How Black Girls Aren’t Presumed to Be Innocent
A new study finds that adults view them as less child-like and less in need of protection than their white peers.
A growing body of evidence has shown that the American education and criminal-justice systems dole out harsher and more frequent discipline to black youth compared with their non-black peers. But while most of that research has focused on black boys, a new study from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality specifically turned its attention to society’s perception of black girls.
Researchers built in part on a 2014 report that concluded black boys are wrongly perceived as older than their actual age and are more likely to be viewed as guilty when they are suspected of a crime. The Georgetown study sought to determine whether there’s a similar effect for black girls—whether adults identify them as less innocent and less child-like than white girls of the same age. The results were resounding: Not only do the researchers report that “black girls were more likely to be viewed as behaving and seeming older than their stated age,” they also find that this dynamic is in place for girls as young as 5 years old.
The study surveyed 325 adults from different racial, ethnic, and educational backgrounds, and from different regions of the country. (Most were white and female.) The researchers asked some participants about their perceptions of black girls, and some about white girls of the same age. Questions included: “How much do black [or white] females need to be comforted?” and “How much do black [or white] females seem older than their age?”
The authors describe a pattern in their findings: “Across all age ranges, participants viewed black girls collectively as more adult than white girls,” the study reports. “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.”