Research has already shown that black girls are seen by adults as less childlike than white girls. This phenomenon, known as “adultification,” was first documented two years ago by researchers at Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality. Now, a followup study reveals that, not surprisingly, black girls and women sharply feel the impact of “adultification.” As one study participant put it, “[T]o society, we’re not innocent. And white girls are always innocent.”
In an earlier 2017 study, Georgetown Law researchers found that black girls, even those as young as 5 years old, were seen by adults as less needing of comfort, nurturing, protection, and support than white girls. The researchers also found that black girls were perceived as more independent and knowledgeable about sex. In this latest study, researchers set out to understand how black girls and women experienced this “adultification” through a series of national focus groups.
They found a near-universal impact. “Almost all the black girls and women we talked to said they’d experienced adultification bias as children,” said co-author Jamilia Blake. “And they overwhelmingly agreed that it led teachers and other adults to treat them more harshly and hold them to higher standards than white girls.”
In the classroom, participants reported feeling that teachers often overreacted, perhaps driven by stereotypes of black girls as “loud, aggressive, and angry,” as the study puts it. One participant said, “They always feel like you’re talking back, but you’re really not. You’re just trying to defend, like get your side across.” The researchers highlight that black girls in the United States are suspended five times as often as white girls and are nearly three times as likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system. Blake argues that “adultification bias is a major contributor to these disciplinary disparities.”
Participants also described experiences where adults assumed that they were sexually active, which researchers tied to the “caricature of the ‘Jezebel,’ which portrays Black women as promiscuous.” Again, this often showed up at school. One woman told the researchers that in sixth grade the school nurse asked about whether she was sexually active. “And I was, like, at the time, like, what? Like, what? Nobody has sex. Like, I didn’t know anyone that had sex. And it was so crazy to me. And then just thinking, like, she would never think to ask my [white] friend that.”
When these girls and women were ultimately asked to propose some solutions for the adultification that they had experienced, some mentioned the possibility of training teachers in particular to recognize and address their bias. But many had low hopes for the real-world impact of a study like this. As one participant put it, “You can’t stop somebody from being racist with data.”