Since pre-k, my biracial daughter has been adultified with adult skill sets applied to her normal childhood behaviors and differences and nefarious intentionality ascribed to her behaviors. She is not afforded the presumption of childhood innocence or the right to the childhood developmental expectations. She has repeatedly been removed from her classroom, received lunchroom and recess punishment, pathologized (recommended for counseling 1x/week for crying in kindergarten, and suspended several times for merely crying in class). She was accused and investigated in 1st grade for bullying and vandalism because parents in our school view her as “a bit of a mean girl,” “a ring leader, “aggressive,” “hostile” and having “something wrong” with her. Parents have described her as smart and calculating … at 6! When incidents have happened to her, they are underreported or misreported, minimized as not being all that hurtful or problematic. My child has feelings, does feel pain, and deserves to be valued and cared for as do all children.
It was the day of the championship game. If we won, we’d move on to the next division, with a shot at the state championship title.
We were all pumped up and ready to go as we saw how full the gym had become with family members, friends, and townspeople. I gave my parents the usual smile and wave and got on the court. The game was about to start when I realized the referees were all huddled around the scorer’s table looking and pointing at me. Confused, I looked at my parents who shared the same expression. In front of the large crowd of people, the referee pulled me off the court and started asking me questions about my age. “How old are you?” The referee stared at me long and hard not accepting my constant answer of “Eleven.” Continuing to say “You shouldn’t be playing right now. You’re not eleven.” and “You shouldn’t be lying about your age.”
The world seemed to stop as everyone stared at me in what felt like, disappointment. Tears stung my face as I stared at my sneakers wishing I could’ve disappeared, wishing that this was all just a bad dream. I never liked being called a liar and here I was being called one by an adult in front of all my peers. My parents had to go back home to retrieve my birth certificate before I was able to play; Costing me half the game. When the referees realized that I was eleven and developed for my age, I didn’t get an apology. Instead, they just let me back into the game, conveniently glossing over their blatant humiliation of me. I will never forget that moment. The shame that came with it or how I then became more conscious of my appearance.
Looking back, I remember the conscious efforts of my mother putting barrettes and beads in my hair, how she made sure that I “dressed my age.” Now, I see that those decisions weren’t just for the purpose of fashion, but a form of protection.
The media is very much complicit in how it portrays children of color and how children of color are absent from major films for children.
When I was 19, I decided it was time to go to the OBGYN for the first time. I had lost my virginity to my boyfriend and wanted to get on birth control. The doctor was an older white man. He came into the room and started asking me questions about my sexual history. What was striking and insulting, was that he asked in very assuming ways. He asked. “So, you’ve had 4 or 5 sexual partners, or more?” I told him I had only ever been with one man. Then he asked, “So, then you’ve been active for, what, 5 or 6 years?” I was shocked and angry. I replied, “No. I didn’t start having sex at 13 years old. I just lost my virginity a month ago.” To which he responded, “Hmmm.” I left feeling terrible at all of his assumptions about my sexuality.
I don’t really remember how old I was but it was in elementary school. All the boys & girls were being ‘fresh’ as most boys & girls do around that time. I remember a boy approaching me in class to be what flirtatious was at that age and the teacher yelled at me. The boy was black as well. I remember telling her, “But he came up to me” and I remember her response being something along the lines of I invited him to talk to me for being playful with him. The other girls in the class, who were white or Hispanic, would sit on laps and kiss cheeks but I was just sitting at my desk.
I went to small evangelical Christian schools that were extremely conservative and mostly white. In many of my classes I was the only black person. On many occasions I was kicked out of classes for “rolling my eyes” or “having an attitude.” I never understood why this was happening, because I wasn’t trying to be disruptive. I got straight-A’s, but still my teachers didn’t believe me when I tried to tell them that I was not purposefully trying to be negative in class. I honestly never thought that it could be the result of a bias until reading other people’s stories about similar situations.
I would like to add something that has always annoyed me. The term “street smart” is always associated with black kids. I have always asked “what the hell does that mean”. If a black kid is poor, and he or she has seen and experienced events that they should not have seen at such a young age, e.g. heard gun fire in their neighborhoods or murders, society adultifies them because of the experience. Society characterizes said children as having grown wiser and stronger because of these bad experiences. Additionally, since these experiences have purportedly enhanced the lives of these children, these children are expected to behave like adults because they should know how bad life is. As a result, they are not given the grace period to grow and behave as normal teens, and their actions are dealt with harshly. Racism has a tendency to assign these bad experiences to black children, many of whom live in middle class or even upper class neighborhoods who have never experienced these traumas, but who are treated as though they have. Additionally, since society has determined that such negative experiences were positive, it doesn’t feel a need to either protect such children or give them psychological counseling or support. On the flip side. Look at the school shootings. Those kids are given psychological care immediately. Those kids are not expected to cope. And the experiences are rightfully characterized as what they are—traumatic events that can alter a child’s psyche, sense of stability, and safety. Society seems to know and understand that there is nothing positive about being in a school shooting, being shot at, or witnessing murder. The news recently has been filled with stories about how the kids at Columbine and other mass shootings have never recovered and have suffered years of drug use and/or committed suicide. There is a striking difference in how these kids are treated compared to black children. Assigning adultification to black kids definitely removes the responsibility from society to help these kids. It also justifies society’s racist vilification and treatment of these innocent children.
One time in 6th grade at a pool party at my affluent White friend’s house (where I was the only Black person), my friends and I were in the hot tub with our “crushes”. Meanwhile we did not know that all of the moms (my mom was not present) were in the kitchen watching us. The boys asked my friends and I to sit on their laps. At that age we had no idea about sex! We just knew we thought they were cute and liked them and didn’t want to jeopardize them liking us back. So we agreed to sit on their laps. All of my friends, except one (none of the boys were into her) sat on a boy’s lap, but shortly after, all of the moms came outside and asked me to come into the kitchen with them to talk. During this conversation they accused me of being the ring leader and said they were worried about me! Even though all of the other girls did the exact same thing. I was singled out and they threatened to tell me parents what I did. No one else faced any consequences. After the meeting in the kitchen I went back to the party and cried. I felt crushed and thoroughly embarrassed. I realized that day that my White friends and their parents saw me differently. My heart was broken.
I couldn’t have been more than 13 years old. While I had a door key, it was rare that my grandmother wasn’t home when I came home from school. This particular day, she wasn’t home. We had an alarm system that she would set and I just needed to punch in the code. It gave you a certain amount of time to put the code in before it would signal the police. So for whatever reason I didn’t put the code in in time. Next thing I know my house is surrounded by police. Now it’s right after school and I’m still in my private school uniform- jumper, shirt with the Peter Pan collar, knee highs. And my hair was always in pigtails, so there is no way I looked like an adult. I go out and explain to the police officer that I live here and everything is ok. But he was convinced that I was lying. Asked for ID, which I didn’t have cause I was like 12! Then asked if I had any mail with my name on it. Once again I didn’t have cause I was in middle school and why would I have mail? Took one of my neighbors coming out and confirming that I did indeed live there. That was over 20 years ago. I still remember the cops face.
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