As the #MeToo movement continues to grow with more women coming out with their experiences of discrimination, molestation, and assault, the lack of conversation around racism and rape culture can often be seen in responses like, “Well, this isn’t about race. It’s about women” or “You’re a woman before your race.” These statements negate rape culture’s actual problem: that it is innately racist and most often impacts our Black youth, primarily Black girls.
There are many variables into why rape culture is more prevalent in the Black community. One reason could be what is known as the adultification bias, or the belief that children of color are more mature than their white counterparts. A 2017 research study done by the Initiative on Gender Justice and Opportunity at Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality showed us that adultification starts as young as five years old. In this study, researchers created a survey on the adults’ perceptions of girls, which lead to a significant bias towards Black girls.
Adultification can have a significant impact on our Black youth. The lack of presumption of innocence can lead to more disciplinary actions in schools, police brutality, and our children’s hyper-sexualization. Black children aren’t given the right to the legal notion of innocence until proven guilty. It’s almost innate to our society to not question why a black child is guilty they just are. Instead of understanding why they do what they do, it’s often punishment first, questions later.
Why are Black girls and children seen as less innocent?
To put it quite frankly, it’s because of slavery! Now I know people like to argue that slavery happened so long ago that Black people aren’t slaves in the present day and should get over it. My response to that would be a kind and gracious referral to this diagram:
The above graphic shows that Black people were enslaved and segregated much longer than we have been “free,” and the consequences of that did not disappear overnight. Slavery and segregation played a significant role in how Black people are perceived today. During slavery, Black people were thought of as less human and not protected under God’s grace. Slave owners raped and pillaged black women and girls’ bodies; this is an undisputed fact of those times. Yet, this sentiment didn’t change once slavery ended. During segregation, it was viewed as normal and expected for Black girls to be raped and kidnapped.
An example of this is the recent series The Rape Of Recy Taylor. This documentary exposes the harsh reality of Black women in the Jim Crow South. Recy Taylor, only around 24 years old, was walking home from church with a friend. A group of white men driving by ordered the women to stop. They refused and would later be kidnapped and dragged into the woods to be gang-raped. This story told Black women and children that no matter if you’re walking to school, going to church, or visiting family, rape was a normalized fear for Black women. During segregation, white people’s perceptions of Black people were slowly molding into the stereotypes we hear about today: stereotypes like being ghetto, having no manners, loud, angry, violent, and lazy. These are only just a few stereotypes that were created to diminish the Black community.
The history and stereotypes created back during slavery still exist today. We see these through the videos of Black men being stopped and murdered by the police, or Black children being suspended for wearing their hair the way it grows on their heads. Racism still exists, and it seeps through every facet of American society.
The way we learn about sex isn’t excluded from the shackles of racism. Yes, we’ve all taken sex ed in school, but let us be honest: the way most of us learned about sex wasn’t just from those few short classes or the notorious birds and the bees talk from our parents. Pornography has had a prominent presence in the way we perceive and learn about sex, and the information we get is incorrect and can also be harmful. Dr. West, a University of Washington professor who has dedicated two decades of research and teachings on Sex Crimes and Sexual Violence, stated in her article How Mainstream Porn Normalizes Violence Against Black Women, “Consider how pornography is a form of sexual violence. Young people are consuming porn as a form of sexual education, which is especially problematic because porn promotes horrifically racist and abusive content in the name of sexual entertainment to anyone with internet access, even children.”
Pornography is intertwined with the roots of racism and rape culture. As Dr. West discussed in the many articles she’s written on this particular topic, the sexualization of young girls’ is disturbing. However, the portrayal of young Black girls specifically is grotesque and just plain racist. Black girls are often depicted as ghetto, ratchet, and aggressive. The titles of these videos often reference prostitution or slavery. With all of these negative depictions of Black girls, there’s no wonder why others perceive us as more mature and hypersexual.
Another way Black girls are adultified is through the harmful stereotype of the strong Black woman. Now don’t get me wrong I’m a strong Black woman for sure. The idea of being a strong Black woman can help us continue to drive through any hardships in our lives. In a Forbes article by Rhonesha Byng, she says it best, “The need to succeed is a natural human desire, yet for Black women, our success is beyond simple bragging rights or a pat on the back. Our success represents something bigger than our personal victory.” Being a strong Black woman is more than just a mantra or way of being; it can be physiological warfare of emotions. Being a strong Black woman means feeling motivated to push through trauma while also feeling drained from the constant pressure to overcome those traumas.
I can be vulnerable, get weak, and break down and drop the ball from time to time. These are the realities of being human; however, what is harmful is the perpetual pressure to be strong throughout all our adversities. The experience of trauma, such as rape, creates added stress to an already stressful life. As Black women, we feel like we must always keep it together even while surviving trauma, if not for us, then for our families and those around us. This notion can have a detrimental effect on how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. It also impacts our health. The daily process to put on and take off the imaginary armor of being driven, unbothered, and healthy can be exhausting and stressful. Stress has shown multiple times to be detrimental to our health.
At what age do we put on this armor?
Sometimes people say “adversities” when they really mean trauma. This trauma is the constant violence that we as Black people continue to experience in America. It’s the brutal videos of Black men, women, and children murdered in the streets. It’s systemic economic oppression and sexual exploitation. Black children put on this armor every time they see and hear about these daily traumas. The armor of the strong Black woman or the angry Black man is a coping mechanism that lets us continue pushing through our trauma. This armor can also give others the perception that we’re aggressive or that we should handle even more, which continues to perpetuate a lot of these stereotypes.
Adversity can be good. The definition of adversity is misfortunes or difficulties. It’s the challenges that we all face whether that’s looking for a job or pushing through school; it’s what builds character. However, trauma is a challenge that children shouldn’t have to face in order to grow. Trauma is sexual abuse, poverty, and discrimination. Black girls and other people of color go through both adversities and trauma and it’s important to understand the difference between the two.
Why are the numbers of Black children being trafficked so high?
The loss of innocence is the factor that contributes to rape culture and sex trafficking as well. If we look at the number of minors trafficked in King County alone, the overall majority are Black minors.
So, why are these numbers so high? The same answer to this question can apply to the first question proposed at the beginning of this article: Black youth are perceived as less innocent and less in need of protection. Additional factors contribute to these high numbers, such as poverty rates, access to resources, over-policing, and more. Adultification and these other systemic issues lead to the sad reality that Black girls are exploited at an alarming rate, not just locally but nationally. This graphic depicts the number of trafficking victims by race involved in cases prosecuted in King County. Please note that King County’s population is less than 7%, Black.
So after hearing about adultification, slavery, segregation, pornography, stereotypes, and sexual exploitation, one may still have many questions lingering in their heads. However, we need to ask ourselves the most critical question: how do we protect Black girls’ loss of innocence? There’s no easy answer to solve this vital issue in our society. Reading this blog is just the first step in understanding the loss of innocence we as Black girls experience. Even though this article focused more on Black girls, we can’t forget about the other children of color and Black boys disproportionately impacted by violence especially sexual violence. My biggest advice to the Black girls out there who have experienced sexual trauma is finding a way to cope with the memories that work for you. Whether it’s writing, singing, or going on a rooftop to scream, find your peace, and learn to forgive not for them but for you. To our allies, leave space for us to speak on our truths about this issue. Most of all, let our Black girls be children for a little while longer.
If you are a victim or survivor in need of support, please contact RAINN on their 24/7 hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673)
If you suspect a case of human trafficking or are currently being exploited, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-3737-888 or text “BEFREE” to 233733
For a list of red flags and warning signs of sexual exploitation: Visit the King County Commercially Sexually Exploited Children (CSEC) Task Force website.
“2018 U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline Statistics.” Polaris, 13 Feb. 2020, polarisproject.org/2018-us-national-human-trafficking-hotline-statistics/.
Black Girls Viewed As Less Innocent Than White Girls, Georgetown Law Research Finds, www.law.georgetown.edu/news/black-girls-viewed-as-less-innocent-than-white-girls-georgetown-law-research-finds-2/.
Byng, Rhonesha. “Failure Is Not An Option: The Pressure Black Women Feel To Succeed.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 1 Sept. 2017, www.forbes.com/sites/rhoneshabyng/2017/08/31/failure-is-not-an-option-the-pressure-black-women-feel-to-succeed/.
Dines, Gail, and Carolyn M. West. “Pornhub’s ‘Black Lives Matter’ Genre and the Industry’s Brash Racism.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 9 July 2020, slate.com/human-interest/2020/07/pornhub-black-lives-matter-genre-racism.html.
Lockhart, P.R. “A New Report Shows How Racism and Bias Deny Black Girls Their Childhoods.” Vox, Vox, 16 May 2019, www.vox.com/identities/2019/5/16/18624683/black-girls-racism-bias-adultification-discipline-georgetown.
Manager, Program. “How Often Does It Happen?” Program Manager, www.wcsap.org/help/about-sexual-assault/how-often-does-it-happen.
Spray Mcdonald. “’The Rape of Recy Taylor’ Explores the Little-Known Terror Campaign against Black Women.” The Undefeated, The Undefeated, 14 Dec. 2017, theundefeated.com/features/the-rape-of-recy-taylor-explores-the-little-known-terror-campaign-against-black-women/.
West, Carolyn M. “How Mainstream Porn Normalizes Violence Against Black Women.” Fight the New Drug, 2 July 2020, fightthenewdrug.org/how-mainstream-porn-normalizes-violence-against-black-women/.