‘Totally overlooked’


Study says Black girls viewed as less innocent


WASHINGTON, D.C. – A new report from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality reaffirms that being a Black girl isn’t easy.

A survey of 325 adults found that compared with young White girls, people think young Black girls need less nurturing, protection, support and comfort. They’re seen as more independent, and participants think they know more about mature topics, such as sex.

Dubbed “adultification,” it’s the notion that girls of color, especially those 5-14, are less childlike and, as a result, more likely to be assigned greater culpability for their actions.

“Our earlier research focused on adult attitudes and found that adults think Black girls as young as five need less protection and nurturing than their White peers,” said report co-author  Rebecca Epstein, who leads the Initiative on Gender, Justice & Opportunity at Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality.

Listening to the voices “Our new research elevates the voices of Black women and girls themselves, who told us that they are routinely affected by this form of discrimination.”

The Center’s original 2017 study, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” applied statistical analysis to a national study of adults on their attitudes toward Black girls.

The current survey is small, but the results are mighty – hard evidence that Black girls are seen as less innocent.

“The statistics in that report were mind-blowing. This is how society views us?” said Greta Young, 40. “We have to educate other people to get rid of this stigma. You don’t just come in the world mature and adultlike. Your situation makes you this way. If anything, our young Black girls need more nurturing than anybody else.”

As a mother of two girls – Lyric, 8, and Michaela, 19 – the Chicago-area hair salon owner expressed anger about the toll adultification has taken on Black youth.


“I do see a lot of it: younger girls having to grow up so soon. A lot of it has to deal with the household that they’re in, what they’re experiencing in the household, like becoming caretakers at a very young age. Young Black girls are treated as nonfactors in society,” she said. “They are totally overlooked.”

Biologically, humans are 99.9 percent genetically identical, yet African Americans are still seen as “other.” Recent studies on health deserts and residential segregation reveal that systemic racism shortens lives.

University of Chicago researchers found that living in an area with heavy exposure to violent crime can lead to elevated blood pressure and obesity. According to the CDC, the risk of pregnancy-related deaths is 3 to 4 times higher for Black women.

The new report’s authors say their findings reveal a potential contributing factor to the disproportionate rates of punitive treatment in the education and juvenile justice systems for this population.

Call for action

“I think that it is nice that the report is trying to put extra special focus on the plight of African American girls, and that they are circulating a call for action,” said Alvin Tillery Jr., director of Northwestern University’s Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy.

“In some ways, it seems like they are trying to match the special emphasis that some think tanks and foundations have put on the plight of African American boys, and that is a good thing.”

Aria Halliday, assistant professor of Women’s Studies at the University of New Hampshire, applauds the new research for connecting the dots between implicit bias and the way Black girls are criminalized in public systems.

“We know things have been happening in the news and in the media, but to have Georgetown Law stamp this idea and say, ‘Yes, this is something that we studied and we know it to be true’? Unpacking that is important because the policy becomes ammunition when you walk into a room,” she said.

Paying attention

Black and Latinx boys have been in the educational spotlight as of late, Halliday pointed out, but she believes it’s time for girls to get some attention. After all, their plights are similar.

Jessica Davenport-Williams, co-founder of Black Girls Break Bread, a Chicago-based organization focused on social/emotional wellness programming for Black women and girls, agrees.

“We always see the boys and the gun violence and the killings that we see taking place in Chicago, but there’s this underlying epidemic that is happening for Black women and girls,” she said. “We’re either hyper-visible or invisible – there really is no in between.”

She and her fellow co-founders hope to change that narrative and show that the mental and physical well-being of Black females, no matter what the age, needs to be nurtured.

“We need to have some attention,” she said. “We need to understand the gravity of what’s happening to our young girls.”

Training is necessary

When asked for suggestions to help overcome adultification bias against Black girls, focus group participants said they hoped that the awareness raised by the Center’s research would lead to meaningful action to decrease this bias, and emphasized that targeted training for teachers and other authority figures would be most effective in helping them overcome their biases.

Nationally, Black girls are suspended more than five times as often White girls, and Black girls are 2.7 times more likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system than their White peers.

Need protection

“As teenagers, we still need to be protected,” said one study participant (age group 13-17). “[W]e go to school and … we still should be cared for … And it doesn’t matter if we’re … Black.”

To continue to demonstrate the widespread impact of adultification bias on Black girls and to build the case for effective interventions, the Center is asking Black women and girls to share their stories at their new storytelling portal, www.EndAdultificationBias.org.

Darcel Rockett of the Chicago Tribune / TNS contributed to this report.



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