We’ve all heard the stories (or possibly have stories ourselves) of instances of institutional and unfair treatment of women of color. Our bodies are policed, our language is policed, even our hair is policed. Labels like “loud” and “sassy” and “aggressive” are thrown at us — even when our white peers may exhibit the same behavior.
But “unruly” white women are not treated with the same judgment, condemnation, and retribution as “unruly” Black and brown women are. This pervasive unfair treatment is quantitatively worse for Black women and particularly worse for Black girls.
In America, as well as many other parts of the world, Black people are held to a different standard than white people. Unfortunately, harmful double standards extend to Black children, and especially to Black girls. Through intensive research, surveying, and analysis, experts have discovered that young Black girls are definitively proven to be viewed as fundamentally less innocent than their white female peers. Experts have dubbed this potent combination of sexism, ageism, and racism “adultification bias.”
According to the study conducted by psychology professor Jamilia Blake, Ph.D., in collaboration with the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, the phenomenon of adultification bias is defined as “teachers, law enforcement officials and even parents view[ing] black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers.”
Unsurprisingly, this pervasive bias is extraordinarily harmful and comes with far-reaching negative consequences.
The adultification bias against Black girls affects how authority figures (i.e., teachers, parents, and law enforcement) comfort, discipline, and interact with Black girls. This negative bias affects the way Black girls are punished, mentored, and consoled.
When Black girls are perceived as older than they actually are, authority figures (including law enforcement) are more likely to give them harsher punishments and withhold comfort and nurturing — both of which can snuff out potential bright futures.
Black women have come forward offering stories of derailed education and missed opportunities due to the adultification bias they faced as young girls. “Punishment was a hallmark of my educational experience,” wrote Black author A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez in The New York Times. “It started when my preschool teacher labeled me as manipulative and intentionally disruptive.”
Experts believe that adultification bias comes from deeply ingrained, often unconscious beliefs about Black women’s negative stereotypes. Stereotypes that pedal the ideas that Black women are overly confrontational (see: “loud,” “aggressive,” “sassy,” “angry”), or hypersexual (i.e., lascivious, promiscuous, overly curvaceous.)
The negative stereotypes of Black women have historical and cultural roots directly connected to the enduring legacy of slavery in the Western hemisphere. As one astute participant in Blake’s study articulated: “[Black women] got to put this in, like, historical context …. The slave trade [demanded] that Black girls be adults and hold the sexual fantasies of the master, hold the sexual fantasies of the other Black men… on the slave plantation. We had to cook; we had to clean, we had to pick the cotton… This was about commodification… of Black girls’ bodies and the way that we need to be used to make money for this country…”
The discovery of adultification bias isn’t an unproven theory, but a concept backed by hard data. In the 2015-2016 school year, Black girls represented 8% of student enrollment but made up 14% of out-of-school suspensions. In contrast, white girls made up 24% of students, but only 8% of out-of-school suspensions. And while some critics may say that this is due to Black girls “acting up” more than their white peers, this assumption is dubious at best.
In Blake’s study, Black women shared anecdotal evidence of the challenges they faced when simply interacting with teachers at school. “[T]he minute that the teacher think[s] that you’re… you’re sassing them — the minute that they think that you’re just being … rude, they just send you out the classroom,” said one teenaged Black girl from the same Georgetown Law Center study. “And they’ll send the security guards to deal with you.”
We would be remiss if we didn’t address the undeniable adultification bias that Black boys face as well, and their experiences deserve to be examined on their own terms. But Black girls face their own specific set of challenges that are worth viewing independently. “We need to understand the unique experiences of black girls and black women so we can better support and empower them,” Professor Blake explained to The New York Times.
One of the main gender-based discriminations Black girls face is the hyper-sexualization and policing of Black girls’ looks and bodies from a young age. In Blake’s study, one woman recounts a troubling interaction she had with her school nurse. “In…sixth grade…the school nurse ask[ed] my aunt if I was sexually active…And I was like, what?… I didn’t know anyone that had sex. And then just thinking she would never think to ask my [white] friend that.”
And the policing of Black girls’ bodies and speculation about their sex lives doesn’t end there. There is ample evidence that school dress codes unfairly target Black girls, especially those with curvier or more developed bodies. Evidence like this suggests that Black female bodies are somehow viewed as more dangerous than their white counterparts’ and must be suppressed for the greater good.
It’s worth noting that historical context isn’t the only motivating factor behind the adultification of Black girls. Often, socio-economic factors come into play when it comes to the perceived maturity of Black girls. It’s common knowledge that there is a correlation between race and income in the United States, with Black people statistically more likely to experience poverty than white Americans.
Seeing as poverty comes with its own set of hurdles, many Black girls and Black women believe they are forced to adapt and become more mature and “adult-like” sooner than their white peers because they often face more adversity sooner — Blake calls this “socialized adultification.” “White girls, they [have] things handed down to them,” said one participant. “They get it the easy way. So, it’s like — they don’t have to struggle the way that Black people are struggling.”
Thus, there is a vicious cycle between becoming more “mature” (i.e., independent) to survive, and subsequently being treated by adult standards by actual adults in authority positions. The entire system is set up for failure. Black women are expected to be “strong” because of the hardships we face. But once we gain that strength, we’re rejected for seeming “threatening” or too mature for our actual age.
It’s worth noting that adultification bias is a reality for Afro-Latina girls as well. Despite the repeated rhetoric in Latino communities that we’re “all the same” or “all a mix,” there is a distinct and undeniable hierarchy of skin tones in which darker skin is valued less.
Afro-Latinx communities are notorious for labeling little girls with “pelo malo” if their hair has a rougher texture. These microaggressions are sometimes manifested as favoritism, blocking young Afro Latinas from opportunities their white peers might have otherwise. And it all stems from a culture of anti-Blackness.
As for how to combat this phenomenon, experts suggest that concerned parents of Black girls should remain hyper-vigilant about the way other adults talk to and about their Black daughters. If words like “loud,” “disruptive,” and “sassy” sneak into their conversations when discussing a Black girl, understand that these descriptions could be racially motivated — whether purposefully or not.
But above all, talk to your Black daughters. Tell them they’re worth it and worthy. Tell them they are perfect the way they are. It’s conversations like these that keep little Black girls resilient in the face of anti-Blackness.