‘It’s More Than Just Tragic’: Ma’Khia Bryant and the Burden of Black Girlhood

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Jamilia Blake: When Black girls are not seen as children, that’s adultification bias. They’re not seen as being innocent; they’re not seen as needing nurturing; they’re seen as more adultlike, and what it is, is dehumanization. Black girls are not afforded the same freedoms that are guaranteed in childhood, like exploration, the ability to make mistakes or the benefit of the doubt. How it looks in school is this general perception of Black girls’ behavior being very volitional and menacing, and even more so if they voice their concerns and raise awareness — everything that they do is kind of seen as problematic. They are constantly monitored, they receive more severe disciplinary actions, and they aren’t even able to be sad or cry. And I don’t think many educators, law professionals, mental health professionals and individuals who interact with children are even aware of it — I don’t think they know that the adultification bias may be driving the punitiveness and the severity of their responses to Black girls.

Monique Morris: Adultification bias is also age compression. This is a way to erase the normal adolescent behavior and development that we have come to associate with young people, and it heightens our propensity to respond to young people as if they’re fully developed adults — referring to girls as women, not allowing them to make mistakes, even how we define their responses to conditions. So when there are things that negatively impact them and they speak up against it, we as adults associate this Black girl behavior with some of the same tropes and stereotypes that have plagued Black womanhood for centuries. Their way of responding and defending themselves is read to be combative, and their way of challenging structures of oppression are deemed to be aggressive. That leaves very little opportunity for us to really think about the prevalence of trauma in their lives.

Right, and the very harmful “angry Black woman” trope is always in the wings …

MM: Exactly. And sometimes people think about the emotions as mutually exclusive — like you can’t express anger and also be victimized by systems of oppression. We have to really think about the host of environmental conditions as part of the tapestry shaping their life outcomes — to strip them of this context facilitates the adultification bias and, in many ways, reduces the institutional capacity to be responsive.

JB: Right, exactly. The ability to express a range of emotions, whether that’s in response to oppressive conditions or not, is a function of being human. So what is happening to Black girls and children is that we’re robbing them of the essential aspects of what it means to be a human being.

What were your thoughts when you watched the body-camera footage?

JB: For me as a mother — I have a 16-year-old — whenever videos of these incidents come out, I wait a significant amount of time to watch it because I don’t want to see the loss of life of another young Black person for something senseless. It really tears away at your soul. At any given time, that could have been me; that could have been my daughter, my niece or any of the girls that I work with. So when I did see the video, I saw someone who just reacted and didn’t take a lay of the land in terms of what was happening, didn’t ask questions, didn’t try to interrupt the fight.

MM: You’re not alone — I took my time to watch it, too, and originally I was not going to watch the video. We have seen so many cases, and it’s retraumatizing to watch this footage over and over. I also have a teenage daughter, a 17-year-old, who has had a pretty strong reaction to the way the media has covered this shooting — showing, for example, snippets and clips from the footage without issuing trigger warnings. This routine display of violence, in this way, also contributes to that dehumanization and adultification of our young people as they have to absorb all of this and also function as if everything is normal.

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