Black Girls Are Perceived As 'Less Innocent' Than Their White Peers, And This Is Bullsh*t

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Liderina / iStock

In the last few years, the societal bias against young black boys has been discussed and examined and well-defined, especially after the murder of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014 at the hands of a police officer. Rice was playing with a toy gun at a playground when he was fatally shot in broad daylight.

That same year, a study was released stating that young black boys are often perceived as older and less innocent than their white peers. Because black boys and men are overwhelmingly the targets of white supremacists and violence, they are typically (and understandably) in the forefront of research examining racial biases, and the harm that stems from those internalized stereotypes.

However, a similar study was recently released, showing that the systemic racism that targets young black boys is also a problem for young black girls. They are facing many of the same prejudices and biases that their male counterparts are subjected to, but even fewer people are talking about it.

The study, “Girl Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” was conducted and released by Georgetown Law’s Center for Poverty and Inequality. The crux of the study shows that adults often perceive black girls as older and less innocent than their white peers, starting as young as age 5. Yes, you read that right: 5 years old.

Because of these perceptions, black girls experience an “adultification” that white girls don’t. They are seen as more independent and knowledgeable of adult topics, especially sex. As a result, adults assume that young black girls don’t need the same amount of protection, nurturing, comfort, and support as young white girls. This study falls in line with the 2014 research about black boys.

In the study, 325 adults of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds whose ratios echo the country’s population were interviewed. Many, but not all of the people who participated, held a high school diploma or higher. The biggest differences in perceptions of how girls are seen happened between the ages of 5–9 and 10–14. The differences weren’t as stark in the 15–19 age bracket, but by then it is often too late anyway. The stigma has (very unfortunately) already stuck.

The authors of the findings, Rebecca Epstein, who was the lead author and executive director of the center, and Jamila J. Blake, who is co-author and a professor at Texas A&M University, did a conference call with the media to discuss their findings and how these findings desperately need to be a springboard for changing the dialogue surrounding and treatment of young black girls, especially in school settings.

The data makes clear that the “adultification” of young black girls is really just adults perceiving them to be more similar to black women. “Black women have historically and currently been seen as being aggressive, loud, defiant and oversexualized. And I believe, along with many other researchers, that the stereotypes of black women are being mapped on to black girls,” Blake explained.

This finding is also supported by the higher numbers of black girls who are harshly disciplined in a school setting. As of right now, black girls are 5 times more likely than white girls, and 2 times as likely as white boys, to be suspended from school. Pretty astounding, especially if you apply these conclusions to the fact that black girls only take up (approximately) 16% of the school population.

In these cases, they are also referred to law enforcement 28% of the time and getting arrested 30% of the time. They are also 20% more likely to be charged with a crime. With odds like those, how is it even possible to succeed? It also doesn’t help that many teachers are white and may inherently pass their negative perceptions and implicit biases on to the children that they teach.

Blake pointed out that these biases and perceptions really get in the way of how black girls will move through the system. “There’s kind of this social stereotype and of course there’s something about being resilient, being independent, but when this stereotype is put on girls at a very young age, it really robs them, whether they realize it or not, of this kind of naiveté of being a child.” Basically, if you treat children like adults and hold them to the same standard as adults, you cannot be surprised or unnerved when those same children turn around and do something adults perceive as not childlike, because they don’t know what it is like to be a child. In these situations, they can’t win.

When I, a black woman, shared the results of this study with my own group of friends, I was asked how those who hold the unconscious biases could begin the process of changing themselves, and on a greater scale, the system that has been stacked against people of color. Talking about the racial disparities black children face in school is obviously the first step, but we also have to get comfortable, and confident, calling out prejudice when we see it. Sometimes, that means checking ourselves as well. Schools also need to make a conscious effort to hire more teachers of color who will create a safer space for black children.

For white teachers, especially white teachers who come from backgrounds with limited interaction with black people, it is easy to absorb the implicit biases against black people and project those biases onto children. Talking about this vitally important issue on a large scale will help get the process started. You can’t simply talk about systemic racism in groups of similar company, you must consider the perspectives and lived experiences of people who are actually confronted with this reality — who actually live through the experiences that this current research is trying to amplify.

“We encourage black girls to raise their voices about this issue and, of course, for adults to listen to them. All black girls are entitled to and deserve equal treatment, including equal access to the protections that are appropriate for children,” Epstein said.

It’s true. Just listen, and let them speak. Let them be children. Treat them like children. And that starts with parting the curtain of your biases and truly seeing them as the innocent children that they are.