Adultification bias robbing Black girls of childhood, researchers say

Stella Igweamaka and Nana Appah co-researched adultification bias as the winners of the 2022 Canadian Research Got Talent competition. (Stella Igweamaka  - image credit)
Stella Igweamaka and Nana Appah co-researched adultification bias as the winners of the 2022 Canadian Research Got Talent competition. (Stella Igweamaka - image credit)

The Edmonton winners of a national research competition hope their work on adultification bias will create awareness about an issue that forces Black girls to grow up too soon.

Adultification is a form of gendered racial prejudice, largely impacting Black girls and children of colour who are denied the necessary protection society usually affords children.

Kids are treated more maturely than their actual age compared to their white counterparts, which can lead to a whole host of problems including mental health and academic challenges.

Stella Igweamaka and Nana Appah co-researched adultification bias and were winners of the 2022 Canadian Research Got Talent competition, organized by the Canadian Research Insights Council.

Among their findings, respondents viewed Black girls from zero to nine years old as being more adult-like than their white counterparts.

More specifically, 12 per cent of respondents felt Black girls aged five to eight took on more adult responsibilities compared to eight per cent of white girls. Black girls aged zero to four were nearly twice as likely to be seen as independent compared to their white peers.

"Because of that you rob them of that childhood innocence, you rob them of being seen as a child, you rob them of being able to act as a child," Igweamaka said.

The online poll by Logit and Maru group was conducted among 400 adult Canadians between 30 June and 10 July 2022. If this were a probability sample, the margin of error would be +/- 5.0 percentage points.

Eleese Sealy
Eleese Sealy

When University of Alberta student Eleese Sealy started researching adultification bias, it shed light on the high expectations she faced from educators as a Black Jamaican Canadian girl attending a predominantly white school in Edmonton.

"It actually almost made me cry," Sealy told CBC News Thursday. "It hits home and it makes me understand some of my feelings that I was going through, especially between the ages of 12 to 15 where I really had low self-esteem.

For Sealy, it explained why she was often held to a higher standard than her white peers whether it was harsher punishments or being told she should know better.

"Your behaviour is picked on quite a bit. If everyone's talking, there's a few times where it's just who's told to be quiet," she said.

Those painful experiences are ones she lives with to this day.

"You always think twice about what you say, what you wear, what you dress like, and then what tends to happen is that you even stop your ability to express yourself," Sealy said.

Sealy's research inspired the work of Igweamaka and Appah, who completed "The Adultification of Black Girls and its implications for a Multicultural Community" in partnership with the Edmonton-based Black Canadian Women in Action (BCWA), where Sealy is a coordinator. Although much research has been done in the United States including a groundbreaking study at Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, data in Canada is limited.

Treating Black girls older than they are can have many negative consequences including higher rates of suspension and expulsion and lower morale and academic performance, Igweamaka said.

"You might want to even give up on life."

During focus groups and in-depth interviews, Igweamaka and Appah heard stories from Black girls who recalled being reprimanded by educators for their clothing or hairstyles while white students were not.

Even parents can adultify their Black daughters, said Igweamaka, by expecting them to take on more household  responsibilities or to act more maturely to avoid unwanted attention or stereotyping such as "the angry Black child" and to help keep them safe.

While the study didn't look at the reasons behind adultification, Igweamaka said it has roots in systemic racism, misogyny, slavery and the hypersexualization of Black women and girls. Igweamaka said sometimes Black girls mature physically earlier than their white peers, which could also be a factor.

Sealy is now using what she has learned to benefit others. At BWAC, she ran the Black Girls Corner to instil a sense of confidence in participants by learning about their culture and having a safe space to express themselves.

"That is something that I didn't have, was knowing that I could go to a lot of people to talk about what I'm going through and knowing that I'm not alone," Sealy said.

"Healing for me is helping the next generation."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.