A Georgetown University study showing that black girls in the United States are perceived by adults as much less innocent than white girls has created a lot of buzz this summer. The study released last month, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” identifies several well-researched reasons for the disparity. Black girls, according to the study, are adultified, sexualized and deemed overly aggressive from a young age.
This news was a shock to everyone but black mothers, who live with this truth every day.
Any black mother could’ve told the researchers that, from the time they are talking and walking, little black girls are deemed “fast,” a word synonymous with promiscuity. Their “attitudes” are frequent topics of conversation, while their “sassiness” is taken as a rebellious streak. And this is all before they reach elementary school.
I could’ve introduced the researchers to my oldest daughter, Chloe. Through her, I learned that if I wanted my daughters to be seen as the little girls they are, I would have to advocate for them. Chloe initiated me into the black mom of black daughters club.
It started when Chloe was a toddler, and people commented on her “curves.” I combated that by putting her in one-piece jumpers and shorts at the beach, instead of bathing suits. Meanwhile, my white niece played blissfully in a two-piece with ribbons and lace. I never heard anyone talk about her body. Chloe’s bathing “outfit” had a picture of her favorite dinosaur on it, so she never cared about the difference. But I did.
The study calls this phenomenon “adultification” or “a social or cultural stereotype that is based on how adults perceive children in absence of knowledge of the children’s behavior and verbalization.” In other words, my kid never had to say or do anything for people to think it was okay to consider a toddler “curvy.” She just had to exist and play in her black skin.
The stereotypes and assumptions got worse for Chloe in middle school, so much so that I didn’t let her sleep over at her best friend’s house for a year. She thought it was because her grades were in need of improvement. But it was because the girl’s dad had made a comment to his daughter about how “fast” Chloe was, after overhearing the girls talk about cute boys at school. My black kid was cast as the problem, even though both girls had contributed opinions and names.
I did not want him around my child with that attitude, and I only let the girls start hanging out again when they were in high school, after the dad changed his tune. After a string of teen pregnancies hit the high school, he deemed Chloe the most chaste of his daughter’s friends. But even then, the sleepovers were at the girl’s mother’s home.
According to the study, black girls are never given the chance to be innocent. “Ultimately, adultification is a form of dehumanizing, robbing black children of the very essence of what makes childhood distinct from other developmental periods: innocence,” the study’s authors write.
That’s been my experience, despite my attempts to protect my baby from a culture that saw her as less than her white friends. The mothers of her black friends practiced the same caution. We were strict, never letting our daughters even have a play date unless we knew the parents well. We vetted parents with questions to determine if they saw our daughters as kids, or as a bad black influence. Could they be trusted to be objective when the girls get into trouble? We understood the stakes.
Chloe’s freshman year of high school brought new friends and more sleepovers. I allowed her to go around kids whose parents I vetted. But one got past me.
I knew that the sleepover had gone bad when I got a phone call from a hysterical woman yelling at me to come get my kid, less than three hours into the party. I raced to the house. My child was the only one sitting in the living room with the parents, while the other girls peeked out from down the hall. The mom said Chloe brought pot to her house, and the girls smoked it.
My 14-year-old had just mastered the art of rolling the top of her uniform skirt to make it shorter. All of her friends were similarly awkward teens. I couldn’t figure out how she had gotten pot, much less smuggled it into my home, which, with four teens, my husband, me and a dog, didn’t allow for privacy. Something didn’t add up.
I sent Chloe to the car before I started my questions.
Did you see Chloe smoking?
Who had the pot when you discovered it?
Does it matter?
Yes. Turns out, the girl hosting the sleepover was holding the weed when the mom’s boyfriend caught them. No one saw Chloe smoke, but all of the girls said Chloe brought the drugs. Chloe was the only girl there who wasn’t white.
All of the girls had bloodshot eyes, telltale pupils and goofy grins. I told them I would get to the bottom of this.
I was so angry at Chloe that we did not speak until we were home. How could she be involved with drugs? At home, my husband and I checked her clothing and sleepover bags (which I carried to the car when we left the party). No sign of that distinct odor. Furthermore, Chloe’s eyes were clear, her pupils were normal and she insisted that the girl who hosted got the weed from her boyfriend. My husband wanted to call the mom and tell her what we discovered.
I knew that was pointless, but I had no way to articulate this to him, my white husband. It’s something that black women learn as girls, and that I had been teaching our three daughters since they were old enough to interact with the world. Chloe’s black skin was all the proof that woman needed to find her guilty in a room full of white faces. Her race made her the villain, the enabler, the influencer, the evil one. Black moms don’t need a study to tell us that.
But how could I explain to my husband that his baby had been initiated in this long-held tradition? I let him call the mom. She was shocked, then angry and then hung up on us. My husband was baffled, but I knew that in that mom’s eyes, the black girl did it.
The next day, another one of Chloe’s friends came over. I was sitting nearby as Chloe relayed the story to her. Despite her age and whiteness, the girl saw between the lines what my husband could not: “Oh no! She blamed you cause you black!”
The girl who hosted the pot party came by later that day. I caught her before she knocked on the door. I told her that I knew what she did, and it was foul. She apologized, but I told her to stay away from my daughter. She was banned from our house, and after we talked about it, Chloe never took a ride from that girl, or her mom, again.
The Georgetown study is not news to me, or to the many black moms out there trying to protect our girls from stereotypes. We have spent our lives playing the villain to white girls, and being punished because of white girl tears. So we shield our daughters from the troubles, and teach them to see it coming. Maybe one day they will go further than the Georgetown study, and work to change public perception about black girls. But until then, we moms know, and we’ve got this.
Jonita Davis is a freelance writer based in Indiana. Find her on Twitter @surviteensntots.
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