Equity & Diversity

Adults See Black Girls as Less Innocent Than Their White Peers, Survey Finds

By Evie Blad — June 27, 2017 4 min read
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Adults see black girls as less innocent, more independent, and less in need of nurturing and protection than their white peers, a report released Tuesday by Georgetown University says.

The report is the first to explore perceptions of black girls, building on previous research that found black boys are wrongly perceived as older than they actually are and more likely to be viewed as guilty when they are suspected of a crime. It’s a trend researchers call the “adultification” of black children.

The results carry implications for fields from education to criminal justice, and they may help explain why black girls are disciplined in school at disproportionately high rates compared to their peers of other races, say the authors of the report, called “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood.”

“Simply put, if authorities in public systems view Black girls as less innocent, less needing of protection, and generally more like adults, it appears likely that they would also view Black girls as more culpable for their actions and, on that basis, punish them more harshly despite their status as children,” the report says.

The study is based on responses to a nine-item survey by 325 adults recruited through an online service, a relatively small sample size compared to many other research projects. But the report’s authors—Jamilia Blake, an associate professor at Texas A&M University; Rebecca Epstein, the executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality; and Thalia González, an associate professor at Occidental College—say the findings should spur further research into the well-being and perception of black girls, who have received less attention than their male peers in recent years.

Survey respondents were from various racial and ethnic backgrounds and they live throughout the United States. Half of respondents were asked questions about white girls at varying age ranges. The other half answered the same questions about black girls in the same age ranges. Respondents were asked to rate their responses on a 5-point response scale: (1) not at all; (2) a little; (3) undecided; (4) somewhat; and (5) a great deal. They were asked the following questions:

  • How often do Black [or white] females take on adult responsibilities?
  • How much do Black [or white] females seem older than their age?
  • How much do Black [or white] females need to be supported?
  • How much do Black [or white] females need to be comforted?
  • How independent are Black [or white] females?
  • How knowledgeable are Black [or white] females about sex?

“Across all age ranges, participants viewed Black girls collectively as more adult than white girls,” the study concludes. “Responses revealed, in particular, that participants perceived Black girls as needing less protection and nurturing than white girls, and that Black girls were perceived to know more about adult topics and are more knowledgeable about sex than their white peers. The most significant differences were found in the age brackets that encompass mid-childhood and early adolescence—ages 5-9 and 10-14—and continued to a lesser degree in the 15- to 19-year-old age bracket. No statistically significant differences were found in the age group 0-4.”

Why do adults see black girls as less innocent than their white peers?

There could be multiple explanations for the “adultification” of black children, the study says.

One explanation suggests that children are socialized to act more mature out of “context and necessity, especially in low-resource community environments.”

Alternatively, adults may carry the kind of bias addressed by the study’s findings, based on stereotypes about children’s behavior, researchers say.

Civil rights advocates say these biases are to blame for higher discipline rates for black children in U.S. schools. While 6 percent of all K-12 students were suspended in 2013-14, the suspension rate was 18 percent for black boys, 10 percent for black girls, 5 percent for white boys, and 2 percent for white girls, according to the most recent federal data.

Those disparities may also be attributed at least partially to more punitive discipline philosophies in schools that educate high percentages of students of color, some groups have said.

Interest in the treatment of black boys culminated when President Barack Obama launched his My Brother’s Keeper initiative. In response, a group of advocates have pushed for equal attention to girls of color, particularly black girls, in recent years.

The report’s authors said they hope their findings will encourage more research.

“While the scope of our research is limited, the potential implications are profound,” the report says. “Further exploration of the implicit bias manifested in adultification could lead legislators, advocates, and policymakers to engage in reform to counteract negative outcomes for Black girls. We challenge researchers to develop new studies to investigate the degree and prevalence of adultification of Black girls, as well as its causal connections to harmful outcomes for girls across a diverse range of public systems, including the education, juvenile justice, and child welfare systems. In any such work, the voices of Black girls themselves should remain at the center.”

Bonus: Check out these video interviews with four researchers about nurturing black girls in school.

Further reading on black girls and equity:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.