It has come to be known in our family as the “juice box incident”. I was called to my youngest daughter’s kindergarten class at a local charter school because she was being suspended. Apparently, my daughter had been accused of purposely squeezing juice, from a juice box, into the eye of a classmate, a White girl. As I sat talking with her teacher, I wondered to myself about the dexterity it would take for a five-year-old to deliberately squeeze juice across the table into someone’s eye. What I did ask the teacher directly, was if he had ever handled a juice box before. As any rank and file parent will tell you, there’s nary a juice box occasion that doesn’t end with some amount of juice anywhere but in a child’s mouth.
I am reminded of the “juice box” incident reading the recent study “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls Childhood,” published by the Center on Poverty and Inequality at the Georgetown Law School and based on research from the team of Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Blake and Thalia Gonzalez.
The gist of the report argues that adult educators, in their interactions with Black girls aged 5-19, believe that Black girls deserve less nurturing, protection, support, and comforting — dynamics that seemed to be grounded in perceptions of Black girl independence, though as the researchers note, that is rarely to their benefit. Though the scope of the research is admittedly limited — there were less than 400 respondents — I couldn’t help but read the report and think “this is my life.”
A critical component of the study highlights the “theory of adultification” of Black children where educators “associate Black girls’ behavior with stereotypes of adult Black women.” Adultification, in effect, creates a condition where Black children are treated as the babies of suspect stereotypes of Black women. As the researchers note, “adultification is a form of dehumanization, robbing Black children of the very essence of what makes childhood distinct from other developmental periods.”
The process of adultification has direct impact on the experiences of Black girls in school, particularly in the context of discipline with regards to in-school and out-of-school suspensions. Citing the work of Subini Annamma, the report highlights how Black girls are often disciplined for subjective reasons such as exhibiting defiance or as a school administrator said to me about my daughter “non-compliance,” which was her way of describing my daughter’s regular proclivity to ask followup questions or request explanations for directions that might not have made much sense to her.
As such, in comparison to their White female counterparts one study suggested that Black girls were twice as likely to be disciplined for minor infractions such as dress code violations or cell phone use. And they are two-and-a-half times more likely to be disciplined for “disobedience.” Remember the high school student who was assaulted by a school resource officer in South Carolina? These narratives overlay troubling examples of police shootings where Black victims failed to comply by running away.
Ironically the very attributes that encourage Black girls to speak back to power, if you will, was openly cited by respondents as evidence of the leadership skills of Black girls. Yet the tendencies of Black girls to “talk back” are viewed as disruptive in the classroom, and those energies are very rarely nurtured or redirected towards leadership development opportunities. As the report’s researchers observe, “the perception that Black girls do not merit nurturing or that their leadership qualities should be restricted could be associated with our finding that adults believe that Black girls do not need protection or nurturing, and could affect opportunities for success.”
The report suggests that as “early as 5 years of age, Black girls were more likely viewed as behaving and seeming older than their stated age.” The day that I sat with my daughter’s kindergarten teacher, I remember struggling for language to describe what I clearly viewed as a form of profiling; what the teacher heard was that I called him a racist. Unfortunately, as the report’s multiracial responders highlight, perceptions of Black girls transcend the race and the ethnicity of the adult educators. And as my own experience has shown ,with both of my daughters, now ages 14 and 18, very often adult educators believe that are helping Black children by encouraging, and even demanding, compliance and “good behavior” from them.
My daughter survived the “juice box incident” — and many such incidents. As she prepares for her first year in high school, she is also hyper-aware of the mechanisms of surveillance that exist, in ways that her White counterparts simply don’t have to be. In their conclusion, the researchers write, “all Black girls are entitled to, and deserve, equal treatment. Including equal access to the protections that are accepted as necessary and appropriate for children.” There’s a part of me that lives with the reality that my daughters, like so many Black girls, never fully had the freedom to simply be children.
Mark Anthony Neal is Professor of African + African American Studies and a English at Duke University, where he is Chair of the Department of African + African American Studies, and co-Director of the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity (DCORE). Neal is the parent of two daughters, a rising college sophomore and a rising first-year high schooler.