How Slavery Paved A Path For The Adultification — And Mass Execution — Of Black Children By Police

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Black child holding a Black Lives Matter sign

I’ve never been much for statistics, but if you’re Black in America it feels accurate to state that Black people are dying at an alarming rate in this country in the name of upholding the American way — i.e. racism.

I can’t help but feel that this is an everyday occurrence, and to the trauma that has been buried deep in the bodies of Black Americans, it is.

It absolutely is everyday that we are dying.

We hold the trauma of generations that predate those who are still here with us today, but additionally we hold the day-to-day trauma of being Black in America — being Black and engaging with the media, witnessing murder after murder of our skinfolk.

The worry kills us everyday, it’s just a slow death in the way that we don’t discuss much because it’s not as piercing and thus as noticeable as a bullet or a chokehold.

Then there’s the state sanctioned violence against Black bodies, which has proven to be never-ending.

From the mothers dying during childbirth to the mothers who live only to have their children die at the hands of cops and white Samaritans “standing their ground,” the ladder is any mother’s worst nightmare, white or Black.

Too often, it’s the Black mother’s nightmare actualized like a racist remake of Freddie Kreuger’s "Nightmare on Elm Street."

And much the same, we all know how it ends — every single time.

With every justification made for killing Black people, and even more so, Black children, America isn’t expected to change.

But we are in turn forced to walk on miles of eggshells teaching our children to avoid hoodies (Trayvon Martin), toys (Tamir Rice), and seeking police for protection (Ma’Khia Bryant).

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Yes, though America is seemingly confused about whether it wants to use Black children as target practice or fight for their right to be born into a life that leaves them with a target on their back by way of hypersurveiling Black women’s reproductive rights.

This country has left no room for the actual parties involved to be confused, because not only are we asking our children to forego the luxuries of childhood, but the actions of Americans have made it clear that it’s not safe for us to create life.

So for those of us who don’t have children, we teeter back and forth — asking ourselves if a Black child deserves to be selfishly born into a world that sees them as half human-half beast, rather than wholly human and deserving of life.

Regardless of anything Ma’Khia Bryant did or didn’t do in that video, this country built on racism decided she was a threat worth killing centuries ago.

It didn’t matter that Bryant had a history of trauma as a child — slavery laid the ground work for what is now recognized as adultification bias.

Although adultification bias can happen to all children, it happens disproportionately to children who are Black, Brown, and/or poor.

You know all of those studies in child development books and all that we have come to know about the brain of children, such as the fact that the frontal lobe isn’t fully developed until age 25?

The frontal lobe is responsible for impulse control, problem solving, communication, and sexual behaviors.

Yeah, well, with Black children all of those findings are ignored because of the ideology that Black people are not people but chattel, which was created to justify the holocaust that was the trans-Atlantic slave trade and is now known as the prison industrial complex.

The irony of us being viewed as animals and therefore unable to control our impulse to act ... animalistic, is that this layer of racism known as adultification — in which society views Black girls as more cognitively aware and less innocent in their actions by age 5 and Black boys by age 11 compared to their white peers — seemingly implies that, on some level, our children are more capable than animals.

But I digress, because this has proven to be one of the more dangerous stereotypes to weed the country due to racism.

The viewing of Black people as animals has managed to shape the way we are viewed sexually and otherwise.

This means it is also is the reason so many Black girls are sex trafficked without so much as a missing persons ad on a milk carton.

It’s the reason that Black girls are arrested for “prostitution” when prostitution implies choice, and, well ,the word “girl” lets us know that there could have been nothing consensual about the transaction.

A great example of this is Cynthoia Brown, a girl who was sex trafficked and wrongfully placed in prison at age 16 for murdering a man who purchased her for sex.

She did 15 years before she was released with clemency!

Not only does adultification aid in the construction of the school to prison pipeline, but it’s also the reason that Black children are given more strict punishments (whether it be prison or death).

So in the case of 16 year old Ma’Khia Bryant, she had nothing coming despite reports that she may have been the one who called the police. Despite reports that she was a child possibly using a knife to ward off the attack of two adults, she had nothing coming just because police are trained to shoot to kill when there is a threat, and given that Black people are seen as beasts, how can we ever not be a threat?

There is no amount of respectability politics or conforming that will make white people think of Black lives as worthy of saving without a mass shift in the long-withstanding narrative of Black people.

Centuries of conditioning have to be undone amongst white people first, and then Americans as a whole to change this anti-Black rhetoric so that police aren’t always responding to Black bodies with unjustified fear.

This fear is unreasonable and unjustified because it’s fear that white people created as a means to fear monger their people into believing in myths like Black on Black crime, or that Emmett Till was a threat to that hateful white lady because his whistle was seen as sexual and not the innocent strumming of a tune on a summer afternoon.

We can record the police, put our hands on the steering wheel, we can completely cooperate — and still, a Black child will be murdered.

Knife or not. Real threat or not.

Oppositely, white children and their parents’ are extended the grace of being dropped off to their home for them to privately decide on reasonable punitive measures.

Meanwhile, white adults shoot up movie theaters and spas, and they are gently picked up by the police and extended the grace of a “bad day.” The media downplays their age, referring to 18-year-old shooters as kids, while referring to actual Black children as adults as a means to vilify, then justify the murder of Black children.

This is adultification and the reality for Black children.

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Adultification affects the education Black children receive, from them being unjustly and disproportionately expelled or even deeming Black literature too raunchy and inappropriate, thus not providing access to literature that allows for representation outside of stereotypical supporting characters in novels like “To Kill a Mockingbird” where white people get to be saviors.

Black girls being sent home for dress code infractions, especially ones that sexualize them, rather than considering that a family might not be able to afford clothes that “fit” or that that white supremacy dictates that clothes be created for a white set of standards, body size included might not “fit” the way schools ridiculously require.

Again, this paints Black girls as sexual women, giving way to the old “jezebel” trope — the Black woman with insatiable sexual appetite who needs to be “tamed.”

Though adultification may appear different based on a person's intersectional identity, as I mentioned earlier, it can happen to anyone and be perpetuated by any of us.

Adultification also happens within households, and disproportionately so based on gender.

Boys get to be boys, while girls are raised to be strong, take on the bulk of the chores, and hold the bulk of the responsibility as a means to prepare them to take care of the men in their lives.

Arguably, this type of adultification has made way for the frat house legal system that perpetuates rape culture instead of holding men accountable for sexual assault.

“Boys will be boys” is what they say in the face of rape victims, more or less.

You see? Everyday that I’m Black and woman in America is a bad day, and yet, still no grace!

Everyday that I’m blessed — because let's face it, it’s not by my own doing — enough to make it to another day, it’s a bad day because I have to choose if having the “American Dream” — getting married and having 2.5 kids — is just going to lead to another exhilarating day for white racists who kill my son or daughter, setting me up for the ultimate bad day, the day where I must bury my child.

In this moment though, I am both squarely and selfishly certain that I will bring children into this world because I won’t let the hatred in the hearts of many stifle me from living a full life.

That I must apply “grass is greener” logic to the constant threat to my life as a Black woman is sadistic, but valid.

Not every Black girl is fortunate enough to grow into a Black woman, with air in her lungs and another day to marinate on heavy questions.

But many of us Black girls never got to just sit here and fall off into a happy daze of what life could be because the reality is too raw and our ability to live as innocent, joyful children is short lived.

With that in mind, know that it's my mission as both a sex educator committed to decolonizing Black sexuality and a future parent, to do my part to bring up happy, whole children — which is decidedly far more radical and upsetting to the racism that continues to exist and reek havoc on the lives of Black families, everywhere.

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Kiarra Sylvester, MEd, is the founder of Black Girl Book Collective and a sex educator on a mission to decolonize the Black women’s sexuality. Through her NPO, she gets to read and introduce Black, queer literature to Black girls in hopes that when she doesn't have the words to help them advocate for themselves, the words of Lorde, Walker, Butler, and Angelou will guide them.