Ten is the new 21

Perceptions about childhood and innocence tend to go hand in hand. People generally believe that young children are innocent and deserving of a worry-free childhood. Unfortunately, children in racialized groups might stop benefitting from such convenient assumptions way earlier in life than children in more racially advantaged groups.

Dr. Goff from the University of California in Los Angeles interviewed police officers about their perceptions of children in different racial and age groups. While this could be one more in a well-known series of studies, it reveals interesting and larger assumptions about childhood and innocence. From the officers’ responses, Goff concluded that while children in most societies are placed in a distinct and innocent group, “black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”

Goff’s findings happen to be published at a time when police offense is being highly questioned in the US. But they also document the responses of students, showing a larger extent of people’s negative perceptions of black kids.

In one experiment, students rated the innocence of people ranging from infants to 25-year-olds who were black, white or an unidentified race. The students judged children up to 9 years old as equally innocent regardless of race, but considered black children significantly less innocent than other children in every age group beginning at age 10, the researchers found.

The researchers’ reasons for controlling for gender are not clear. Would men assess children similarly to these women if prompted?

Goff’s findings highlight adult subjective perceptions of children, showing that assumptions of innocence vary depending on the child’s race. They also reveal the real and negative consequences that children face because of their skin color. Children who are more quickly judged as adults are also more likely to be punished as adults, as evidenced by Little B Lewis’s case.

The evidence shows that perceptions of the essential nature of children can be affected by race, and for black children, this can mean they lose the protection afforded by assumed childhood innocence well before they become adults . . . With the average age overestimation for black boys exceeding four-and-a-half years, in some cases, black children may be viewed as adults when they are just 13 years old.

The negative perceptions of people of color have been well known for years. But to state that these also apply to young children is heartbreaking. On a larger scale, Goff’s findings prove that childhood and innocence are social constructions that vary in accordance to specific cultural and political climates.

— Alexia Raynal, Zeteo Associate Editor

To read more posts in the fields of children and childhood by Alexia Raynal, visit her ZiR page here. For an exploration of children’s lives between two worlds read Alexia’s article “Children Challenging Borders: The physical and psychological journeys that the children of immigrants make for their families,” published by Zeteo last fall.

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