Adultification and its Effect on African American Girls
Adultification is a term used to describe a situation in which a child is forced to assume behaviours and roles that are traditionally performed by a parent or a guardian. Consequently, this sped-up adolescence prevents them from truly experiencing the innocence and carefreeness that comes along with being a child. They are left emotionally and socially scarred.
A brief exploration into the history of slavery reveals that this phenomenon has been woven into the very fabric of Black history, with children as young as three being expected to work alongside their parents on slave plantations. Not only were kids expected to toil in the fields with their parents, those who were left behind would have be expected to fend for themselves, whilst caring for any other children that were left behind. A role that would often be undertaken by a female, as she was expected to mimic the role of a maternal figure.
In today’s society, this practice would be in direct violation of several human rights codes. However, in the 1800’s Black people were not afforded the same rights. We were treated like animals, for example with dehumanising laws such as the ‘Three-Fifths Compromise’ establishing a societal framework in which we only counted as 3/5th’s of a person.
Fast forward to the present day, the effect of this phenomenon has resulted in Black girls being subject to what is known as Adultification bias, a phrase introduced by the authors of ‘Girlhood Interrupted’. It is the prejudicial treatment that African American girls face due to the constant over-estimation of their age and development, especially those in the education system. So, they are disciplined at a disproportionately higher rate to their white counterparts as revealed by a study of girls in K-12 (aged 5-18) between 2013-2014. African American girls accounted for 41.6% of suspensions in that year, even though they made up 15.6% of the school population. Compare this to the 50.1% of White girls that attended the same school but only counted for 28.4% of one-time suspensions for that year.
Realistically, there are only a small number of factors could have resulted in this disparity between the two races, the most relevant one being linked to law enforcement. The relationship between Black people and law enforcement has always been one fraught with violence and distrust, with the latter often being the one to opt for violence. Furthermore, one of the leading causes of death for Black men in the US is to be murdered at the hands of the police. Similarly, Black women are 1.4 times more at risk of being killed by the police than white women. Inarguably, since schools act as a microcosm of society it is inevitable that African American girls would also face the same discriminatory treatment in the classroom.
As a black woman who has experienced this form of prejudice first-hand, these memories will forever be etched into my mind. I will never forget when the head of my sixth form told me I was not allowed to wear dresses, because it was “distracting” to the male population of my school. Whilst, other non-black members of my year walked around in miniskirts and thigh high boots. A comment for which I later received a lacklustre apology in an email, although later on she cornered me and accused me of lying about this situation.
When I was fifteen, I was repeatedly punched in the face by a boy, leaving me with a split lip and a fear of returning back to school. One would think that the boy would have been expelled or at least suspended, forced to face some sort of punishment. Instead, he was allowed to continue attending the school and I was labelled “difficult” for refusing to accept his apology. I often wonder if the outcome would have been the same if I had been a non-person of colour.
My own experiences are not isolated, I know that this is a shared experience by most, if not all, Black girls and the women out there. It is not limited to just educational institutions, those in positions of power everywhere often try to shame, embarrass and mistreat young black girls. Thus, creating a generation of women who feel disenfranchised and quite frankly, let down by society.
I remember a quote from a research paper - called ‘The Essence of Innocence’ - that I would recommend everyone interested in this topic to read. This quote remains in the back of my mind as I write this article: “Alice Walker says, 'The most important question in the world is, 'Why is the child crying?' then, for Black children, the most important answer may be that they are not allowed to be children at all.”
Written by Kameron Josephs