In 2017, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality’s Initiative on Gender Justice and Opportunity released Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood (pdf), providing concrete data that adults typically perceive black girls, particularly those aged 5 to 14, to be more “adult-like” and less innocent than their white peers. Via responses garnered from a series of focus groups, the research team proved a type of gendered racial bias unique to black girls (previous research had already proven the same bias against black boys).
The general response from black women and girls? “Glad y’all (finally) noticed.”
In the publication of that report, it was asserted that “[a]bove all, further efforts must ensure that the voices of Black girls themselves remain front and center to the work”—though one might wonder why they couldn’t have just started there in the first place.
But on Tuesday, Georgetown made good on that promise, publishing a report on the second phase of the study, titled Listening to Black Women and Girls: Lived Experiences of Adultification Bias (pdf). This time, the focus groups were comprised of black women and girls aged 12 to over 60 (grouped with similarly aged respondents), in various towns and cities across America. And again, adultification bias was proven; this time, by those who experience it daily.
“[I]t feels a little bit like [you’re saying], ‘Uh, yeah, so we just discovered the sky is blue, and how do you guys feel about the sky being blue?’” said one of the respondents in the 30-39 age group.
To recap the study’s findings:
- Black girls routinely experience adultification bias.
- Adultification is linked to harsher treatment and higher standards for black girls in school.
- Negative stereotypes of black women are mapped onto black girls, which can lay the foundation for adultification bias.
- Adults attempt to enforce traditional white norms of femininity on black girls.
- Adultification bias can lead educators to treat black girls in developmentally inappropriate ways.
- Adults have less empathy for black girls than their white peers, who are viewed as more innocent and in need of protection and comforting.
- Socialized adultification contributes to adultification bias.
We’re resisting the urge to add, “and water is wet.”
But while the findings are similar, the key difference in this phase of Georgetown’s study is that we are hearing the voices of those most affected by adultification bias; which is crucial, because who are these findings to benefit, if not those who bear the brunt of gendered racial animus? Throughout the new report, quotes from focus group participants reinforce the data through anecdotal evidence—and for most black women, the experiences shared are sadly relatable.
- “[E]ven when you see just in general the word ‘attitude’ being applied … it’s usually not applied to white girls. It’s applied to Black girls.” (20‑29 age group)
- “[There’s] this idea that, like, punishment is the best way to respond … when Black girls … make a mistake.” (30‑39 age group)
- “[I]n so many ways we’re told to be smaller, quieter, lighter, prettier …. You see that play out in middle school a lot.” (30‑39 age group)
- “I feel like white girls—like younger white girls—I think a lot of people associate them with innocence a lot. And then Black girls don’t get the innocence that we deserve …. We’re still innocent.” (17‑23 age group)
- “Yeah, Black girls, we’re supposed to be strong, we’re supposed to take on everything.” (20‑29 age group)
- “I think that … adults, in general, need to … be reminded that Black young girls are still kids.” (13‑17 age group)
So, what now? Georgetown concludes that “We must develop and provide culturally competent, gender-responsive, and developmentally appropriate systems of support for Black girls to ensure that we provide what all children deserve and need: the freedom to make mistakes, the safety of support and understanding, and a nurturing environment.”
That sounds wonderful, but how does it translate to real life and changing the lived experiences and outcomes for black girls and women? The researchers admit that in this case, study participants weren’t optimistic that knowledge will equal power.
“You can’t stop somebody from being racist with data,” said a respondent in the 30‑39 age group. “What this will do is help me win the argument … [but that] is different than getting them to do something about the problem.”