Adults Perceive Black Girls as ‘Less Innocent’ than White Girls: Georgetown Study

The study finds substantial bias toward Black girls beginning at age five.


Black girls are perceived as stoic, in need of less nurturing and knowing more about sexual relations than white girls, according to the results of a new study. 

Detailed in the report “Girl Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood,” published by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality on Tuesday, the study found that adults view Black girls as more adult-like than their white peers, especially in the age range of 5–14.

The authors of the report are Rebecca Epstein, the executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality; Jamilia J. Blake, associate professor at Texas A&M University; and Thalia González, associate professor at Occidental College.

“What we found is that adults see Black girls as less innocent and less in need of protection as white girls of the same age,” said Epstein, the lead author.

“This new evidence of what we call the ‘adultification’ of Black girls may help explain why Black girls in America are disciplined much more often and more severely than white girls — across our schools and in our juvenile justice system.”

For the study, a total of 325 adults from across the country were recruited through an online service. Participants were predominantly white (74 percent), 51 and female (62 percent). Thirty-nine percent were 25–34 years old.

“Information regarding respondents’ occupations was not assessed, but sixty-nine percent held a degree beyond a high school diploma,” state the authors.

They were not informed of the survey’s purpose but were asked to complete a nine-item questionnaire online about their perceptions of the current development of young girls.

Questions included:

  • How often do Black [or white] females take on adult responsibilities?
  • How much do Black [or white] females seem older than their age?
  • How much do Black [or white] females need to be supported?
  • How much do Black [or white] females need to be comforted?
  • How independent are Black [or white] females?
  • How knowledgeable are Black [or white] females about sex?

The periods of childhood and adolescence were divided into four age brackets: 0–4, 5–9, 10–14 and 15–19 years old.

Across all age ranges, participants had an implicit bias against Black girls, collectively viewing them as more adult-like than white girls.

Survey participants perceived that Black girls in the following ways:

  • Need less nurturing
  • Need to be supported less
  • Need to be comforted less
  • Need less protection
  • Are more independent
  • Know more about adult topics
  • Know more about sex

Origins of the Implicit Bias and Effect on Black Girls

The report cites prior research on the origins of historical stereotypes about Black women, which have “real-life consequences for Black girls today.”

In the South during the period of slavery, “three dominant paradigms of Black femininity that originated have persisted into present-day culture, which ‘paint Black females as hypersexual, boisterous, aggressive, and unscrupulous’”:

  • Sapphire (e.g., emasculating, loud, aggressive, angry, stubborn, and unfeminine)
  • Jezebel (e.g., hypersexualized, seductive and exploiter of men’s weaknesses)
  • Mammy (e.g., self-sacrificing, nurturing, loving, asexual).

The “adultification” of Black girls definitely influences how they are treated in the education and juvenile justice systems.

“In light of proven disparities in school discipline, we suggest that the perception of Black girls as less innocent may contribute to harsher punishment by educators and school resource officers,” the authors state in the report.

In the past few years, there have been incidents that garnered national attention, validating the findings of “Girl Interrupted” and other studies on the racial bias.

Richland, S.C., Senior Deputy Ben Fields was fired following the violent arrest of a young Black teen in 2015.

Related Story

School Cop Fired Following Violent Arrest of Black Student

The South Carolina Deputy was fired Wednesday morning after his attack on a 16-year-old Black female.

The 16-year-old student refused to put her cell phone away when asked by her teacher at Spring Valley High School in Columbia. She was then asked to leave the classroom and refused a second time, saying she did nothing wrong. Not only did Fields flip the girl over while she was still sitting in her desk, he dragged her out of her chair across the room and pinned her to the ground.

The student identified by her first name, Shakara, and Niya Kenny, an 18-year-old classmate who caught the incident on video, were arrested and eventually released. They were charged with a misdemeanor of “disturbing school.”

After FBI and State Law Enforcement Division investigations, it was determined in September that neither Fields nor the two students would be prosecuted.

Also in 2015, a video showing the police response to an incident at a private community pool in McKinney, Texas, went viral. It showed an officer assaulting a 15-year-old Black girl.

Related Story

Cpl. Casebolt forcing Dajerria Becton to the ground

Cop Resigns After Video Shows Brutal Treatment of Black Teen

Video capturing a police officer roughly abusing and arresting a teenage girl illustrates the disturbing way in which Black youth are routinely viewed as older and less innocent than white counterparts.

Eric Casebolt chased kids, shouted expletives and barked orders almost exclusively to Black teens. He eventually confronted Dajerria Becton, 15, who he forcibly shoved to the ground:

Casebolt resigned from his position, but a grand jury decided in 2016 not to bring criminal charges against him. Becton filed a federal suit against the former cop, the city and the police department in December.


With “Girl Interupted,” Epstein, Blake and González challenge researchers to initiate new studies to investigate the degree and prevalence of the adultification of Black girls, “as well as its possible causal connection with negative outcomes across a diverse range of public systems, including education, juvenile justice, and child welfare.”

The National Domestic Workers Alliance’s recently released the report “The Status of Black Women in the United States,” which includes data that illustrates implicit bias against Black girls follows them into adulthood.

For example, in 2014, Black women ages 18-19 were four times as likely among young women to be imprisoned as white women of the same age (32 per 100,000 compared with 8 per 100,000).

The authors of “Girl Interrupted” urge legislators, policymakers and advocates to further look into and create reform for the disparities that exist for Black girls in the education and juvenile justice systems.

They recommend training on adultification for individuals who have authority over children — including teachers and law enforcement officials — to “counteract this manifestation of implicit bias against Black girls.”

But most importantly, the researchers state, “the voices of Black girls themselves remain front and center to the work.”

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  • Obviously this report is bias because they asked a group of folks OUTSIDE of the group that they were studying…duh. What I do agree with is that Black girls are super strong and can do and overcome anything! #Oprah #ShondaRimes #FLOTUSMichelleO #WhoopiGoldberg #Beyoncé #ShaunRobinson #AliceWalker #MaxineWaters #allofus

    • Charity Dell

      KAREN–It’s good they asked people OUTSIDE the group. We need to know EXACTLY WHY
      Black girls get more severe treatment and punishment than their Euro-American peers.
      It is ALWAYS good to know EXACTLY what racists think, and WHY they think it. You can
      better formulate TRAINING and POLICIES that can stop the adultification of Black girls.

  • Michael J. "Orange Mike" Lowrey

    Many times the survivors are stronger, because they have to be; but that means they need MORE nurturing, MORE comforting – not less.

    • That has certainly been my personal experience. In business, the people who have consistently been the most kind and generous to me are Black women, especially ones my age (older). It’s humbling to contemplate the endless insults, discrimination and unkindness dealt to them by white men as I reflect on the kindness, sisterly love and care given to me in return.

  • I agree with the outcome of the study as pretty accurate; however, I do not accept it as the reason our young women are mistreated by society. I raised my three daughters to be smart, independent and strong; therefore not relying on anyone to help, support, encourage, etc. This is something I thought them that the have to do on their own. If help, support and encouragement comes along, by all means accept it, but never depend on it.
    With the issues that plague us as African Americans, I don’t see if as an option. I want my daughters to find strong supporting black men as their mates; however with so many black men be imprisoned and killed, this is a tall order. So I prepare them to have a healthy and happy life that the will have to provide for themselves until such a time as they can find a worthwhile partner.
    Yes, I teach my daughters from a very young age about sex. Not sexuality, but the wrongs of sex: abuse, harassment, inappropriate touching, etc. This was very personal for me being a child that was sexually abused. My daughters needed to know that no threat of any kind should keep them from coming to me and telling my about any inappropriate sexual advances towards them.
    So, if I was a participant in this survey, I would have answered the questions in the same manner however; I fail to see these traits as negative. We need to stop trying to find excuses and way to rationalize why society treats us negatively…, it is not because my daughters know about sex at an early age, nor is it because there are more independent, or because the are stronger, self-sufficient, etc…..these are all very good things to teach our young women….it is simply because they are black….and I personally feel that there are way more damaging stereotypes out there about young African American women that causes society to mistreat them than what is indicated in this study….I just can’t bridge the gap between the results of this study to connect it to how our young women are being mistreated. JMO

  • I think that commenters are missing the point. It is the perception of our black girls and women that results in their mistreatment. They are poorly treated, disciplined and yes, assaulted and raped because of these perceptions of their being independent, needing less nurturing, needing less protection, know more (and apparently to rapists, don’t mind) about sex. Why is a 7 year old, a 14 year old, a 15 year old treated/mistreated like a grown woman? Yes, we raise our girls to be strong, independent, and yes to expect but protect themselves from this unequal view of them, but why do we have to. Why can’t they just be little girls? Because this society won’t let them.

    • Charity Dell

      CAROL–Your observations are most astute. The saddest thing is that people feel entitled to strip
      the childhoods and innocence of young black females. This “entitlement” to destroy the fragile
      innocence of girlhood permeates society in general, and is “tripled” in its effects on young black
      girls. It does not help that parents permit the fashion industry to dress young children like
      strippers, hookers, nightwalkers and assorted Lowlifes and Denizens of the Netherworld.
      “Dress-up” clothes for young females are designed to advertise young female bodies:
      female children should look like Princesses, not Prostitutes!

      Parents have also forgotten to include appropriate underwear for their female children,
      which again, means that young bodies are showing through dresses of diaphanous fabrics.
      Those stupid “pageants” that have children wearing huge amounts of make-up, “flippers”
      for teeth, hairpieces and outfits made for 25-year old nightclub singers also pressure
      young females of color to look and act like people fifteen years their senior.

      Young black girls need to have constructive, nurturing childhoods AND an adolescence
      which is NOT designed to “hurry them up.”

      • Charity, though I may agree that we have problems with how we dress young girls of all colors, or how they dress themselves, in many instances of inequity of treatment it’s not that packaging, but their permanent packaging of gender and color that’s the issue.

        • Charity Dell

          Carol–You are correct. I am not blaming the young girls; I am blaming a society bent
          on stripping young children of their innocence and forcing them into outrageously
          sex-oriented, inappropriate dress and behaviors. That “packaging” is really an extension
          of both Black slavery AND White slavery in the Americas.

  • I agree in most part with the findings of the study and how young black women are treated in American society. I’ll leave my comments specific to the study and absolutely there is a huge disparity in how we’re treated and viewed in relation to other groups. We lived through a time in this country where we were relegated to property and in an attempt to dehumanize us even further weren’t called by our names but by ‘girl’, ‘boy’, etc. Unfortunately, racism has become a bit more subtle throughout the years but the perception that is presented in movies and TV shows that shows a little black girl as ‘sassy’ with her hands on her hips rolling her eyes, and a little white girl of the same age as adorable and innocent dressed in a cute dress taints the lens and view. When a child can be brutalized in a classroom for not relinquishing a cell phone and people nod in agreement at the action there’s a problem. When you can throw a young girl on the ground and with both knees in her back tell her to cut it out when all she’s doing is crying, there’s a problem. We are children for such a short time in our lives and that should be something that is cherished and allowed to flourish. It’s a time before cynicism can be learned. A time before racial bias is understood and hopefully not taken up. A time when the biggest thing in your mind is playing with your dolls or going to the park to get on the swing. We can’t even seem to get that right and allow children to just be children without the extraneous BS.

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