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.”
When asked what she found most surprising about the results, Jamilia Blake, an associate professor at Texas A&M University and one of the report’s authors, said: “The age that we start to see this was very shocking. The fact that you would think a 5-year-old is more knowledgeable about sex is amazing to me.”
The researchers suggest there is a connection between the stripping of black girls’ innocence and the harsher treatment they receive from public school officials and law enforcement. According to the study, compared to white girls, black girls are two times more likely to be disciplined for minor infractions like dress-code violations or loitering, two-and-a-half times more likely to be punished for disobedience, and three times more likely to be cited for being disruptive.
While those statistics were obtained by surveying just one school in Kentucky, the authors say they hint at a broader trend of black girls enduring more punitive treatment than their peers: “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 inclination to unfairly condemn black girls’ behavior has far-reaching consequences—it not only affects their day-to-day lives on an individual level, but also influences how black girls as a group are perceived into adulthood. These girls seem to be associated with damaging stereotypes ascribed specifically to black women, such as being loud, defiant, and over-sexualized.
Several recent incidents highlight the grave implications of subjectively defining what it means to be an innocent and compliant child. In 2013, a 16-year-old girl from Florida was arrested and expelled after her science experiment produced a minor explosion at school. A 15-year-old girl was slammed to the ground in 2015 by a McKinney, Texas, police officer who pinned her underneath his knees. Later that year, a 16-year-old girl was grabbed out of her seat by her neck and tossed across a South Carolina classroom by a school police officer. And in May, two 15-year-old twins in Boston faced detention and suspension because administrators said their braided hairstyles violated the school’s dress code. These anecdotes suggest that authorities’ perceptions of black girls may directly influence whether they come into contact with the juvenile-justice system, where as a group they are more likely to be referred and detained.