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by Linda M. Burton & PhD & Donna-Marie Winn, Ph.D.
Ask NBC News. They recently learned what happens when you tweet a story with a headline that erroneously twisted Sally Hemmings’ personal narrative of horrific, repeated rapes at the hands of Thomas Jefferson into a headline about her being Jefferson’s mistress. NBC News learned that in this current climate of close interrogation of history and fact-checking, Twitter, especially Black Twitter, claps back. Mightily.
NBC News now knows not to twist, at least one Black woman’s narrative, Sally Hemmings’, into something it was not. But what about the rest of American society? Do pockets of America continue to twist Black girls’ narratives about who they are and their vulnerability and innocence into tales of willing and complicit precocious sexuality?
In the recently released report, “Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” authored by Rebecca Epstein, Jamilia J. Black, and Thalia Gonzalez, this question is answered with a resounding, “YES!” This report calls into sharp focus adults’ perceptions that dehumanize and both explicitly and implicitly impugn Black girls. The report finds that adult respondents from their study perceive Black girls as young as five to nine years old, in contrast to white girls, as needing less nurturance, protection, support, and comfort, while at the same time being more independent and knowing more about adult topics and sex.
To their credit, the authors chronicle the history of such dehumanization of Black girls and Black boys back to America’s inception and lift up the institution of slavery as further proof that such perceptions are not new. Such dehumanizing perceptions are often used to retell and revise the terror inflicted upon and objectification of Black bodies throughout American history.
Additionally, Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez review several dominant paradigms about Black femininity that emerged during slavery and note that the contemporary manifestations of these paradigms belie the implicit biases and racism (our word not theirs) that result in Black girls being treated more harshly and their developmental behaviors being criminalized.
We agree with the authors’ point about the continued, undeserved dehumanization of Black girls. Unfortunately, while the Girlhood Interrupted report focuses the spotlight on these dehumanizing perceptions of Black girls, the report also equates such perceptions with the term adultification.
As Black female behavioral scientists who have cumulatively studied adultification in the lives of Black girls and boys (see Burton, Winn, Stevenson, & McKinney, 2015) and Black families in different settings for over 50 years, we are concerned that framing the dehumanization of Black girls identified in the report as adultification is deeply problematic. In fact, we disagree altogether with the choice of adultification as a way to situate this very important discourse.
Admittedly, the authors, as a few other authors have done before them, defined adultification as, “a social or cultural stereotype that is based on how adults perceive children in the absence of knowledge of children’s behavior and verbalizations.” And from there they argue that their participants’ perceptions of Black girls as being less innocent and in need of less nurturance, guidance, and protection are similar to the dehumanizing stereotypes of Black women.
Using the adultification concept in this way twists the fundamental meaning and incumbent processes as it is discussed in existing social science and family therapy literature. In a 2007 article, Burton provides a standard definition of adultification that is not dehumanizing: “adultification comprises contextual, social, and developmental processes in which youth are prematurely, and often inappropriately, exposed to adult knowledge and assume extensive adult roles and responsibilities within their family network.”
Several of the Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez interview questions directly interrogate adults’ perceptions about parameters of the adultification process, for example: “How often do Black (or white) females take on adult responsibilities? How knowledgeable are Black (or white) females about sex?” As asked of respondents, however, even the second question is likely to conflate potentially precocious knowledge about sex with Black female children’s developmentally appropriate knowledge about sexual reproduction resulting from healthy, proactive parent-child conversations in response to the earlier onset of puberty for Black girls.
The other questions asked in the study have nothing to do with adultification. Quite the contrary, clinically, children who take on these roles need a lot of nurturance, comfort, and support to adequately learn and perform such roles. Playing an adult in a child’s body, with a child’s emotional maturity is hard. Full Stop. Black women need nurturance, comfort, and support too. Fuller Stop. In our view, the frame of adultification, in the ways Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez define it, seems to be more accurately and simply be characterized as dehumanization and promoting racist gendered stereotypes about Black females.
To be clear, Black girls’ being more knowledgeable about sex, perhaps sexual reproduction, at earlier ages than white girls does not equate with any definition of what being a Black woman is to us and many others. Furthermore, twisted perceptions about Black girls’ knowledge of sexual risks conjuring up the age-old, American stereotypes of the “jezebel” Black woman which, as Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez note, persist in present day American culture. That stereotype promotes racist notions of Black women as precociously sexualized, morally bankrupt, incapable of regulating their emotions, and unable to deeply feel — loss, love, grief or much of anything else for that matter.
We agree that adult Black women are still considered in the context of this racist, humanity eroding, gender offensive trope. And, we are concerned that viewing little Black girls through the Black female adultification lens, as posited by Epstein, Black, and Gonzalez, risks further imposing such dehumanizing stereotypes onto lives of Black children.
Indeed, conflating adultification with dehumanizing perspectives is intellectually flawed and poses obstacles in discerning alternative framings of what is happening in the lives of young Black girls and how the broader population is complicit in the process. Rather than considering the adult respondents’ perceptions that Black girls behave in adultified ways, shouldn’t we call it what it really is?
There are generic processes that people engage in on a daily basis to reproduce race and gender inequalities among individuals and groups. One such process is emotion management. Because race and gender inequalities foment feelings such as anger, resentment, despair, and sympathy that threaten to destabilize the social order, these emotions must be managed, which means, relative to the study we discuss here, that our perceptions and emotions about Black girls “must be managed.”
One way of managing societal emotions is by regulating the narrative about Black girls using particular language and assigning certain attributes to them. The dominant group in society usually controls the narrative and reinforces it in existing social structures, in this case schools and the judicial system, while more private discourses among ordinary people work to strengthen destructive narratives and stereotypes. Indeed, emotion management by controlling negative narratives on Blacks is thriving in certain pockets in today’s America.
As Black female behavioral scientists whose humanist resolve and intellectual rigor was birthed in the complex cities of Compton, California and New Orleans, Louisiana, respectively, we have lived experiences about the damage that twisted narratives and errant frames can visit upon Black and white America, particularly when scientists waywardly compare Blacks to whites. Such twisted frames attempt to strip us Blacks of our humanity and seek to render us as less than or an oddity in that, regardless of gender or class, we are perceived as having no sense of emotional intelligence, proclivity to care for others, or ability to self-regulate, regardless of our ages. Such framings move us no closer to accurately identifying fundamental causes in the persistent strengths inherent in or inequalities hoisted upon Blacks in America for centuries. Less we forget . . . Black women have shown America how to be humane.
We hope that the Girlhood Interrupted report can spark a wider discussion on the uncertainty that some Black girls live with on a daily basis, particularly those Black girls whose families and/or communities are economically impoverished or unsafe. Uncertainty is a state of ambiguity, one in which immediate and future conditions or events are unpredictable or otherwise not clearly determinable by those involved. In some environments, uncertainty, even when buttressed by community strengths and individual connections, can lead to a narrowing of viable options, a hesitancy to act, and a diminished likelihood of acting in ways that support longer-term, positive outcomes.
Under such uncertain conditions, some girls may act with an eye toward the moment because unpredictable resources and the ever-present specter of need require orientation to the here and now. This behavior often emerges from a lack of control girls may experience as they struggle to simply survive in a world where key resources are scarce, there are limited opportunities to thrive, and a broader society dehumanizes them in narratives based on erroneous assumptions and interpretations of their lived experiences.
Untwisting this narrative by, in this instance, uncoupling the frame of adultification and dehumanization is particularly important given the context of recent political rhetoric in America. It has become fairly common for public and political discourses concerning people of color and their communities to be inappropriately cast as having undesirable attributes.
In today’s America, we seem to have once again backslid to the days of the Moynihan Report where national leaders promulgated stereotypes about Black families being “tangles of pathology” and dysfunctional, no matter their social class. As in times past, national leaders foment the wholesale acceptance of such denigrating stereotypes among their followers who have little to no understanding of the profound inaccuracies of the rhetoric and who exercise little discretion or censorship.
We optimistically ask America not to get the findings in this report twisted. The adult perceptions studied in this work reflect the dehumanization of Black girls, not their adultification into Black women. Does America have the capacity to resist the twist, censuring and holding itself accountable for creating accurate narratives, frames, and discourses about Black girls and the Black women they aspire to become? If not, let NBC News’ recent twist serve as a good example of a bad example. There will be a clap back.
Linda M. Burton, Ph.D., is Dean of Social Sciences, Director of the Center for Child and Family Policy and the James B. Duke Professor of Sociology, and a professor of public policy at Duke University. Donna-Marie Winn, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Associate for the Kenan Institute for Private Enterprise at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.