For the purpose of this blog today, I would like to talk about the adultification of black girls in the United States. To begin, I will offer a definition of adultification: Adultification bias is a form of racial prejudice in which children of a minority group (such as African-American girls) are treated as more mature than they actually are by a reasonable social standard of development.
Black children being seen as older has a wide range of consequences: Our children are not allowed to be children. They are expected to act more maturely, and to have a knowledge base that they may not have because they are, in fact, children. Research has shown that, in the school system, black girls are punished more often. They experience more punitive consequences because they’re not seen as innocent, and they are expected to know more, or to behave in a certain way.
It’s difficult to have this conversation in the context of the here and now without looking at our historical context. When slavery was in place in the United States, slaves were expected to behave a certain way. Children, even toddlers, were expected to work. Young girls were supposed to start having children in order to create wealth for the planters.
In the cultural context of the adultification of black girls, slavery is the foundation. These children were not considered children; they were considered nothing more than property. The consequences of this attitude continue to impact children today. In many ways, we continue to live in a rape culture, which affects black girls particularly because they are viewed as being more mature than they really are, as hypersexual and as sexual objects to be taken advantage of.
When I was a child, I remember oftentimes hearing “You look older than twelve.” When I was twelve, I was already 5’6’’; because of how black women are historically shaped, it is often perceived that we are hypersexual, and also older than we truly are. But looking at my twelve-year-old daughter, I’m definitely aware that she looks like a kid to me. She is not a young woman, she is a child. Her thought process is that of a child. Her brain development is that of a child. Her actions (say, wanting to pull out her dolls and play) are that of a child. Despite her being in puberty, I definitely recognize that she is a child.
And looking back, I was a child too. I was a child when men would look at me in a certain way that I found perplexing. I remember being told by older people, “Oh, you know what you’re doing,” when in fact I had no idea what I was doing.
This attitude has a real impact on children. We are not able to fully be children: to play, to grow, to develop, and to be seen in our innocence for who we are. I think it is important that we call the adultification of black girls out for what it is: it is sexist and it is racist. There’s no way to dress it up. The root of it is slavery and ownership of people.
Adultification is oppressive; it prevents black girls from self-actualizing in the gentle way that children should be allowed to self-actualize. It is a human right for black girls to be children, and to be able to grow and develop into who they need to be, not to be penalized for the shape of their bodies or color of their skin, which is beautiful and amazing and able to absorb the sun.
Recently, my daughter and I were at an eye appointment. She was getting an exam for her new prescription, and I was explaining to my daughter how her prescription had changed. The person who was waiting on us to fit her for her new frames said to me,“Why are you talking to her like that? She’s a grown woman.”
She clearly hadn’t looked at the chart in front of her to see that my daughter was in fact twelve years old, or asked herself why we were getting fitted for frames in the kids section. I turned her, professionally but also with anger (and I believe righteous anger) and I said to her, “She’s a kid.”
She responded, “Well, she looks like she’s twenty years old.”
I responded back to her, “She is a child, and I expect that you treat her like a child, because going forward if you treat her like anything else, we’re going to have a problem, because she needs to be encased in this gentleness that any other child would be encased in when getting fitted for her new pair of glasses.”
Black girls deserve to be seen as girls, because they are not women. They are not hypersexual. They are children with developing brains. They are immature because they’re children, and the consequence of them not being treated as children is detrimental.
Adultification does not allow our children to be children. That means that the people who care for them, who choose not to be bystanders, have to consistently defend their childhood and defend their honor as children: to be cared for and to be protected. We care for our children because they are dependent on us. We care for our black children because they are dependent on us to keep them safe in this culture. They need to be protected, because they are especially vulnerable to sexism and to racism.