The Case for Black Girlhood

A sixteen year old child, Ma’Khia Bryant, lost her life to the police in Columbus, Ohio on Tuesday evening. Bryant’s murder was announced as the guilty verdict of David Chauvin—the cop who murdered George Floyd less than a year ago—was handed down in Minneapolis.

In the moments following her own murder, people rushed to paint her as deviant and therefore worthy of her death. One of the most insidious ways people began to construct her as deviant was by labeling the teenage girl as a woman.

The Columbus mayor Andrew Ginther referred to the teenager as a woman in a tweet about the shooting: “This afternoon a young woman tragically lost her life. We do not know all of the details. There is body-worn camera footage of the incident. We are working to review it as soon as possible. BCI is on the scene conducting an independent investigation — as they do with all CPD-involved shootings. We will share information that we can as soon as it becomes available. I’m asking for residents to remain calm and allow BCI to gather the facts.”

In a quick review of comments on social media surrounding Ma’Khia’s death we see that people are merciless in their desire to paint the sixteen year old as perverse. There is little to no framing of her behavior within the context of childhood. There is little consideration of her humanity. In fact, there seems to be an impulse to construct her as monstrous. Even in her death.

These assessments of Bryant as woman and monstrous are not unique. In fact, Black children often viewed as older and more adult than they actually are. This tendency to construct Black children as adults is known as adultification. This process is a “social or cultural stereotype that is based on how adults perceive children ‘in the absence of knowledge of children’s behavior and verbalizations.’”

There has been quite a bit of work on how Black boys experience adultification. For example, in Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity Arnet Ferguson discusses how Black boys are “denied the masculine dispensation constituting white males as being ‘naturally naughty’ and are discerned as willfully bad.” Because of this denial of childhood to Black boys and society’s belief that they are already adult-like and therefore worthy of adult-like punishments, Black boys are more likely to be viewed as deserving of punishment within and outside of the school system.

Black girls experience adultification in a different way—largely one that is rooted in anti-Black misogyny (see also: misogynoir). By this I mean that Black girls are subjected to the same stereotypes as their adult Black women/femme counterparts—particularly the jezebel and the sapphire.

The jezebel can be described as a Black woman who is hypersexual and naturally so. When applied to Black girls, we see people describing them as “fast” or “too grown” or as a “hoochie-mama.” We may also see the jezebel stereotype cause people to assume these children are more knowledgeable about sex than they actually are. The sapphire stereotype is connected to ideas of the Black woman as loud, impulsive, unfeminine, rude, and overbearing. It is most well known in the context of the “angry Black woman.” When used against Black girls, the sapphire trope constructs Black girls as irrational, angry, and in need of control.

What’s more, articulations of Black girlhood in society will always be viewed as deviant because we hold a White femininity that is middle-class, heterosexual, and cisgender as normative. When Black girls depart from these performances of acceptable femininity, they are cast as criminal, in need of control, and deserving of punishment. In Pushout: the Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, Monique Morris tells us that this punishment can take on the form of jail, house arrest, in or out of school suspension, digital monitoring, detention centers, or death.

I want a world in which Black girls are allowed to exist as children.  A world in which we don’t have to mourn their childhood the moment they take their first breath. A world where Black women and femmes don’t have to mourn that child within that was not extended grace. Where they could scream and kick and laugh and cry and fuck up and are seen as children because of it. Where we don’t bend over backwards to construct a Black girl as criminal and worthy of her death.

I wish that world existed for my sisters. My mother. My grandmother. For my inner Black girl that chose silence in search of survival.

I wish that world existed for Ma’Khia.

I am wholly uninterested in discourses that demonize this child. I choose to spend this time grieving the Black girlhood that should have been and thinking about curating a world in which Black girlhood can be.

Perhaps this world will eventually materialize, but I’m tired of Black girls dying because we are incapable of seeing them as human.

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