectively create change."
A particularly disturbing example of this harsh treatment, as highlighted by the study, infamously occurred during a pool party in McKinney, Texas, two years ago. Video shows a 14-year-old black girl in a swimsuit being violently yanked by the arm and forced head-down into the grass by a white police officer, Eric Casebolt, who later resigned. The officer also sat on top of the teen as she cried out for her mother.
Girls—especially black girls—are often invisible in research.
At the time, journalist Zeba Blay wrote, "Black female bodies have long been sites of trauma, carrying not only the weight of the past, but present stereotypes that dehumanize and sexualize young girls before they even hit puberty. Casebolt did not think he was restraining a helpless teenaged girl, but a 'black woman,' with all the stereotypes and stigma that includes. This, it seems, was justification enough for her treatment."
Among their findings, Epstein says they were particularly surprised to discover adultification was affecting black girls as young as five. "That means that teachers might be looking at black girls in kindergarten as needing less nurturing and less protection than white girls in their class," she says. "These results are unacceptable and a wake-up call for change."
That's why, she says, it's up to leaders to instill new policies and practices to address the adultification of black girls. "Even though it might seem overwhelming," she says, "we all need to take steps to overcome this form of bias toward black girls. Awareness and education is an important start, but we need more."