Female student in cap and gown

The invisibility of the adultification bias: why are black girls hidden in the real world?

  • In a personal account, Man Met sociology alumni Renae DaCosta reflects on the bias young black girls face in education and society

When you think about black girls, what comes to mind? What is it about black girls that allows them to be overlooked and discriminated? Why aren’t they as carefree as everyone makes them out to be?

Undeniably, black girls are treated less favourably. Many people are unaware of the challenges and real-life consequences black women face, more specifically young black girls growing up to become black women in a society that judges them.

There are common stereotypes assigned to black girls, following them throughout their life journey and not allowing them the decency, freedom, and courage to feel they can be vulnerable at the times in which they may need and want to the most.

Black feminists have been and are still demanding that the existence of racism is acknowledged as a structuring feature of our relationships with white women. This evokes the reality that racism is at the heart of the beliefs that black girls are not worthy and unprotected. But why doesn’t this happen to white girls as much as it does black girls? Surely, they should be protected on the same level? I wanted to make sense of this, to give space to answer these questions.

Ask yourself what you are currently doing to amplify the voices of Black women. Consider how you are using your privilege, access, and opportunity to uproot misogynoir any time it rears its ugly head.

What is adultification?

There is a misconception that black girls act or be older than their actual age, which denies black girls their innocence due to the ‘adultification bias’. Black girls are likened more to adults than to children and are treated as if they wilfully engage in behaviour typically expected of Black women. This is far from a new problem, but a generational and worldwide problem.  It has stripped Black girls of their childhood freedoms and renders Black girlhood interchangeable with Black womanhood.

 Adultification stems from such stereotypes, fixating on why black girls are treated differently, having a deeply harmful impact on them in society.  A question and answer undertaken with Jahnine Davis gave a closer understanding of adultification.

Her definition is “where children are perceived as being more adult-like, and where they are seen through a lens of deviancy and not necessarily acknowledged as deserving victims, and where their innocence and vulnerability are erased over time.”

In 2017,  Georgetown Law Center released a report suggesting a contributing cause for adultification amongst black girls. Young black girls from the early age of five are viewed as more adult like and less innocent, and do not experience the same leniency compared with white girls of the same age. If children are not seen as children, how are they enabled the right to be innocent and live freely if systems view them as adults?

The consequences of adultification for black girls

The voices of black girls are often silenced and made to feel invisible. Take the case of  child Q, a black schoolgirl who was strip searched by Metropolitan Police. It was known that she was having her period and was still made to remove her clothing, underwear, and a sanitary pad, spread her buttocks and cough because she ‘apparently’ smelt of cannabis.

No child of any race or gender should go through this. Unfortunately, many are not surprised that this awful incident took place, and say it is part of a wider pattern of Black children in the UK being treated in a dehumanizing way. This incident traumatised her.

It will never make sense why being a black woman equates to struggle. Jahnine Davis says: “Black girls tend to be met with suspicion.  They tend to be perceived as being loud, aggressive, and hyper-resilient.

To explore the adultification of black girls, we must look at their history, which is rooted in slavery and colonialism. This is all deep rooted, where racialised gendered expectations lead to black girls feeling weaker than their white counterparts.

The disparities facing Black girls are largely unrecognized in the mainstream discourse about punitive policies in education. Efforts to confront the challenge of ensuring fair opportunities for Black girls in school remain underdeveloped. This heightens their risk of underachievement and detachment from schools, with lifelong consequences.

Within the criminal justice system, black women are poorly represented and face harsher problems because of oppression, gender inequality and racism. The hashtag #SayHerName created in 2014 highlighted misogynoir and how stories of Black women and girls often go overlooked, unnoticed and untold. These experiences range from police violence to sexual assault and often go unreported.

Misogynoir describes “specific hatred, dislike, distrust, and prejudice directed toward Black women”. The dislike for black women is evident as they are more likely to face harsher treatment in the system. For example, black girls receive more severe sentences when they enter the juvenile justice system than any other group of girls, and are the fastest growing population in the system . In contrast to their male counterparts, there is little research highlighting the short- and long-term effects of over discipline and push-out on girls of colour.

Time for change

Being a young black girl, I relate to adultification. I have been called aggressive- and  loud, and am expected to know a lot more because I am black. I always saw the divide,  especially among  my peers in a school setting. It was always black girls being labelled as a “gang” or racially targeted. I knew I would end up in trouble for simply being myself with my friends. However, growing up that was the norm. Even though it shouldn’t be considered normal,  the belief that black girls are angry frustrates me because society makes us that way. It’s like they want a reaction out of us.

“If my silence could speak it would tell tales of exhaustion and pain,

Tell tales of being always stuck on ‘miss a turn’ whilst everyone else plays the game.

It would tell you how this world tells Black people we don’t matter until we’re martyrs.

It would tell you the reasons I am valid as a Black woman – scratch that – reasons I am worthy as a Black woman”

The above poem by Simone Yasmin demonstrates the humanisation of blackness, uncovering the silences of not just black women, but black people.

I’m on a new journey, my self-love journey, focusing on my independence as a young, free black woman. Reading affirmations, poems and listening to music are my go-to for peace of mind. The opinions of others could never define me. We must stop living up to what people think and start living the life we want. Being 21 years of age. Nothing can hold me down. Young, free, and ready to take the world on.