A new report details the negative consequences suffered by black women and girls when people perceive them as older than their white peers.
Researchers at Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality reported their findings Wednesday after speaking to groups of black girls and women across the country about whether their real-life experiences reflected what the same researchers found in 2017: the “adultification” of black girls. The women and girls said they did.
That prior study, which drew headlines two years ago, found that U.S. adults believe black girls seem older than white girls of the same age, that black girls need less nurturing, support and comfort, and that young black girls know more about sex than white girls do.
“Almost all the black girls and women we talked to said they’d experienced adultification bias as children,” report co-author Jamilia Blake said in a statement. “And they overwhelmingly agreed that it led teachers and other adults to treat them more harshly and hold them to higher standards than white girls.”
The researchers spoke to nine focus groups with a total of about 50 black girls and women of varied ages and in diverse regions of the country, over a year from 2017 to 2018.
“To society, we’re not innocent. And white girls are always innocent,” one participant in the focus group aged 17-23 told researchers.
“Even when you see just in general the word ‘attitude’ being applied … it’s usually not applied to white girls,” another participant in the 20- to 29-year-old group said. “It’s applied to Black girls.”
The 2017 report grew out of findings from a 2014 study by Phillip Goff that found black boys were more likely to be viewed as older and to be suspected of crimes starting at age 10.
Choosing to focus specifically on black girls, the 2017 study found that adults saw black girls ages 5-19 as in need of less protection and support than white girls the same age, and that black girls were more independent and knew more about adult topics, including about sex.
The women in the focus groups recounted experiences that reflected how “adultification bias” appeared to be connected to their receiving more punitive treatment.
One participant, for instance, described an encounter with a police officer who didn’t believe she was 15. He handcuffed and fingerprinted her, insisting she was too old not to carry identification.
Other women spoke about being treated as having an “attitude” or as being threatening in school.
“Most times when you try to like defend yourself, they see how you’re talking back. And then, they’ll be like, ‘There’s consequences,’” one participant in the 17- to 23-year-old age group told Georgetown’s researchers. “And they’ll be like ‘Oh, so they get a detention; get a suspension.’ They always feel like you’re talking back, but you’re really not. You’re just trying to defend, like get your side across.”
Research has shown that black girls in school are over 5 times more likely to be suspended than white girls, per a 2017 report from the National Women’s Law Center using data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights from 2013-2014.
Researchers hypothesized that part of what played into the adultification of black girls were stereotypes people held about black women as the “sapphire” or “angry black woman,” or as the “jezebel” or the hypersexualized black woman ― and then would apply those to young black girls. Black women the researchers spoke to said this aligned with their experiences.
“A Black girl, if she’s right, and she wants to argue about something, she’s always labelled as, like, angry,” one participant in the 17- to 23-year-old focus group said. “I would see people like debating with teachers and they would always automatically get into trouble. Because like she has ‘attitude.’”
“In … sixth grade, … the school nurse, like, ask[ed] my aunt if I was sexually active …. And I was, like, at the time, like, what? … I didn’t know anyone that had sex,” one participant aged 20-29 said. “And it was so crazy to me. And then just thinking, like, she would never think to ask my [white] friend that.”
The study authors are asking black women and girls to share more stories on their website in an effort to build more awareness and spark change.