The adultification of Black girls
The results of a recently published Georgetown Law study that found Black girls experience “adultification”—or are seen as older and less innocent than their white counterparts—might be surprising to some, but certainly not to those in the Black community. While this study isn’t the first to validate the inequitable experiences of Black women or Blackness in general, this study reflects the specific experiences of Black girls.
Many black girls are familiar with being seen as more adult than our peers. Hearing comments like being told to “cover up” when I was going through puberty made me feel like I was older and more mature than my age. That perception of maturity gave me an awareness about the world that I wish I had come to a lot later in life. And I wasn’t the only one: I witnessed my friends being told these things, too. Comments like these undoubtedly contribute to the significantly higher suspension rates of Black girls compared to our white counterparts. It’s why our parents coach us from a young age on how to act like a lady and respect our elders; they know that the world stops seeing us as children long before we stop being them.
“It seems clear that when we are projecting these perceptions onto Black girls as early as age 5, that's a critical stage of development,” Rebecca Epstein, one of the authors of the Georgetown study, told NPR. “And it does last, according to our research, all the way up through high school.”
This “adultification” can’t be separated from the objectification and hyper-sexualization that has marked Black women’s presence in America since slavery. In “Black Bodies, White Bodies: Toward an Iconography of Female Sexuality in Late Nineteenth-Century Art, Medicine, and Literature,” Sander Gilman, a professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and at Emory University, argues that the presence of Black servants in 19th-century art served to sexualize the environment in which they existed and to juxtapose their purported licentiousness with the purity of the white people who surrounded them—usually white women. For example, in “The Servant,” a print created by Austrian artist Franz von Bayros, “the overt sexuality of the black child indicates the covert sexuality of the white woman,” Gilman writes. As racism became ingrained in society overall, so did these specific attitudes about black women. The Black body—and the Black woman, by default—were seen as hypersexual, and sexuality is something inextricably linked to adulthood in our society.
The adultification of Black girls is additionally exacerbated by America’s inability to let Black children just be children, and propensity to inflict violence on to them. It’s why cops confused 12-year-old Tamir Rice with an adult man before killing him and why they also perceived Tatyana Hargrove as a Black man before tackling and beating her. This adultification not only hinders Black girls’ childhoods, therefore, but reiterates the social practices that punish us more, give us less emotional support, and push us into the school-to-prison pipeline. As Epstein told NPR, “As girls are forming their view of the world and their place in it and their relationship to others, they are getting this feedback that they don't need nurturing or protection. And that's likely to very much affect their long-term outcomes, including their outlook on life as adults.”
Considering the racial and sexist climate of the world right now, if anyone needs to be supported and nurtured, to be allowed to be children and walk through life like so, it’s Black girls. So think twice the next time you want to tell a Black girl that she is “so grown!” Remember that before anything else, Black girls are just that: girls, children who need to be treated as such.
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