Adults Perceive Black Girls as ‘Less Innocent’ than White Girls: Georgetown Study

Black girls are perceived as stoic, in need of less nurturing and knowing more about sexual relations than white girls, according to the results of a new study. 

Detailed in the report “Girl Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” published by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality on Tuesday, the study found that adults view Black girls as more adult-like than their white peers, especially in the age range of 5–14.

The authors of the report are Rebecca Epstein, the executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality; Jamilia J. Blake, associate professor at Texas A&M University; and Thalia González, associate professor at Occidental College.

“What we found is that adults see Black girls as less innocent and less in need of protection as white girls of the same age,” said Epstein, the lead author.

“This new evidence of what we call the ‘adultification’ of Black girls may help explain why Black girls in America are disciplined much more often and more severely than white girls — across our schools and in our juvenile justice system.”

For the study, a total of 325 adults from across the country were recruited through an online service. Participants were predominantly white (74 percent), 51 and female (62 percent). Thirty-nine percent were 25–34 years old.

“Information regarding respondents’ occupations was not assessed, but sixty-nine percent held a degree beyond a high school diploma,” state the authors.

They were not informed of the survey’s purpose but were asked to complete a nine-item questionnaire online about their perceptions of the current development of young girls.

Questions included:

  • How often do Black [or white] females take on adult responsibilities?
  • How much do Black [or white] females seem older than their age?
  • How much do Black [or white] females need to be supported?
  • How much do Black [or white] females need to be comforted?
  • How independent are Black [or white] females?
  • How knowledgeable are Black [or white] females about sex?

The periods of childhood and adolescence were divided into four age brackets: 0–4, 5–9, 10–14 and 15–19 years old.

Across all age ranges, participants had an implicit bias against Black girls, collectively viewing them as more adult-like than white girls.

Survey participants perceived that Black girls in the following ways:

  • Need less nurturing
  • Need to be supported less
  • Need to be comforted less
  • Need less protection
  • Are more independent
  • Know more about adult topics
  • Know more about sex

Origins of the Implicit Bias and Effect on Black Girls

The report cites prior research on the origins of historical stereotypes about Black women, which have “real-life consequences for Black girls today.”

In the South during the period of slavery, “three dominant paradigms of Black femininity that originated have persisted into present-day culture, which ‘paint Black females as hypersexual, boisterous, aggressive, and unscrupulous’”:

  • Sapphire (e.g., emasculating, loud, aggressive, angry, stubborn, and unfeminine)
  • Jezebel (e.g., hypersexualized, seductive and exploiter of men’s weaknesses)
  • Mammy (e.g., self-sacrificing, nurturing, loving, asexual).

The “adultification” of Black girls definitely influences how they are treated in the education and juvenile justice systems.

“In light of proven disparities in school discipline, we suggest that the perception of Black girls as less innocent may contribute to harsher punishment by educators and school resource officers,” the authors state in the report.

In the past few years, there have been incidents that garnered national attention, validating the findings of “Girl Interrupted” and other studies on the racial bias.

Richland, S.C., Senior Deputy Ben Fields was fired following the violent arrest of a young Black teen in 2015.

The South Carolina Deputy was fired Wednesday morning after his attack on a 16-year-old Black female.

The 16-year-old student refused to put her cellphone away when asked by her teacher at Spring Valley High School in Columbia. She was then asked to leave the classroom and refused a second time, saying she did nothing wrong. Not only did Fields flip the girl over while she was still sitting in her desk, he dragged her out of her chair across the room and pinned her to the ground.

The student identified by her first name, Shakara, and Niya Kenny, an 18-year-old classmate who caught the incident on video, were arrested and eventually released. They were charged with a misdemeanor of “disturbing school.”

After FBI and State Law Enforcement Division investigations, it was determined in September that neither Fields nor the two students would be prosecuted.

Also in 2015, a video showing the police response to an incident at a private community pool in McKinney, Texas, went viral. It showed an officer assaulting a 15-year-old Black girl.

Video capturing a police officer roughly abusing and arresting a teenage girl illustrates the disturbing way in which Black youth are routinely viewed as older and less innocent than white counterparts.

Eric Casebolt chased kids, shouted expletives and barked orders almost exclusively to Black teens. He eventually confronted Dajerria Becton, 15, who he forcibly shoved to the ground:

Casebolt resigned from his position, but a grand jury decided in 2016 not to bring criminal charges against him. Becton filed a federal suit against the former cop, the city and the police department in December.

Solutions

With “Girl Interupted,” Epstein, Blake and González challenge researchers to initiate new studies to investigate the degree and prevalence of the adultification of Black girls, “as well as its possible causal connection with negative outcomes across a diverse range of public systems, including education, juvenile justice, and child welfare.”

The National Domestic Workers Alliance’s recently released the report “The Status of Black Women in the United States,” which includes data that illustrates implicit bias against Black girls follows them into adulthood.

For example, in 2014, Black women ages 18-19 were four times as likely among young women to be imprisoned as white women of the same age (32 per 100,000 compared with 8 per 100,000).

The authors of “Girl Interrupted” urge legislators, policymakers and advocates to further look into and create reform for the disparities that exist for Black girls in the education and juvenile justice systems.

They recommend training on adultification for individuals who have authority over children — including teachers and law enforcement officials — to “counteract this manifestation of implicit bias against Black girls.”

But most importantly, the researchers state, “the voices of Black girls themselves remain front and center to the work.”

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