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Study: Black girls as young as 5 more likely to experience 'adultification bias' than white girls


A 2017 study from Georgetown University's Center on Poverty and Inequality found that adults perceive Black girls as more adult-like and less innocent than white girls of the same age.

The study's co-author, Rebecca Epstein, said that the findings show that Black girls routinely experience "adultification bias."

TPR's Kayla Padilla sat down with author Tamara Winfrey-Harris to talk about why this is happening. Winfrey Harris is the author of the book A Black Woman’s Guide to Getting Free.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

PADILLA: I wanted to start off with the way that society views Black women and how that impacts how Black women view themselves.

WINFREY-HARRIS: Well, I think there are a lot of biases about Black women that are woven into the fabric of our society. The majority of them are the byproduct of chattel slavery. Georgetown University did a study and they talked about how Black girls as young as five are thought to have more adult knowledge of things, including sexuality. It's sort of the mammy stereotype where Black women are seen as the caretakers, but caretakers without their own needs.

PADILLA: You know, sometimes in the news media and on social media, the way people talk about young Black kids. ... Some media outlets have been called out for calling a Black kid either a man or a woman, and they're not even adults yet. So could you talk a little bit more about that and where that comes from?

WINFREY-HARRIS: Black children weren't allowed to be children. I mean, they were being trained to work. So they weren't allowed the same leeway and the space to learn and make mistakes that we would normally afford children. That pattern has again continued over hundreds of years. It's so embedded that very often society forgets to challenge it or push back or question those ideas. And again, that Georgetown study that Georgetown University did talked all about the "adultification" of Black girls.

PADILLA: Can you run us through, as a Black woman, when you enter a room of people for instance, what are the questions and self doubts that start running through your mind or through the mind of a Black woman? 

WINFREY-HARRIS: I interviewed a woman who was married and expecting twins. She said “My fingers were swelling up because I was pregnant. And I tried so hard not to take off my wedding ring because I didn't want people to think that I was a statistic, that I was a single Black mother.” And again, nothing wrong with being a single Black mother. But that's not what our society says.

PADILLA: In the book, you talk about a woman named Lucy who shares her struggle with depression and how her family didn't support her seeing a therapist. How does that tie into the idea of the strong Black woman and this idea of only seeking help when you're in crisis?

WINFREY HARRIS: So it's the idea that Black women don't need help and support. It goes back to this idea that we're stronger than other people, stronger than other women. White women and middle class white women were treated in a way that was sexist. So the idea of being put on a pedestal and having to be protected and having to be subservient and being childlike. I mean, those are very sexist ideas. While people thought that of white women, they were thinking in terms of Black women, as being able to work in the fields and do things alongside men. So there's this idea that Black women are preternaturally strong. You know, the whole mammy mythology says that we don't have any needs. Our very existence is to serve others.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Arts & Culture News Desk including The Guillermo Nicolas & Jim Foster Art Fund, Patricia Pratchett, and the V.H. McNutt Memorial Foundation.