But I Am A Child! – The Adultification Of Black Girls And Implications For Early Childhood

Officer: Stop acting like a child.
Young Girl: I am a child!

In a recent blogpost we detailed some of the structural failures that contributed to the pepper spraying and arrest of a nine-year-old girl in Rochester, New York. Prior to this incident, several cries for help, particularly in the form of a request for mental health support, were ignored or not properly addressed. An additional layer of this story points to implicit bias and the adultification of Black girls – both of which likely played a significant role in this young girl’s treatment during her encounter with law enforcement.

The Yale School of Medicine has defined implicit bias as “the automatic and unconscious stereotypes that drive people to behave and make decisions in certain ways.”[i] In Implicit Bias: A Primer for Courts, Dr. Jerry Kang – a Professor of Law and formerly UCLA’s inaugural vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion – adds that a bias is implicit (and not explicit) when we are either “unaware of or mistaken about the source of the thought or feeling.”[ii] Implicit bias is quite real and in everyday life is known to predict things such as the rate of callbacks for job interviews,[iii] how we read friendliness of facial expressions, more negative professional evaluations (especially for women), and the amount of shooter bias present when a law enforcement officer decides when to fire their gun.[iv] Intricately linked to implicit bias, adultification refers to “a social or cultural stereotype that is based on how adults perceive children in the absence of knowledge of children’s behavior and verbalizations.”[v] Perceptions of a child are negative and form long before any interaction ever occurs. Due to the assumption of being less innocent and more adult-like than their peers, Black girls in particular are often deemed to need less nurturing, protection, and support than their peers.

Earlier this month an analysis of the Rochester incident by experts in race, policing and mental health confirmed as much. Dr. Nikki Jones, Professor of African American Studies at UC-Berkeley, explained that there was no benefit of innocence given to the nine-year-old girl as is often the case with Black girls. Former Tallahassee police officer and Professor of Law and Criminal Justice at University of South Carolina, Seth Stoughton, added that there were ways to humanize the interaction especially given the girl’s young age, but no real attempts were made to do so. Dan Felts, a mental health counselor with Crisis Assistance Helping out on the Streets (CAHOOTS) in Oregon, agreed and added that there was a failure to listen, empathize or come up with a distinct plan of action – all of which may have gone a long way towards de-escalation and resolution. Stoughton also noted that the entire incident was so poorly handled that the video would likely be used in the future to train officers on how not to handle individuals in mental health crisis. [vi]

The juxtaposition of these research findings and expert analysis alongside the videotaped interaction between white police officers and a nine-year-old Black girl begs several questions:

Was law enforcement properly trained and prepared to handle this case?

Was an arrest necessary?

Would pepper spray have been used if she were a nine-year-old white girl?

At the age of nine, what was she to act like if not a child?

On January 6th, many of us witnessed the vast majority of adult domestic terrorists treated far more humanely than this young girl, even while feloniously breaching the Capitol complex and putting the lives of the then Vice President, numerous other elected officials, their staff and law enforcement officers (federal and local) in imminent danger. If adults could garner such consideration and “grace” in the midst of undertaking a historic and dangerous insurrection, it becomes difficult not to wonder where that same leniency was for this child. For the most part, these insurgents did not look like her; they were not Black.

It should not be left up to children – whether Black girls or any other child – to remind us of their childhood. In a sector where we assert that children are at the center of all we do, it behooves us to confront the ills of implicit bias that have normalized a way too palatable form of racism. We must actively do our part to change an embarrassingly harmful yet true narrative. Last month our Nurturing Developing Minds Conference and Research Symposium session, Uncovering Unconscious Bias, highlighted that racial trauma and its impacts – a few of which are anxiety, depression, suicidality, and lower self-esteem[vii] – should be just as much of a concern within early childhood as are adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Like ACEs, racial trauma in childhood also manifests as potentially traumatic events (PTEs) that can lead to disrupted neurological development, failed health, and an early death.[viii]

Researchers have specifically recommended “providing individuals who have authority over children—including teachers and law enforcement officials— with training on adultification to address and counteract this manifestation of implicit bias against Black girls.”[ix] In the coming months ICS will partner with the Palmetto Shared Services Alliance (PSSA) and Sharp Brain Consulting to offer implicit bias trainings to preschool teachers, educators and others who may be interested. This continued education is one very important step towards change. Our hope is that a culture shift will occur such that one day soon we can focus less on building resilient childhoods due to the expectation and acceptance of deep-seated trauma in childhood and focus more on creating and normalizing systemic accountability structures that reject bias and foster nurturing, for all children.

[i] Walter S. Gilliam, et al. Do Early Educators’ Implicit Biases Regarding Sex and Race Relate to Behavior Expectations and Recommendations of Preschool Expulsions and Suspensions? Yale University Child Study Center, September 2016.

[ii] Jerry Kang. Implicit Bias: A Primer for Courts. National Center for State Courts, 2009.

[iii] Callback Rate, by Race and Criminal Record. The Hamilton Project. Brookings, 2003.

[iv] Kang, Primer.

[v] Rebecca Epstein, et al. Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood. Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality. July 18, 2017.

[vi] What Went Wrong: Analysis of Police Handcuffing, Pepper-Spraying 9-Year-Old Girl. NPR Special Series: America Reckons With Racial Injustice. March 9, 2021.

[vii] Donte L. Bernard, et al. Making the “C-ACE” for a Culturally-Informed Adverse Childhood Experiences Framework to Understand the Pervasive Mental Health Impact of Racism on Black Youth. Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma.

[viii] Adding Layers to the ACEs Pyramid – What Do You Think? ACEs Connection, 2015.

[ix] Epstein, Interrupted.

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