I will never forget the time that I was suspended from school for two days because my substitute teacher assumed the worst of me.
Her name was Ms. Perkins, and I called her “Ms. P.” Instead of giving me the benefit of the doubt, she decided my intention was to make fun of her name and embarrass her. I was just thinking of an abbreviation. But as a Black girl, I was perceived as less innocent than some of my peers, therefore I must have intended to insult her.
That night, I remember being punished by my mother. But the punishment was not based on my intention to insult the teacher. The punishment was for forgetting that teachers would assume the worst of me regardless of my intent.
Years later, I talked with my mom about the incident. She reassured me it was never about what the teacher said about me. It was about me deciding to let my guard down and think I could get away with “typical” early-stage curiosity and playfulness.
In the years that followed, I learned to shape-shift and blend in with the students around me. But it came at a steep price — a loss of interest in school, and the loss of my originality and authenticity.
But like many Black girls, that seemed to be a small price to pay in hopes of avoiding a run-in with the school, or worse, the criminal justice system.
The truth is, Black girlhood is impacted by others’ perceptions of who we are. New research from the Initiative on Gender Justice and Opportunity at Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality is adding to an increasing body of data that explores Black girlhood and addressing just that.
The report, entitled “Listening to Black Women and Girls: Lived Experiences of Adultification Bias,” is a continuation of a previous report that explored the ways Black girls are seen as less innocent than their white peers, and the ways that perception affects their everyday experiences.
As a Black woman, who was once a Black girl, I’m well aware of the ways perceptions of our innocence (or rather, perceived lack thereof) leaves a mark across our lifetimes. I often reflect on what it was like growing up Black and female in a school system that assumed the worst of me.
It’s well documented that Black girls are at least 5 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers — a direct result of the lies attached to Black girlhood — and this has clear consequences on our opportunity for positive educational experiences.
My curiosity and sense of independence led many teachers, like Mrs. Perkins, to assume the worst of me. At one point, being misunderstood was so common I started to doubt myself and question whether I was even aware of my own intentions.
Still, it’s so much more than others’ perceptions of us — it’s the way those beliefs about who we are cause us to miss out on important educational, developmental, and social experiences.
The negative assumptions imposed on Black girls in our early years plant the seeds that make it socially acceptable for Black teens and pre-teens to be tased or body slammed by law enforcement on school property.
Those early beliefs contribute to lies about Black potential for success, and encourage white women who believe it’s acceptable to call the police on a Black girl taking a nap at a prestigious university — because it’s impossible for a Black girl to be driven enough to belong, right?
However, the impact of the adultification of Black girls starts long before we’re showing our IDs to prove we belong in historically-white circles. It’s first seen when older men look at us and lick their lips while we hoola hoop in shorts during the summer, while in the same breath, we’re punished for being “fast” despite possibly not even knowing what sex is.
It means being sought after by people who are much older than you, but being too afraid to tell anyone that you’re uncomfortable because they assume you wanted the attention anyway and deserve punishment.
Instead of society condemning the man looking our way, they enact dress code policies that hand out infractions because your shorts didn’t go down to your kneecaps. Of course, it’s your fault you were born with hips and thighs. Had you been skinny, there wouldn’t have been consequences.
Growing up female and Black translates to not being able to make many of the hallmark mistakes that your male or white peers make — those same mistakes that experts tell us are so instrumental to growing up to be an independent and resilient adult.
It means you can’t look off into the distance as an authority figure speaks to you or you’re being insolent. It means you don’t have the freedom to have a bad day since they lead to judgments about your overall character. It means you can’t giggle too loud when you’re a Black girl. Because joy and Blackness are signs of concern for a world founded on white supremacy — so you must be prepared to suffer the consequences.
You can’t be too quiet in class, or folks will assume you’re sneaky or disengaged from learning. You can’t be too engaged either, or your questions will be perceived as challenges to one’s authority.
This is far from a comprehensive list. But many of them are from my own memories.
The world around us says Black youth are motivated by corruption and lawlessness. And many folks sit by as our nation passes dog whistle policies that reiterate that perception of lawlessness.
The way society interacts with young Black girls seems to come from a perspective that we are future criminals or that we have negative intentions. And as a result, there are so many aspects of childhood that I felt robbed of as a young Black girl.
It’s too late for me to have the childhood and the period of innocence that was stolen from me, but it’s not too late for my daughter or the millions of other Black girls who are growing up. I hope we keep pushing the conversation forward. I pray society learns to sit back and listen while Black women and girls tell their stories.
We have so far to go, and we cannot resolve this issue without prioritizing the Black voice to lead the dialogue.