The War Against Black Girls: Addressing the adultification bias
By Tonjie Reese
May 27, 2021
There is a right of passage Black women go through before reaching adulthood – we realize that people may treat us like we’re twice our ages. Even before reaching adulthood, we’re aware that we have to be more responsible than other kids, and there will be times where we have to prove our innocence. For many of us, we were very young when we learned to fight, escape, and protect ourselves. Growing up, my loved ones prepared me for any and every adversity they thought I might face – even the ones they created. They knew, and I later learned, about the war against Black girls. Being a Black girl in this world meant people would make assumptions about me, and those assumptions may lead to harm. Surely, if I fought hard enough and did “the right thing”, I would be safe. I remember learning lessons about presenting myself as brave but also modest, defending myself against catcalling men at gas stations, being polite to people on the street, wearing clothes that didn’t hug my new curves too tight, and most importantly the value of doing good in school. I learned to use my words, my body, my mind, and my love as both a weapon and shield. Sometimes my protection worked, other times it left me facing the harm I tried so hard to fight against.
The intersection of racism and sexism, or misogynoir, impacts the health and wellness of Black girls and women. There is a long history of violence against Black girls and women without fanfare or consequence. During legal enslavement, Black women were raped, beaten, and expected to be wet nurses. There was little autonomy over their bodies, and objectification was expected. Black women are more likely to experience sexual violence, abuse in their relationships, and be killed by a partner. One in four Black girls will experience sexual abuse before the age of 18. Common archetypes like Mammy, Sapphire, and Jezebel perpetuate stereotypes about Black girls and women in the media, portraying us as angry, manly, overweight, overly sexual, or asexual caregivers. These messages force us to constantly fight against them or succumb to what is expected and enforce the idea that Black women and girls can handle abuse and are unrapable. These messages allow state sanctioned violence against Black girls and women to go unchecked.
At times, the glaring threat of harm is unavoidable, even when our life is in danger. Consider Ma’khia Bryant’s story. She was a teen girl, with a bright smile who enjoyed making hair videos on TikTok. While fearing for her safety, she called the police, only to be shot in the chest four times when they arrived. When it was learned that Ma’khia had a knife, people justified her death. She was not seen as a victim or in need of protection, only a threat. Stereotypes about Black women pour over to Black girls, creating an adultification bias. News headlines framed her as aggressive, referred to her as a woman instead of a girl, and completely ignored the intersecting oppression she was facing prior to calling the police.
According to a study by Georgetown Law Center for Poverty and Inequality, Black girls are perceived as being more responsible for their actions, aggressive, angry, and more knowledgable about sex. This over sexualization can create distorted images of self and others. By simply existing and growing, there is a chance that Black girls will be considered “fast” or promiscuous. There is pressure to be “thick”, be exemplary in school, and make more mature choices than other young people. For Black girls who are non-binary or trans, there is an increased chance they will face discrimination and violence. In school, a common leverage point for Black girls, they receive harsher punishments and are five times more likely to be suspended than their white classmates. This adultification bias can make school unsafe, and Black girls may find safety through unhealthy means. The overlapping risk factors for relationship abuse and sexual violence can become pipelines to prison. Girls of color account for approximately 22% of the general youth population, but comprise approximately 66% of girls who are incarcerated. Once in confinement, there is an increased possibility of experiencing sexual violence or relationship abuse. Where can Black girls truly go and feel safe?
In a world where Black girls are being arrested at six, dragged out of school desks, and brutalized in their neighborhoods, space for joy is a life line. The pressure of being seen as more adult takes away the ability to experience innocence. By dismantling harmful stereotypes and allowing room for identity affirmation, Black girls can feel a sense of belonging, safety, and acceptance. Identity affirmation can increase personal agency and confidence, protective factors against relationship abuse and sexual violence. However, even if Black girls have everything they need to feel free, it will not be achieved without community. The war against Black girls will only end when there is social liberation. Releasing societal pressures, eliminating ”zero tolerance” policies in school, community building, and trauma-informed care is our path to freedom. Along that path is developing authentic relationships with organizations that support Black girls and providing support for girls in the juvenile justice system. When we provide opportunities for safety, the war will recede.
With a community effort we can create a safer world for Black girls, one where they are treated like children and not judged as adults. Fanie Lou Hamer tells us that “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Black girls deserve to be free. Black girls deserve the opportunity to dream and hope for a better future. It’s our responsibility to protect them and restore the innocence that is constantly being taken away. When given opportunities to be children, and be treated like children, Black girls are at less risk for incarceration, relationship abuse, and sexual violence. They are able to explore and play, without worrying about undue consequences. Black girls are fighting a war and won’t see freedom until the adultification bias is addressed.