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By Ebinehita Iyere
icture a 12-year-old Black girl. What does she look like? Is she smiling, is she laughing, is she playing? Is she angry, does she have an attitude? Is she...a problem? Finally, ask yourself this: is she a child to you?
In my role as a therapeutic practitioner I see Black girls every day. Young people are referred to me through various systems – often the education and justice systems - and I engage with them on but mainly offsite. This can be anything from group workshops to doing something as seemingly trivial as getting our hair done together. I will talk to them, I will listen.
I have personally worked with well over 150 Black girls who have been deemed ‘difficult’ or ‘problematic’ – often who have been excluded, suspended or sometimes just removed from classes in their schools. I see this again, and again in my work the fact that Black Caribbean girls are twice as likely to be excluded from schools as their white counterparts, with this exclusion rate rising by 66 per cent over the last five years according to research done by the charity collective Agenda. But why is this happening?
I see it so clearly, because I know what this feels like. I know that, as a Black girl, you are highly likely to be responded to in a completely different way to a white girl. A white girl in the same class is allowed to be upset, or have anxiety and for these issues to be contextualised. They are allowed to be a child. But in my experience, a Black girl is automatically viewed as angry — a problem, a disturbance.
Children and young people communicate through their behaviour. But it seems that we are not prepared to find out what a Black girl is trying to communicate. Instead, too often we deal in harmful stereotypes and see only a problematic Black girl who will grow into an angry Black woman. Why do we rarely see the child?
"I will never forget what happened to Child Q, but I will make sure that there is never another Child Q – ever."
My work aims to counteract the adultification of Black girls. The established racial bias, which means Black girls are not afforded the same notions of childhood as everyone else, has direct ramifications. Because society struggles with affording Black girls space for joy or trauma the way it does white children, it only recognises them for how they ‘present’.
What happens next is an act of judgement and criminalisation. We never consider a Black girl’s experience but only ‘what has she done?’. In this way, the systems that are meant to protect them, criminalise them instead.
It is one of the main reasons I set up Milk Honey Bees; a safe space for Black girls and young women to express themselves and flourish — to be listened to, to heal and be resilient, but also to be themselves, to be individuals.
Black girls are not monolithic. They of course can be funny, and smart, and curious, and joyful and, yes, often angry, upset, anxious. They sit at the intersection of two marginalised groups, what it means to be Black, and what it means to be a girl, and yet we are not having enough conversations about how it feels to be a Black girl, or how society fails them.
If you want to see what that failure looks like, consider the case of Child Q. This was a 15-year-old Black girl who was strip-searched in a Hackney school by Met officers in 2020, after she was wrongly suspected of carrying cannabis.
"Black girls are not monolithic. They of course can be funny, and smart, and curious, and joyful and, yes, often angry, upset, anxious."
There was no adult supervision, her parents were not contacted and everyone also knew she was menstruating. We somehow seem to have forgotten that this was a child in a place where she was supposed to be safe in order to get an education. I feel like it was an amplification of a conversation that had already been happening but I wish it had never happened to her. I will never forget what happened to Child Q, but I will make sure that there is never another Child Q – ever.
It’s why I have dedicated myself to looking into why Black girls are denied their childhood, and what we can do to eradicate this. Black girls from more impoverished backgrounds are often forced to grow up too fast, feeding into wider societal stereotypes as Black girls being perceived to be older than their years.
"Black girls sit at the intersection of two marginalised groups, what it means to be Black, and what it means to be a girl, and yet we are not having enough conversations about how it feels to be a Black girl."
These young Black girls often find themselves taking on extra caregiving work to support their families and communities. A 2013 report from the Children’s Society found young carers were 1.5 times more likely to be from Black and Minority Ethnic groups.
It was my interactions with a 15-year-old Black girl who had lost friends to gang violence which first planted the seed of Milk Honey Bees. This child was trauma carrying for her community, dealing with pain and responsibility way beyond her years.
And while we conduct research and create projects to support young Black boys in these communities, and protect them from this kind of violence, what about Black girls? Black girls are under-represented in research on gang violence and its ripple effects, which affects how safe guarding policies are developed for them. They become a forgotten part of the conversation.
One of the dangers of this adultification is that it becomes internalised by Black girls themselves. Black girlhood is buried alive – often by Black girls themselves - in order to survive. Black girls put on armour to protect themselves and others from systems that fail them and situations that traumatise them, and we end up just seeing the armour, not the girl underneath. If we never allow them space to play or express themselves without punishment, if we force them to grow up too fast, they will.
Girlhood Unfiltered: A Milk Honey Bees essay collection by Ebinehita Iyere (Knights of Media, £7.99) is out now
Before another victim is made, we must break the cycles and stereotypes of the "problematic Black girl".
By Ebinehita Iyere
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