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Grown-ups Aren't Letting Black Girls Be Kids, And It's Harming Them

Knowing "adultification bias" exists isn't enough to change it, one expert says.
Adults view black girls as more adult-like and less innocent than white girls.
Hill Street Studios via Getty Images
Adults view black girls as more adult-like and less innocent than white girls.

Racism doesn’t have to be hateful or violent to be incredibly harmful— especially when it comes to children.

Everyday differential treatment and implicit biases toward people of colour can have devastating consequences, too. And new research shows just how widespread one of these harmful biases toward children actually is.

Black girls “routinely experience” adultification bias, where they are seen as less innocent and more adult-like than white girls, according to a U.S. study out of Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality. This is linked to harsher treatment and higher standards in schools, black girls being treated with less empathy, and authorities acting in “developmentally inappropriate ways,” the study notes.

WATCH: Black kids are treated as more adult than white kids. Story continues below.

The findings aren’t at all surprising to Kisha McPherson, a social science and humanities professor at Centennial College and PhD Candidate in Education at York University. McPherson, who researches the experiences of black girls in the education system, recently interviewed high school teens in the Toronto area.

She found that black girls in her study were automatically burdened with having to “know better,” or needing to deal with harsh consequences to their behaviour because they are black.

“They don’t have access to girlhood the same way white girls do,” McPherson told HuffPost Canada.

“They’re often treated in very harsh ways— in ways that we would never accept for other groups of children.”

It’s not just bias. It’s racism.

Black girls are often automatically seen as defiant, loud and aggressive, and are treated differently as a result, she said. And the idea that they are more resilient means they get less support. At least in terms of her own research, McPherson wouldn’t just call this a bias. She calls it racism.

“There’s no process of thinking through critically what they are able to handle. It’s just something that’s automatically placed upon them,” McPherson said.

And the effects on black girls are dangerous, she added. It creates narratives that they are expected to take care of themselves. The girls can internalize those same narratives, and think they should be able to work through difficult situations on their own.

The new U.S. research is a follow-up to the center’s 2017 study, Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood, which found that adults believe black girls as young as five need less “nurturing, protection, support and comfort” than white girls. The study, which looked at attitudes toward black girls up to age 19, also found that adults believe black girls know more about sex and adult topics than white girls.

In the follow-up report released Wednesday, the authors conducted focus group interviews with black women age 12-60 in cities across the U.S to ask about their observations, experiences and solutions.

“[T]here’s, like, this non-acceptance of being a child,” one woman noted.

″Most of my friends were abstinent, didn’t drink … but even still, there was, like, this assumption that we did; you know?” another woman recalled.

“I think that … adults in general need to … be reminded that Black young girls are still kids,” a teenager added.

A lot of black girls report they were treated differently in school from a very young age.
Steve Debenport via Getty Images
A lot of black girls report they were treated differently in school from a very young age.

When asked about possible solutions, the women in the study said awareness that adultification bias exists isn’t enough. Change will only come through “meaningful reforms” such as training in cultural competency, the report noted.

But McPherson thinks culturally-responsive material in the classroom won’t work if teachers still have deeply internalized biases. And people need to realize just how prevalent everyday racism is.

“We have cultivated a society that has all these biases and prejudices. It is naturally a part of how we think and how we do things,” McPherson said.

“It’s our responsibility to address and understand that.”

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