Black girls perceived, often treated as older and less innocent, study finds

By Giulia Petroni
Medill Reports

In the summer of 2012, a 15-year-old black girl was arrested by police for using her student MetroCard in Harlem, New York. Officers questioned her age – they thought she was too old to use a card valid only for youths under 19 – and kept her in costudy until they got her birth certificate.

After being treated at a hospital for the damage caused by handcuffs on her wrists, Alexis Sumpter said she would have never gone to the same station again.

African-American females are perceived less innocent and more adult-like than white females, reveals the report “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood” published last year by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality.

“This is the evidence of what we call adultification,” said Thalia Gonzales, professor at Occidental College and co-author of the research.

Starting at the age of five, black girls are viewed as older than their real age, more knowledgeable about adult topics, and therefore as needing less support and nurturing than white girls. The most significant differences were found in the age brackets that encompass mid-childhood and early adolescence—ages five to nine and 10 to 14— and continued to a lesser degree in the 15- to 19-year-old age range.

The false narrative labelling certain behaviors as malicious instead of immature contributes to rob children of the very essence of childhood: innocence, said Gonzales.

Earlier research has addressed a similar issue for boys: in 2014, researcher Phillip Goff found that black boys are more likely to be mistaken as older, perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime.

But black African-American girls are also victims of what is called intersectionality. They represent a minority belonging to two categories that have historically been subject to discrimination: race and gender.

“If you’re standing in the path of multiple forms of exclusion, you’re likely to be hit by both,” said Kimberlé Crenshaw at TEDWoman 2016.

A fundamental aspect of their adultification lies in the historically-rooted paradigms painting black females as hypersexual, aggressive and boisterous – stereotypes operating at a subliminal level and deeply affecting adults’ view of Black females, said Gonzales.

Findings reveal a potential contributing factor to the disproportionate rates of punitive treatment inflicted on black girls in public systems, including education and juvenile-justice, experts said.

The study shows that, compared to white girls, African-American girls are five times more likely to be suspended, account for 28% of referrals to law enforcement and 37% of arrests, even though they make up less than 16% of the female school population.

Beyond the classroom, black girls are almost three times more likely to be referred to the
Juvenile-justice system and 20% more likely to be charged with a crime than white girls.

In Illinois, black girls are five times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers, according to a 2015 report on detention admissions at the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice.

“When juvenile court actors perceive that girls of color have inherent, negative attributes, that perception affects the decision-makers’ judgment and may even outweigh their concern about prior criminality, seriousness offense, and possibility for rehabilitation,” said Jyoti Nanda, author of “Blind Discretion: Girls of Color & Delinquency in the Juvenile Justice System.”

Different views and expectations about the upbringing of black girls deprive them of their innocence as children and potentially restrict their rights the system was designed to protect: For them, childhood suddenly becomes privilege.