Two teens sit on a tree trunk that leans over a river.
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The Adultification of Black Girls

Earlier this month, former Republican town council member Gordon Lawshe called the police on a nine-year-old Black girl. She was walking outside in her neighborhood, spraying trees with a homemade spotted lanternfly repellant (NJ). The girl, Bobbi Wilson, found a recipe on TikTok that consisted of dish soap and apple cider vinegar and ventured outside to do her part to help stop the invasive species —a move that’s been encouraged by local officials along the East Coast. In the 911 call, Lawshe can be heard describing the girl as a “young Black woman” with a “hood” who “scared” him (BuzzFeed). His allegations and the terms he used to persecute this nine-year-old reflect how young Black girls are often treated as much older than they are. This “adultification bias” has a devastating impact.

Part of this narrative was crafted during slavery. Black boys and girls were imagined as chattel and were often put to work as young as two and three years old (Georgetown). Always seen as capital, not human, Black youth were expected to carry more labor and responsibility than other children their age. Black girls, in particular, were seen as promiscuous, even predatory, when it came to sex. This stereotype, often referred to as the “Jezebel” stereotype, was a way to rationalize the sexual assault of enslaved Black women by their captors (Ferris). This was reinforced by how frequently Black women were pregnant, forced to have children by their captors, and displayed without clothing during auctions (Ferris). 

TAKE ACTION

• Read three stories on how adultification bias affects Black girls collected by the Georgetown Law Initiative on Gender Justice & Opportunity.

• Pay attention to how the systems in your community – including schools, policing, local media, etc. – support or harm Black youth.

• If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.

As a result, Black girls are perceived to be more mature and held responsible for how others see them, even as society consistently strips them of their autonomy. Black girls are disciplined and reprimanded more than their white peers, particularly in school. Generally, Black girls are more likely to be suspended, physically reprimanded by the police, and sent to juvenile detention than white students. 

Black girls are often hypersexualized to this day. Black students, especially curvier students, are more likely to be disciplined than other girls for wearing the same type of clothing because their bodies are often sexualized by teachers and school authority figures (National Women’s Law Center). Jonita Davis writes that she dressed her Black toddler in one-piece jumpers and shorts at the beach so strangers wouldn’t comment on her “curves,” though such comments were never directed at her white niece (Washington Post). 

And this hypersexualization has a devastating impact. One in four Black girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18, and one in five Black women are survivors of rape (American Psychological Association). The notions that Black girls are “fast” and “asking for it” help encourage and discredit the true harm they experience each and every day (Bustle). Because of significant campaigns like the #MeToo movement and documentaries like Surviving R. Kelly and On The Record, there are growing conversations around the importance of protecting Black women. 

“Only by recognizing the phenomenon of adultification can we overcome the perception that ‘innocence, like freedom, is a privilege.'”

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