When my oldest daughter was a mere 18 months old, I shared some pictures from our family vacation. Someone commented that she looked like she had an “attitude.” She was 18 months old. She was having fun in the sprinklers and was posing.
It never occurred to me that if I as a Black woman (symbolically) was portrayed as the maid and revealed a hidden figure, hyper-sexualized, portrayed as the sassy Black woman that my Black daughter would be exempt. It never occurred to me that the woman who is portrayed as the woman with questionable morals, the slave who weakens and seduces a White slave-owner just by being, or the woman who is always angry and/or with an attitude would have a girl child who would be exempt. In a variety of ways Black women are seen as Aunt Jemima, Jezebel or head-rolling-and-sassy like the Pine-Sol lady. Just watch TV, listen to the stereotypes, or find Black women in American history and her depictions. Black girls experience the shadows of Black women.
I told the commenter who said my toddler had an “attitude” that she did not have an attitude. But you can trust that my radar was already up that someone would use that stereotypical description of Black women and girls on a toddler.
As mothers, we cloak ourselves in the time when people look at our babies and see adorable children full of innocence. But as a recent study from Georgetown Law documents, these views are quickly replaced with the reality that Black girls are seen as less innocent. The study reveals that even at young ages (as young as 5 years old), Black girls are sexualized, perceived as more aggressive and adultified. Yes, as young as five years old.
There are benefits to childhood, and Black girls often do not receive those benefits. Children get to play. Children get to make mistakes. Adults laugh at silly things young children say that could be troublesome or problematic if said by older kids or adults. We interact with children with the knowledge that their brains and behaviors are not like ours as adults.
One of my sisters works with children, and we often discuss issues around child behavior as mothers of young girls. Our talks often involve whether something is “age appropriate” or not in terms of behavior. I love that — the idea that there are behaviors expected and normal based on the age and maturity of a child. And yet Black girls are not afforded the benefit of child-appropriate behavior, have negative connotations ascribed to their behavior, and face disproportionately harsher consequences. Adultification is the difference between “honey, that is a bad choice because ____” and calling the police. Adultification is the difference between being a child whisperer (like my sister) or placing a five year old in handcuffs. Adultification is the difference between being curious about where a child got a $2 bill or criminalizing and humiliating her. There are many more examples just in the past two years. The Georgetown Law study points out that:
“Compared to white girls of the same age, survey participants perceive that
• Black girls need less nurturing
• Black girls need less protection
• Black girls need to be supported less
• Black girls need to be comforted less
• Black girls are more independent
• Black girls know more about adult topics
• Black girls know more about sex”
Time and time again Black girls are treated as less innocent and face different treatment — from policing to discipline in our schools. Often the treatment is harsh, demeaning and dehumanizing. It would be foolish to think that the racial stereotypes and biases that pervade our society and are embedded into our systems and structures that result in inequitable results for adults somehow disappear for children. I have no doubt that the belief that Black girls are less innocent impacts the harsher disciplines they face in school and the school-to-prison pipeline. I do not suppose that the police officer who slammed a young Black girl with her desk behaved as he would with a child who had not complied with an order to turn over a cell phone to a teacher. I believe adultifcation and the denial of innocence led to the handling of a young Black girl after a complaint surrounding a pool party. In sum, the Black Girl Pushout is real.
So what is the mother of Black girls to do? We walk the balance of not feeding confirmation bias (finding proof of the slights we expect) while practicing open-mindedness and being protectors where necessary. We balance raising resilient girls who can navigate a world where bias still exists while nurturing their innocence and protecting their childhood. We push for reforms and education for those who interact with our children, knowing that in the end the change needed is systemic, structural and must involve individual change rather than just awareness. We walk the tightrope of expecting better but not wanting to be that mom that fuels the power trip that can come when you question those who may have authority over your child. It is a tough job. But we do it.
Last year a friend who hadn't seen my girls in a long time exclaimed how much older they looked. She insisted my oldest looked much older. She described my eight year old as looking 12 or older. She did not mean harm at all. In my view she was also very off in her assessment. And yet the comment very deeply troubled me, and not just because I want time to slow down! My daughter is not exceptionally tall and is very thin, so it is not an issue of a developed body. She is a child, sounds like a child, and behaves like a child. Yet in a world that I already know disciplines and interacts with girls of color differently, this benign comment bothered me tremendously.
In a time where concerns of racial inequity are dismissed openly and with contempt, we must recognize that the cost to this disparate treatment of Black girls is a heavy one. They leave a lasting impact. Yes, many grow up to be Strong Black Women. But must we walk this road to get there? I think not.
Yesterday I read an article by a mom who talked about how the Georgetown study is not a surprise for Black moms. The truth is, until parents of the kids who interact with our kids, educators and decision makers — from education to law enforcement — and those family members in interracial families take the time to educate themselves on these biases, develop skills to interrupt bias, and advocate for better systems and behaviors, Black girls will suffer. Being active participants in community discussions and exploring ways to work with schools and organizations to make change are critically important. This work should be an open invitation to all of us who were disturbed by this issue and all the studies and incidents referenced in this article.
We must not let this conversation die. Instead we must use our voices. Will it be uncomfortable to challenge a statement when someone says to a child “stop acting ‘fast’”? Yes. Do it anyway. Will you affect a relationship if you respond to “Look at that attitude” with “Would you have said that if she was a White girl”? Yes. Do it anyway. Will your heart beat faster when people in your circle justify harsh treatment of a Black girl and you question whether the Black girl was treated as less innocent than if she were White? Yes. Do it anyway. Speak out — it is important. I am not raising an Aunt Jemima, a Jezebel, or a Pine-Sol lady. My girls, like me, are strong-willed, have opinions, take up space and make mistakes. I am fierce in my protection of their spirits, their growing, and their rights. But Black moms cannot be armies of one. This problem needs a collective solution. This study is an invitation for others to join us.
Photographs by Jenae Weinbrenner and taken at One Life in South Africa. Her amazing work can be found at www.jenaew.com. Editorial eye by Jenae and Kat Kanary, two amazing sister-friends.