Culture Thoughts

She’s JUST a Child: The Adultification of Black Girls

In her latest piece for our platform, Dionne shares a personal experience which highlights a much larger issue.To deny that Black children are held to a different and often, much older standard is just dishonest. Especially when the proof is right in front of your eyes.

Recently I took my children to the park (one of our favourite things to do) and after my adventurous two-year old decided to risk it all in the big kid section, I swiftly moved us all to the safety of the junior area of the playground.

I was finally able to relax and let the girls run free, but whilst I was enjoying the subsidence of my blood pressure, I quickly noticed the stench of bad vibes coming from one of the other parents in this section towards a young black girl.

I immediately knew what this was about. Before I get into the detail, I just have to point out how easy it is for black people to recognise when racial bias is floating in the air. Often that old ‘playing the race card’ chestnut comes up (which in itself is laughable), but really, all this demonstrates is just how unaware people are of their own behaviours. But let me get back into this article.

So… the beautiful black girl at the receiving end of this male parent’s negative energy was clearly a child, however I could tell that the man in question could only see a ‘big kid’ playing boisterously in the children’s section. As I mentioned, I knew even though this child was physically developed, she had the spirit of innocence.

I immediately felt protective over her, so much so I asked her if she was ok. She of course said yes, because as a child, she was deep in play and hadn’t yet felt the tension that I’d so easily picked up on as a perceptive adult. I asked her who she was with and then proceeded to move on to her age. Nine; she said she was nine. With raised eyebrows, I immediately turned to the man looking straight into his gaze. His face dropped and his embarrassment was apparent.

Black children have long been seen as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers – this is where the term adultification comes from. For so many years, black children have been subject to a wide range of harsh punishment – from school to the criminal justice system. Black children have been susceptible to sexual abuse and exploitation, excessive police force, amongst other things.

As someone who also physically developed quite early in life, I vividly remember being treated differently in school. Although I was an introvert, I didn’t take crap from anyone. Being one of the few black girls in my year, I found myself having to defend myself quite often. Regardless of the scenario I found myself in, never once was I seen as the innocent party, even when I was receiving racial abuse from my white classmates. It seemed that teachers saw me as an aggressor because of my stature and confidence to stick up for myself.

I, like many other black girls, were taught from an early age that the treatment we evidently received was unavoidable. Black parents have the painful conundrum of choosing between preserving their children’s childhood and innocence whilst preparing them for a world that may judge them prematurely. Why can’t society just let black children be children? Why are we forced to mature so early just to navigate our way through life?

This cuts deep.

As children, we all make mistakes; it’s part of growing up. But for black children, the level of culpability is far greater. Black children are quickly tarnished with the deviant, ill-willed, troublesome brush. With education being one of the clearest indicators of life outcomes such as employment, income and social status, as well as influencing our children’s attitudes and wellbeing, it’s time to put an end to this historical bias against black children that is more stubborn than the spot on my forehead.

Whether it’s our hair being weaponised against us, or our body shapes leading to accusations of hyper-sexuality, black children are the target of mistreatment in society. Adultification only highlights the pervasive nature of systemic racism.

To disrupt this bias, we must first begin with admitting that the problem exists. Despite a wealth of evidence detailing how adultification manifests, greater understanding is necessary. Training about the adultification bias should be mandatory, especially for those working with and around black youths.

We need to understand the ways that adultification bias manifests and seek to mitigate the impact this is having on our children. If you see it, speak up. If you’re a parent, ask your children’s headteacher or governors what measures are in place to protect our children against this. Don’t be a bystander; your role is not only to pick up the pieces – proactivity is the only way to keep up the momentum in the movement against racism and its widespread impact.

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