October marks Black History Month here in the UK. If, like me, you grew up in the UK and have Black heritage, it’s quite likely you have mixed feelings about the month. A lot of the criticism surrounding BHM comes from the meaningless representation we seem to get in this month. It’s hard to strike a balance between not solely focussing on Black trauma and pain but also representing our stories fairly. Oftentimes, the failure to acknowledge our pain is what leads to such tokenistic representation.
As a global movement for gender equality, I do feel we’ve moved beyond this notion that we need to include Black women in our struggle for liberation. We know we need to listen and uplift Black voices (at least I hope so!) and we know that racism and misogyny almost always intersect and compound. But saying that only takes us so far. As part of our activism, I think it’s crucial to name systems and structures of inequality. When I was asked to write a blog post for OSN, I wanted to focus specifically on adultification. It’s something I have seen consistently in my work, but also a necessary form of gendered racial violence that I think we need to name and challenge in Black History Month and beyond.
So, what is adultification?
Definition: Adultification is a form of bias where children from Black children are perceived as being more ‘streetwise’, more ‘grown up’, less innocent and less vulnerable than other children. This particularly affects Black children, who might be viewed primarily as a threat rather than as a child who needs support (Davis and Marsh, 2020; Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, 2019).
A lot of people mistake adultification for assuming someone is older than they are on the basis of looks alone. Whilst this is a common and often unpleasant thing that might happen, it’s not quite the same as adultification because adultification is so much more than just a visual observation. It is a social phenomenon that is fuelled by racist narratives and a long-lasting legacy of colonial violence. In simple terms, it is the assumption that because a child is Black, they are older, more mature, less innocent, and more able to take care of themselves than white children are. Adultification imposes racial stereotypes and narratives on Black children, dictating what their experiences should be before they even develop the agency and autonomy (and in some cases even the legal grounding) to do so themselves.
Adultification influences the way society views Black children, and as a result how all of the systems around a Black child may view them too. Examples of this include school, social care, healthcare, and the criminal justice system. Adultification is also a major safeguarding concern, because what it essentially does is prohibit those in positions of trust from effectively assessing risk and safeguarding Black children properly. Some may describe this as a form of unconscious bias, but I do question just how unconscious it is when we – as professionals – know that Black children remain underrepresented and underserved by our various organisations.
It’s easy to assume that adultification is a recent phenomenon, but it isn’t. The process of adultification began with slavery, where Black children were enslaved and treated as chattel. They were treated almost exactly the same as their adult counterparts. Slavery afforded no kindness to anyone, but even as a Black person whose family are direct descendants of enslaved people, this is quite a difficult fact to stomach. And slavery did not, of course, disappear off the face of the Earth. The formal, economic practice of enslaving people was abolished and prohibited, but the victims and victors of the Slave Trade remained in society, and so too did the cruel systems that marginalised, harmed, and abused Black people. These practices informed our laws and legislation, they shaped our institutions as we currently know them, and they gave us a definition of power that still remains the dominant understanding today.
And how does adultification show up?
I think it might actually be impossible to find a place in a young Black person’s life where adultification doesn’t show up – at least here in the UK- but in my work, these are some of the standout examples I have found:
In the classroom
As an RSE (relationship and sex) educator, I see adultification in the classroom almost every day. The RSE curriculum is by no means perfect, but what it attempts to do is provide a framework of age and stage appropriate content. It tells educators what topics to teach when and gives us an idea of the content that might be a bit too mature for a specific young person we’re working with.
Despite this, teachers will often decide for themselves which students require more or less information about sex and relationships based on how mature they think their students are. Comments like ‘this group really needs this’ or ‘this child is probably having sex already’ seem harmless at first, but in my experience these comments are almost always made about Black young people. This assumption of maturity on the basis of race alone is deeply racist and demonstrates how the hypersexualistion of Black bodies is something that begins even before the age of consent. This not only impacts the quality of education they receive, but also makes it even harder for them to seek support. If, for example, a young Black person is exposed to pornography that is inappropriate and upsetting, it’s unlikely they would receive the same amount of empathy and support that a white student would from a teacher.
Sexual knowledge is expected from Black young people for the simple fact that they are Black. This conclusion sounds extreme but it is accurate, especially when the beliefs that fuel adultification come from colonialism and the myths it sold as truths. Good quality relationship and sex education is a necessary component of gender-based violence eradication. If Black young people are marginalised and not treated fairly in this education, all hopes of a truly anti-violent society fall flat.
We know that public sexual harassment affects almost all girls and gender non-conforming young people in the UK. Statistics also show that Black young people belonging to marginalised gender groups are at greater risk of PSH and of experiencing more violent, invasive PSH. The testimonies from Our Streets Now demonstrate a resounding overlap of misogyny and racism in the experiences of Black young people, or misogynoir. When we understand what adultification is and what it does, the extremity of this PSH starts to make sense.
Colloquially, I have also noticed that experiences of PSH start a lot earlier for Black children, which many people will say is because they go through puberty and show physical signs of maturity before white children do. But even this is problematic. This idea that Black children go through puberty earlier than other racial groups is not massively founded on scientific evidence, and if anything is another example of how the adultification bias influences how we talk about societal issues. It’s like we set Black children up to be unprotected and susceptible to harm.
Gender-based violence sector
I’ve been fortunate enough to spend most of my time working with the communities I belong to. It’s always shocking to me to hear from colleagues in the wider sector that Black young women and girls are practically missing from the data collected nationally, but it isn’t all that surprising. In parts of the country where specialist services do exist (like London) this might not be a major issue, but in regions where VAWG services are generic and supposedly for everyone, it’s really clear thay Black young women and girls are an afterthought.
Violence against Black young women and girls is detected significantly later than it is for other racial groups. And when it is picked up, it’s often downplayed or even ignored. For many Black girls and femmes, the ‘strong Black woman trope’ begins before womanhood even starts. This idea that Black girls are more able to fend for themselves and therefore require less support limits our professional curiosity. When things go wrong in a young Black person’s life, they aren’t taken as seriously because the assumption is that they’ll be able to cope. The terms ‘strong’ and ‘resilient’ are thrown around like compliments, but for most Black, what they really translate to is people not seeing their pain and not allowing them their softness. Black children’s ability to survive despite all of the structural barriers they might come up against doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying to take care of them.
The term cultural competence gets thrown around a lot. Without a doubt, a closer cultural proximity between someone providing a service and someone receiving support does facilitate easier conversation and disclosures. Given the choice, it makes sense for you to prefer talking to someone who shares certain experiences with you. But that doesn’t mean that only Black support workers should be the only ones able to support a Black survivor of gender-based violence. If we all have the capacity to recognise unconscious bias, then surely we can all do our part to stop it showing up in our work. Groups like SistahSpace have been campaigning for mandatory cultural competence training for all statutory services for this exact reason.
Adultification, like all forms of racism, won’t just disappear overnight. Acknowledging its presence is the first of many steps in removing it from our society. This blog post is a short but hopefully helpful introduction to the topic. There’s no quick fix solution to it but questioning narratives and dynamics in the spaces we occupy is a good place to start. Perhaps even more than this, it’s important that the support we offer Black children is built on the belief that they not only deserve protection from harm but are deserving of love, care and equality
Ammaarah Zayna (she/her) is an educator, writer and consultant on all things gender, race and reproductive justice related. She is a trained gender-based violence advocate who now works as a community and youth educator. Ammaarah is also a mixed-race, Muslim Londoner.
Davis, Jahnine, Adultification bias within child protection and safeguarding (2022)
Epstein, Rebecca, Jamilia Blake, Jamilia and Thalia González, Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood (2017)
Michael J. Dumas & Joseph Derrick Nelson, (Re)Imagining Black Boyhood: Toward a Critical Framework for Educ. Res., 86 harv. eduC. rev. 27, 33 (2016)