Research Confirms that Black Girls Feel the Sting of Adultification Bias Identified in Earlier Georgetown Law Study

May 15, 2019

WASHINGTON – Building on its groundbreaking 2017 Girlhood Interrupted study showing that adults view black girls as more adult-like and less innocent than white girls, Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality today released a follow-up study that finds black girls routinely experience adultification bias.

“Our earlier research focused on adult attitudes and found that adults think black girls as young as 5 need less protection and nurturing than their white peers,” said report co-author Rebecca Epstein, who leads the Initiative on Gender, Justice & Opportunity at Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality. “Our new research elevates the voices of black women and girls themselves, who told us that they are routinely affected by this form of discrimination.”

The Center’s original 2017 study, Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood, applied statistical analysis to a national study of adults on their attitudes toward black girls. It found that adults believe black girls ages 5-19 need less nurturing, protection, support and comfort than white girls of the same age, and that black girls are more independent, know more about adult topics, and know more about sex than white girls.

The new report, Listening to Black Women and Girls: Lived Experiences of Adultification Bias, reveals findings from focus groups that examined whether the original study aligns with the real lives of black girls and women, and what should be done to address adultification bias. The study draws on interviews with black girls and women ages 12 to 60-plus in towns and cities of various sizes across the United States.

Findings include:

  • Black girls routinely experience adultification bias.
  • Adultification is linked to harsher treatment and higher standards for 
black girls in school.
  • Negative stereotypes of black women as angry, aggressive and 
hypersexualized are projected onto black girls.
  • Adults attempt to change black girls’ behavior to be more passive.
  • Adultification bias can lead educators and other authorities to treat black girls in developmentally inappropriate ways.
  • Factors that contribute to adultification bias include racism, sexism, and poverty.
  • Adults have less empathy for black girls than their white peers.

“[T]o society, we’re not innocent. And white girls are always innocent,” said a participant in one of the focus groups (ages 17-23).

The report and a new animated video (see below) on adultification bias share a sampling of quotes from focus group participants across the various findings.

“Almost all the black girls and women we talked to said they’d experienced adultification bias as children,” said Jamilia Blake, the report’s co-author.“And they overwhelmingly agreed that it led teachers and other adults to treat them more harshly and hold them to higher standards than white girls.”

Disciplinary Disparities

Nationally, black girls are suspended more than five times as often white girls, and black girls are 2.7 times more likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system than their white peers.

“The new research supports our earlier hypothesis that adultification bias is a major contributor to these disciplinary disparities,” Blake said.

When asked for suggestions to help overcome adultification bias against black girls, focus group participants said they hoped that the awareness raised by the Center’s research would lead to meaningful action to decrease this bias, and emphasized that targeted training for teachers and other authority figures would be most effective in helping them overcome their biases.

“I feel like, as teenagers, we still need to be protected… we still should be cared for and taught wrong or right. And it doesn’t matter if we’re like black or whatever,” said one study participant (age group 13-17).

To continue to demonstrate the widespread impact of adultification bias on black girls and to build the case for effective interventions, the Center is asking black women and girls to share their stories at their new storytelling portal,

Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality works with policymakers, researchers, practitioners, and advocates to develop effective policies and practices that alleviate poverty and inequality in the United States.