What is lost when the media portrays Black girls as adults

Published on
May 4, 2021

In 2015, 15-year-old Black girl Dajerria Becton was forcibly grabbed and pinned to the ground face down in her bathing suit at a pool party by former McKinney, Texas police officer Eric Casebolt.

That same year, 16-year-old high schooler Shakara was knocked to the floor by Sheriff’s Deputy Ben Fields, who upended a desk and dragged her across the classroom, leaving the girl with a cast on her right arm and injuries to her neck, back, and face.

In 2017, 15-year-old student Jasmine Darwin suffered a concussion after being hoisted into the air and body slammed to the floor by a school resource officer in North Carolina. 

Black girls in the United States have long been denied the vulnerability and protection usually afforded children. Stereotypes and assumptions cast Black girls as more mature than their years, more sexual, more threatening, which has resulted in their abuse and neglect.

On April 20, 2021, body camera footage from police officer Nicholas Reardon of Columbus, Ohio shows that it took him approximately 10 seconds to decide that 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was a threat that could only be stopped with a gun. In that brief span of time there was little room made to account for her age, for her experience as a foster child, or for any past childhood traumas that may have led her to that chaotic moment.

Reardon fatally shot Bryant four times, after witnessing her push down one girl she was fighting with and pin another to a nearby car while holding a knife in her hand.

Public and media discourse over Bryant’s killing has been split, with some deeming the officer's use of force justified, given Bryant’s apparent attempt to stab the girl in her path. As I read the coverage, I come away with the impression that those making this argument are content to portray Bryant as an adult who fully understood and deserved the consequences of her actions, regardless of her age and personal circumstances.

That view is part of a broader trend in the media. The adultification of Black girls, a term used to describe how Black girls are often viewed as older and more culpable than white girls, appears again and again in the ways Black girls are treated and portrayed in the United States. A study done by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality revealed that “adults perceive African American girls as needing less nurturing and less protection than white girls.” The study continues, “These findings help to explain the disproportionate rates of punishment in the juvenile justice system for African American girls as compared to white girls.”

Many have expressed outrage over the lack of effort from the officers present to deescalate the fight and disarm Ma’Khia Bryant, choosing instead to shoot her four times. Bryant’s death occurred just minutes before former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd, sparking renewed calls for police reform. 

Those who think the officer shooting was justified fail to understand why Bryant’s killing has pained so many in the Black community. Those who mourn Bryant don’t see a large, threatening woman with an intent to kill, the way some have painted the deceased teen. They see a girl who grew up in a foster care system that’s notorious for failing Black and Brown children, a girl who enjoyed making TikTok videos about Black hair care, a girl who loved colorful Crocs, her footwear of choice even on the day of her death. A girl who was denied her childhood.

According to Joy James, a professor of Africana studies at Williams College in Massachusetts, this isn’t a new story. 

“The history of US adultification of Black girls, and the ensuing rationalization of psychological, emotional and physical/sexual abuse that often follows adultification, is older than the ‘founding fathers,’ said James, a radical Black feminist scholar, via email. “When society and government project onto Black girls a lack of vulnerability to violence, sexual predation, emotional abuse, then it creates propaganda that justifies the neglect of suffering and neglect of Black girls, and blames the girls themselves for their internal ‘failings’."

Author Tyffani Dent, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology and whose work addresses the intersection of mental health, race, and gender, would agree. “They are not permitted to figure life out,” Dent said, also via email. “They are expected to be resilient, in the face of unfair treatment — and not given space to be frustrated, angry, anxious, and sad about this treatment.” 

Both experts emphasize that the media plays a large role in how Black girls are viewed by society. “First, make it clear that they are girls — not women, not adults,” said Dent. “Tell the full story of the girls that are covered — because we know that society is not going to ask additional questions of ‘why’ and ‘what happened’ and frame them as children.” 

James suggests interviewing Black girls — with parental permission and alternate names, if necessary — so that they can tell their own stories: “Their narratives, better than your reporting, can give a true impression of what life is like for Black girls.”

Lastly, Dent encourages reporters to check their bias when approaching stories on Black girls.

“Or to make it even simpler, identify whether or not the way you are reporting our stories would be the same images, language, angle that you would use if the girl being profiled was White. Black girls deserve the same humanity.”