How to protect black girls in America: Experts weigh in
Over the summer, researchers at the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality published a study that offered proof of a phenomenon in American black communities that has existed since slavery: By being perceived as more mature, black girls fall victim to what researchers are calling a “perception trap,” and are treated negatively as a result.
While the study, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhoods,” revealed many things that black women—especially mothers—already knew, it also offers the possibility of opening eyes and minds in white America to the loss of innocence that black girls have experienced as a result of this perception trap.
With this new information, I wanted to figure out what people can do to actually start changing this damaging view of black girls, so I spoke to some experts to find solutions. These experts—Lieutenant Tamara F. McCollough of the Indiana State University Police Department, forensic nurse Angela Bates of Indiana University Health in Indianapolis, and school psychologist Jeni Vandenbergh of the Rolling Prairie School District in Rolling Prairie, Indiana—work with black girls from the age of 5 to adulthood. Two of them are also raising black girls of their own.
The women’s answers fell into three major areas: empowerment, protection, and ending the silence.
Empowering our girls
The Georgetown researchers found that black girls are perceived as sexually mature from the age of 5. Once they are seen this way, the girls are assigned characteristics and subjected to stereotypes normally placed on adult black women. Negative views of girls—such as having “loose morals” or being aggressive or unscrupulous—are a result. Such made-up traits come out of slavery, some scholars argue. The transference of these imagined features of women to girls is due to what author Monique W. Morris calls “age compression.” Morris is quoted in the report that as saying that this compression “renders Black girls just as vulnerable to these aspersive representations.”
The too early perceived maturity of black girls works against them when they are punished or accused of wrongdoing. In fact, black girls are five times more likely to be suspended as white girls, and twice as likely to be suspended as white boys, according to the study. Also, black girls are nearly three times as likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system as white girls. Too many punitive measures wear on the girls’ self-confidence, making them see their own worth in an unhealthy way. Low confidence then continues to feed the perception trap as girls grow into adulthood.
McCollough says one way to help heal this rupture in childhood is to empower these girls. “We can start by helping black girls see that they are unique and there is nothing wrong with them,” she says. “We can also start by empowering black girls to be comfortable in their own skin.” By building up their confidence, girls can begin to see their own value.
Telling young black girls that they are beautiful, smart, and worthy can go a long way in building their self-worth. Such simple, free gestures can have a powerful impact.
Protecting our girls
The “Girlhood Interrupted” study also found that once the girls are perceived as older than their real age, they are deemed untrustworthy, loud, angry, and deceitful. This leads to girls being punished in school and in the juvenile court system for crimes they did not commit. It also leads to harsher sentences because the girls are deemed more mature and thus more likely to have committed an intentional crime. The perception culminates in the belief that black girls need less protection and nurturing than their white peers. They are considered less innocent, which forces a 5-year-old to grow up fast—and long before her white girl peers do.
As a forensic nurse who assists police in evidence collection in crimes, Bates often sees girls who are in danger. “This study does not shock me,” she says. “It is disheartening that these perceptions still exist and knowing that my daughters have to deal with being expected to navigate life in a mature fashion when they aren’t given the time to even develop.”
The desire to help victims, as well as the need to protect her own daughters, has Bates looking toward keeping all black girls safe.
She suggests that adults must become actively involved in young girls’ lives. “Adults should be aware of society’s perceptions of their children, proactively create (and display) healthy conflict resolution skills, and consistently provide positive reinforcement where applicable,” she says. Adults can step in during conflicts, too—they can help the girls learn how to solve their fights constructively. Adults can be role models for children’s behavior.
These tools can help black girls navigate away from the perception trap or work their way out of it. If adults remain vigilant, someone can intervene before the girl gets a record or becomes the victim of a predator.
Ending the silence
The Georgetown study emphasized the fact that teachers and officials who perpetuate the perception trap do so without even realizing. Bates is adamant about the importance of breaking the silence around what is happening to these children. “We can start by shedding light on this issue to help bolster change for the better,” she says. “We should also speak out against instances of over-sexualization. We can protect [girls] by educating others. Some people may not realize that they are subjecting black girls to such disparities.”
As a psychologist, Vandenbergh views the solution as top-down education that will not only protect black girls but rid the system of the implicit bias and institutionalized racism that feeds the perception trap. She advocates training for educators and police officers, social welfare officers, and Child Protection Services workers so they can begin to work together on dismantling this bias. “As a society, I think it is imperative that we acknowledge how greatly implicit biases impact our interactions with others—and the long-lasting and far-reaching impact these interactions have on the recipients of our biases,” she says.
Ask any black mother about this perception trap, and they will sadly nod before starting to tell a story of their own. The black girl in the story could be the mother herself, or the girl she is raising—or maybe even a girl unrelated to her that she witnessed falling into the perception trap. I have a few stories of my own, too.
No matter how we are connected to black girls, there are ways that we can protect them and begin to unravel the trap adults have made for them. By empowering these girls, protecting them, and speaking out against the issue, we can help produce a generation of black women who made it through their childhood with their innocence intact and with bright ideas for the future.
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