A common theme coming out of the slew of recent court cases regarding police officers who have shot black Americans is that the victims in these shootings were perceived as an imminent threat, dangerous and unpredictable. A new study from Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality shows that these kinds of negative perceptions aren’t limited only to black adults, but even apply to black children. The study reveals that black girls are seen as less “innocent” than their white peers, which has real consequences for black girls’ education, criminal justice outcomes, and more.
Researchers spoke to 325 adults, most of them white, and asked them how much comfort a black girl needed versus a white girl, how much they thought girls of each race knew about sex, and how much older they seemed than their actual ages. The study found that from a very young age, black girls are seen as more mature than white children of the same age, and therefore are “viewed as needing less protection and needing less nurturing than their white counterparts.” The result is that not only are adults not actively nurturing and protecting black girls as much as their white peers, they’re punishing them more.
Take what studies have shown about black girls’ classroom experiences, for example. Another study showed that black girls were notably ahead of their peers academically, but their responses to teachers’ questions were more likely to be viewed as ill mannered and “unladylike.” School suspension rates are also five times higher for black girls than white girls. When black girls make mistakes, as kids are prone to do from time to time, is more often assumed that they are aware of their actions and fully culpable for them.
In other words, black girls are carrying the burden of how their bodies are perceived at an age when they are too young to understand the nuances of such bias. The weight of that burden has a cumulative affect over time, even if it doesn’t manifest in, say, after school detention. Study participants hope their findings will inspire change.
“We encourage black girls to raise their voices about this issue, and of course for adults to listen to them,” said the head of the study, Rebecca Epstein. “All black girls are entitled to and deserve equal treatment, including equal access to the protections that are appropriate for children.”
It’s plain to see that when we don’t acknowledge and safeguard the innocence of black girls, we ignore part of their humanity. That can have deeply personal ramifications that extend far beyond childhood.
“The invisibility of black women is astounding,” black poet Claudia Rankine told to the Guardian in 2015. She had no easy solutions, but instead acknowledged the challenges faced by black women. “How do you keep the black female body present, and how do you own value for something that society won’t give value to? It’s a question I try to answer through my own life.” Hopefully the Georgetown study will thrust this conversation to the fore, so society will acknowledge and address the issues at play.
(Via New York)