Why racist ‘adultification’ means Black children are assumed to be guilty

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Why racist ‘adultification’ means Black children are assumed to be guilty

Treating Black children as adults causes trauma and deep-rooted harm (Picture: Getty/Metro.co.uk)

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The news of the Black schoolgirl who was strip searched by the Metropolitan Police – while she was on her period – after being wrongly suspected of carrying cannabis, has triggered widespread condemnation.

The traumatic search took place at the girl’s school in east London at the end of 2020 without another adult present, and racism was ‘likely’ an influencing factor, according to a safeguarding report.

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The details of what happened to Child Q – as she is described in the report – are incredibly difficult to read. However, many are not surprised that this awful incident took place, and say it is part of a wider pattern of Black children in the UK being treated in a vile and dehumanising way.

Concerned parents, academics and anti-racist activists have explained that what happened to Child Q is a classic example of ‘adultification’ – where a child is perceived to be older than they are, and as such is not treated with the care and protection that should be afforded to minors.

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Viewing children as more adult-like may lead to criminalisation, harsher sentences from judges, higher rates of punishment is schools, and a critical lack of safeguarding – all things that have been widely reported among Black children and young people in the UK.

Racism is at the heart of these attitudes and behaviours, as ‘adultification’ stems from archaic stereotypes about Black people that hark back generations. The damaging impact of this form of racism can’t be overstated.

What is ‘adultification’?

A 2017 study found that from the age of five, Black girls were viewed as more adult-like throughout all stages of childhood in comparison to white peers. This increased at age 10-14, where they were perceived as more mature, more sexually aware and less innocent.

The study backed up similar findings from a 2009 paper, and research from 2014 – all of these studies categorise this behaviour as ‘adultification’, and conclude that it is dehumanising for the children involved.

‘Adultification is something which explicitly and specifically impacts Black children,’ Jahnine Davis, the co-founder and director of Listen Up, tells Metro.co.uk.

‘It can impact all children in different ways in terms of the language we use, calling children “streetwise”, for example. However, there is something specific and unique which happens to Black children and this form of adultification is dehumanising.

‘Black children are not perceived as being deserving victims.’

Jahnine, whose PhD research focuses on safeguarding Black children, says this can impact on how safeguarding professionals – within institutions like schools or the police force – go about their duties.

‘Black children are not receiving the safeguarding responses they need – potentially putting them at further risk of harm,’ Jahnine tells us. ‘It also sends a clear message in terms of worth and value – who we perceive as worthy of support and who we don’t.

Why racist ‘adultification’ means Black children are assumed to be guilty

‘Adultification is something which explicitly and specifically impacts Black children’ (Picture: Getty)

‘It also impacts potentially, on how Black children view themselves and what they then identify and understand to be harmful. This kind of behaviour normalises harm and feeds into the narrative that Black people can withstand any form of abuse.’

Jahnine conducted a study in 2019 looking at the ways ‘adultification’ impacted the experiences of Black girls who had been through child sexual abuse. She found that similar stereotypes led to Black children being hypersexualised, thought of as ‘strong’, and ultimately lessened the support and protection they received.

This is just a small window into the overall picture.

Adultification of Black children doesn’t only affect girls. In fact, studies have also shown that these attitudes could lead to discrimination against Black and mixed heritage boys in the youth justice system.

The 2021 reported stated: ‘If practitioners (in youth justice systems) attribute inappropriate maturity to a child, then their difficulties with or anxieties about engaging with services, which are not unusual given their young age, are more likely to be interpreted as “choosing not to engage” or not wanting help.’


How is ‘adultification’ a form of racism?

Although there are intersecting factors that can leave any child at risk of adultification, there are inextricable links to racism that means this phenomenon inevitably impacts Black children more.

‘The two things interrelate and overlap,’ says Jahnine. ‘We have to acknowledge that the preconditions of adultification are racism and the various stereotypes and historical narratives about Black people which continue to permeate society,’ says Jahnine.

She says this impacts the way we view Black children – more often than not, not viewing them as children at all.

‘It decreases the level of vulnerability of Black children, that innate vulnerability all children have, and instead increases culpability and responsibility, which impacts on their rights.’

Roxy Legane, director of Kids of Colour and a member of No Police in Schools campaign, says the ‘adultification’ of Black children is key to racism functioning in society.

‘The racist, gendered violence inflicted on Child Q, and many other children policed in their schools, would not be possible without the eradication of Black children’s “child status”,’ Roxy tells Metro.co.uk.

‘This eradication has a long legacy, used to enable the most oppressive violence.

‘As a society, we generally label children “innocent”. So, to harm children, the public must deem it acceptable, which requires a removal of that innocence. That lens is replaced with the age-old stereotypes: threat, suspect, aggressor, promiscuous, excessively strong.’

Why racist ‘adultification’ means Black children are assumed to be guilty

‘The preconditions of adultification are racism and the various stereotypes about Black people which continue to permeate society’ (Picture: Getty)

Roxy explains that these stereotypes change the way children are viewed, and justify harm committed against them.

‘Through our work on police in schools, we have seen the consequences of this adultification play out regularly,’ she adds.

‘Children interviewed by police in school, without parents. In our report, young girls called “sluts and slags” by the school officer. An officer in assembly saying girls cannot wear short skirts as it “would be their fault if a man looks underneath”. Teachers not even allowing Black children to be children, suggesting they shouldn’t spend time in groups at break because they look like “gangs”.’

Roxy says the process of adultification often peaks in ‘horrific violence’, and is compounded when victims – like Child Q – are forced even further into an adult role, taking on the burden of trying to ensure other children don’t experience what they went through.

‘The impact of all of this is ongoing racial trauma for our children,’ says Roxy. ‘What has been done to Child Q will be triggering for so many with similar experiences, and even those without. This violence will not stop until we remove policing from our communities and address the racism that is rife in our education system.’

What happened to Child Q is not simply an isolated incident and it didn’t happen in a vacuum. This is a symptom of a wider, systemic problem of institutional racism that leads to the unequal treatment of Black children in the UK in many different spaces.

‘Black women and Black girls perceive themselves as continuously having to navigate complex spaces, because ultimately, there are no safe spaces,’ Jahnine tells us.

‘This is because the spaces which are there to protect and support Black children are actually the spaces which enforce harm.’

The State of Racism

This series is an in-depth look at racism in the UK.

We aim to look at how, where and why individual and structural racism impacts people of colour from all walks of life.

It’s vital that we improve the language we have to talk about racism and continue the difficult conversations about inequality – even if they make you uncomfortable.

We want to hear from you – if you have a personal story or experience of racism that you would like to share get in touch: metrolifestyleteam@metro.co.uk

Do you have a story to share?

Get in touch by emailing MetroLifestyleTeam@Metro.co.uk.

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