‘It’s More Than Just Tragic’: Ma’Khia Bryant and the Burden of Black Girlhood

“Ma’Khia Bryant was a child.”

— Brittany Cooper, the author of “Eloquent Rage”

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It happened in a matter of seconds.

On Tuesday, in Columbus, Ohio, a police officer fatally shot Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl.

Body-camera footage shows Officer Nicholas Reardon, who was responding to a 911 call, arriving at a chaotic scene, with several people engaged in a heated fight, outside Ms. Bryant’s foster home.

As the officer gets out of his vehicle, Ms. Bryant is seen lunging at a woman with what appears to be a knife in her hand. Then, seconds later, in the frenzy and chaos, she lunges at another woman.

“Hey! Hey!” Officer Reardon says as he pulls out his gun. “Get down! Get down!”

He fires four quick shots, killing Ms. Bryant in an instant.

The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation is conducting a third-party investigation. And some experts, after watching the footage, have pointed out that Ms. Bryant was armed and seemed to be acting erratically, deeming the use of deadly force justifiable.

But the timing of the shooting — on the same day that the former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd last May — underscored, for many, the incessant drumbeat of police brutality and systemic racism.

Ms. Bryant’s young age — so evident in her giggly TikTok videos, dancing and doing her hair like any teenage girl — also highlights the unique burden of Black girls: In media coverage, Ms. Bryant has consistently been referred to as a woman, and her behavior and her body size have been scrutinized to suggest that she presented a large, uncontainable threat to everyone at the scene.

“Ma’Khia Bryant was a child,” Brittany Cooper, author of “Eloquent Rage,” said on MSNBC on Thursday. “The way that she has been talked about — because she is a big girl — people see her as the aggressor. They don’t see her humanity. They have adultified her.”

Because of layers of gendered racism, adults tend to view Black girls as more threatening, more aggressive, more mature and less innocent than white girls of the same age, robbing Black girls of the freedom to be children, according to a 2017 report by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality.

The report found that Black girls as young as 5 years old are held to adultlike standards and, in turn, receive harsher punishments for their behavior: Black girls are more likely to be suspended or arrested at school than their white peers, often for minor infractions, like using their cellphones or throwing tantrums. In another report by the same researchers, one girl recalled that in elementary school, during a game at recess, she had thrown a ball and it had hit another girl in the face. She was then accused of assault and battery. Others shared that if they spoke up in class, they were labeled sassy or outspoken, while their white peers were seen as intelligent.

Though Black boys also face the same adultification bias, the experience of Black girls has been and still is largely overlooked.

To unpack these issues, In Her Words caught up with Dr. Jamilia Blake, a co-author of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality report and a psychology professor at Texas A&M University, and Dr. Monique Morris, executive director of Grantmakers for Girls of Color and author of the book “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in School.”

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with adultification bias. What does it mean, and how does it manifest in schools or interactions with law enforcement?

Jamilia Blake: When Black girls are not seen as children, that’s adultification bias. They’re not seen as being innocent; they’re not seen as needing nurturing; they’re seen as more adultlike, and what it is, is dehumanization. Black girls are not afforded the same freedoms that are guaranteed in childhood, like exploration, the ability to make mistakes or the benefit of the doubt. How it looks in school is this general perception of Black girls’ behavior being very volitional and menacing, and even more so if they voice their concerns and raise awareness — everything that they do is kind of seen as problematic. They are constantly monitored, they receive more severe disciplinary actions, and they aren’t even able to be sad or cry. And I don’t think many educators, law professionals, mental health professionals and individuals who interact with children are even aware of it — I don’t think they know that the adultification bias may be driving the punitiveness and the severity of their responses to Black girls.

Monique Morris: Adultification bias is also age compression. This is a way to erase the normal adolescent behavior and development that we have come to associate with young people, and it heightens our propensity to respond to young people as if they’re fully developed adults — referring to girls as women, not allowing them to make mistakes, even how we define their responses to conditions. So when there are things that negatively impact them and they speak up against it, we as adults associate this Black girl behavior with some of the same tropes and stereotypes that have plagued Black womanhood for centuries. Their way of responding and defending themselves is read to be combative, and their way of challenging structures of oppression are deemed to be aggressive. That leaves very little opportunity for us to really think about the prevalence of trauma in their lives.

Right, and the very harmful “angry Black woman” trope is always in the wings …

MM: Exactly. And sometimes people think about the emotions as mutually exclusive — like you can’t express anger and also be victimized by systems of oppression. We have to really think about the host of environmental conditions as part of the tapestry shaping their life outcomes — to strip them of this context facilitates the adultification bias and, in many ways, reduces the institutional capacity to be responsive.

JB: Right, exactly. The ability to express a range of emotions, whether that’s in response to oppressive conditions or not, is a function of being human. So what is happening to Black girls and children is that we’re robbing them of the essential aspects of what it means to be a human being.

What were your thoughts when you watched the body-camera footage?

JB: For me as a mother — I have a 16-year-old — whenever videos of these incidents come out, I wait a significant amount of time to watch it because I don’t want to see the loss of life of another young Black person for something senseless. It really tears away at your soul. At any given time, that could have been me; that could have been my daughter, my niece or any of the girls that I work with. So when I did see the video, I saw someone who just reacted and didn’t take a lay of the land in terms of what was happening, didn’t ask questions, didn’t try to interrupt the fight.

MM: You’re not alone — I took my time to watch it, too, and originally I was not going to watch the video. We have seen so many cases, and it’s retraumatizing to watch this footage over and over. I also have a teenage daughter, a 17-year-old, who has had a pretty strong reaction to the way the media has covered this shooting — showing, for example, snippets and clips from the footage without issuing trigger warnings. This routine display of violence, in this way, also contributes to that dehumanization and adultification of our young people as they have to absorb all of this and also function as if everything is normal.

All the foster care professionals and others who work with girls who I’ve spoken to have said that they, as non-police officers, have been able to disarm girls with a knife engaged in a fight without shooting someone. And the issue here is also the fact that whenever we have moments of crisis in our society, we call upon individuals like this officer, who was an expert marksman, to come in and respond to something that did not require an expert marksman.

What are some ways to work through this?

MM: I immediately got on the phone with people in the Columbus community who are working in schools or working with girls in high-risk situations in the community to ask them what they needed, what was happening, how girls were processing the moment. Much of the work that is happening now, in response to this shooting, is to reinforce and amplify to Black girls that they are in fact loved; that if they make a mistake and if they engage in a fight, that the first response won’t be to kill them but to intervene and help them learn from that — the same nonviolent interventions that are used for children who are not Black girls. We as adults, especially those adults who are called to be first responders in moments of crisis, have to forever be working on our capacity to elevate the need to preserve life.

So much of what I’m seeing in the public domain in response to the footage is this inability for us to just basically ask the humane question of how do we resolve conflict without killing somebody? It’s not necessarily either/or on the adultification bias or racialized violence, but the adultification is informed by the history of racialized violence. You have to see all of the context that created a space for these girls to be read as super, ultra threatening and predatory. It’s more than just tragic; it’s part of the deep legacy of oppression.

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