The Criminalization and Adultification of Black Girls in America’s K-12 Educational Institutions

Some would argue that the most disrespected woman in America is the black woman, and the least protected woman in America is the black woman. I can’t say that I disagree with that. Especially as I engage in research from both a practical and theoretical perspective as it relates to the treatment of Black Girls in some of America’s public schools.

I recently spoke publicly about this topic during a keynote presentation that I delivered in California. Throughout my presentation, I identified several key areas which serve as counterproductive to supporting black girls in taking their rightful places in society. For the purpose of this blog post, I will focus briefly on adultification and unfair disciplinary practices which can lead to the criminalization of black girls. Adultification is a concept coined to describe how black girls are disproportionately perceived as less innocent, needing less nurturing, less protection, less support, knowing more about sex and adult topics and are more adult-like than their peers (The Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality). 

It is important to recognize that adultification can take place in two forms. One form is described as a process of socialization in which children function at a more mature developmental stage because of situational context and necessity, especially in low-resource community environments. An example of this is when a third-grade student informs her teachers that she has to rush home from school so she can wash clothes, unload the dishwasher and cook dinner for her siblings; and really mean it. 

Another form is a cultural stereotype that is based on how adults perceive children in the absence of knowledge of children’s behavior and verbalizations- this is the area of focus for this blog. Monique Morrison can be quoted as stating that scholars have observed that society regularly responds to black girls as if they are fully developed adults. This stereotype is further exacerbated when black girls are generalized and misread as loud, sassy, and aggressive when it really is an outward expression and manifestation of their critical thinking and intellectual capacities.

With regard to discipline, here is what we need to know: first, perceptions of black girls as less innocent may contribute to harsher punishment by educators and school resource officers (Monique Morris-Co-Founder National Black Women’s Justice Institute). Black girls spend less time in the classroom due to discipline, which further hinders their access to a high-quality education. Black girls are six times more likely to be expelled, 3 times more likely to be suspended, and 4 times more likely to be arrested than white girls. Black girls are restrained and transferred to alternative schools at alarmingly disproportionate rates. Exclusionary discipline is strongly associated with a host of negative outcomes affecting student wellness, including increased disengagement, feelings of stress and isolation, poorer academic achievement, and increased likelihood of involvement with juvenile justice systems (NYU Steinhardt). 

So, what do we have the power to do about what I have described? First, be clear about the impact of such on the mental health of black girls. Next, raise their consciousness around issues that impact them most, and lastly, help them learn more about resilience by engaging them in conversations focused on the Women’s Rights Movement also called the Women’s Liberation Movement. -and whatever you do… do something.