How The Adultification Of Black Youth Leads To Predatory Relationships

June 6, 2024

Black children and young adults are seldom afforded the concept of innocence in comparison to their white counterparts. Perceptions based on this concept lead Black youth to experience less protection, harsher discipline, and hypersexualization. This lack of innocence, or “adultification” thrust upon them by community and society at large finds Black children seen and treated as adults, devoid of protection or benefit of doubt, far before they reach developmental maturity. It is crucial to acknowledge where this adultification stems from and how it may contribute to the possibility of Black children and young adults falling victim to predatory relationships.

Adultification bias, rooted in systemic racism, finds its way across media, education, and intra communal spaces to shape how Black youth are treated. Morgan Jefferson Isemann, LCSW-C has noticed a significant shift in “the way [Black children] are labeled and identified once they hit late elementary/early middle school.” She speaks to how media and other outlets contribute to the perception of Black children as “adults” despite still being children, physically and developmentally. 

Stacy McCall-Martin, LMFT identifies common ways Black youth are deprived of innocence through their community or home life. Black youth experience adultification in various ways, from eldest children stepping up to help parent their siblings and only children of busy or absent parents parenting themselves, to children of adultified parents perpetuating that experience. She goes on to highlight how many Black children who occupy these roles are told they are “wise for their age,” which is meant to be a genuine and harmless compliment, but in some cases can subconsciously feed into this adultified narrative.   

This heightened sense of discipline and responsibility can and does affect Black youth’s mental health. Jefferson discusses poor outcomes with depression, social anxiety, self esteem, eating disorders (which also happen to be severely underdiagnosed in Black youth compared to their white counterparts) and sexual trauma. McCall-Martin describes how these pressures can develop into anxiety-induced perfectionism, and for some, “feeling burdened by their responsibilities, [they consider] engaging in relationships and behaviors to numb from their realities.” 

These adolescents, robbed of innocence and seeking solace and security, are left susceptible to harmful circumstances from older or more powerful adults.

As McCall-Martin points out, “The ways they are differently preoccupied with aspects of life, removes them from developmentally appropriate activities and relationships [and in turn] they may find comfort dating older adults [who make them feel] more valued or understood. The same young people that have developed a sense of maturity and responsibility also develop characteristics that make them easily targeted by adults seeking to take advantage.”

Older adults who perceive these youth as “more mature,” yet still impressionable, take advantage of their vulnerability and become the support or comfort they seek. This can be especially true for Black youth, even in their young adult years, who have experienced lack of financial stability and are therefore manipulated into relationships for survival. 

Rhetoric and the act of concealing perpetrators within the Black community can perpetuate these patterns and cause Black youth to refrain from speaking up against these issues. Many of us are privy to the phrases “that’s a grown man” or “that little girl is fast,” that have been uttered by community members for generations. The former, said in a playful tone, leads Black boys to be oversexualized by adults of all genders, while the latter shifts the blame from the predatory adult to the vulnerable Black girl. Both prey on the fact that these children are impressionable and slower to speak out against normalized stereotypes. It is disheartening how common it is to hear of young teenage boys’s first sexual encounters being with adult women, and being taught that it’s something to be proud of, just as common as it is for high school girls to have partners who are not and have not been in high school for some years. While these children are often made to feel exceptional or “proud” to have these encounters, they are also taught to keep them a secret.

Many communities, and namely communities of color, have a “‘what goes on in this house stays in this house’ mentality” as McCall-Martin describes it. This idea can be attributed to the fear of being overpoliced and subjected to state sanctioned violence, but in turn creates a culture of secrecy and silence, rather than one of honest conversations which is needed to establish trust and safety. 

This concealment can lead not only to overt displays of sexual coercion and abuse, but also to more gradual and covert grooming practices. While the Tiktok teacher who was recently fired for allowing his young girl students to braid his hair as a form of “community building” sparked great controversy with split opinions, that very act of establishing trust in initially harmless ways is a primary tactic used by groomers to initiate relationships with their subjects. 

It should absolutely go without saying, but if an adult establishes a “friendship” with a child or teenager as a minor, (where they tend to occupy the role of confidant, trusted older voice, support system, or friend) and gradually transition the relationship beyond platonic as they conveniently age, that is grooming and is — without a doubt — predatory. 

If an adult “didn’t know” that the person they were pursuing was a minor, the onus is still on them to do their due diligence to identify the necessary information and act accordingly. To be frank, in many of these instances where the adult is painted as wrongfully accused or unaware of the position they put themselves in, the writing is always on the wall. 

Adults both within the Black community, and dominant white society at large, must examine the language and actions they use that create for these environments to exist. Public perceptions of harmful interactions rooted in judgment can perpetuate cycles of abuse and isolation. Black youth listening to trusted community members blame the victim of a predatory relationship may discourage them from practicing agency. Rather than perceiving themselves as being taken advantage of, they feel shameful, concealing their experiences which in the long run can prove to be detrimental.

If the conversation around Aoki Lee and Vittorio Assaf focuses more on the shame she brings her family rather than the stark reality that financial security, access, and the pressures to maintain lifestyles lead to these types of relationships, how do we think younger Black youth in severe financial crises will perceive these dynamics?

When most of the jokes online regarding serious allegations against Marques Houston and Diddy center on homophobia and “clowning” the young boys for having endured it, it confirms for other young boys who may be experiencing these actions that they should not speak up lest they be ridiculed and outcast too. 

Jefferson notes that many members of the Black community, and often older generations, protect perpetrators or allow them to remain in community, “in order to keep legacy alive.” 

We need to get real and ask ourselves: At what point are we as a collective going to value the safety of our youth over legacy, talent, and optics? Does it matter how many high notes a singer can hit or backflips he can do if he has a longstanding history of domestic abuse? Does a famous actor and community figure’s legacy erase the decades of harm he’s committed against entire groups of people? Is a catchy cookout anthem really that important to hold onto when the man who penned it has been rightfully convicted of violent salacious acts against disenfranchised Black girls for years? These are the questions we as a community need to ask our cousins, aunties, grandpas, and most importantly, ourselves.

McCall-Martin summarizes, “we collectively perpetuate harm through ignorance and acquiescence. Having open and transparent conversation about predatory dating practices in connection to Black youths’ adultification helps to strengthen their own agency if and when they experience similar dating relationships.”

As uncomfortable or polarizing as these conversations may be, we must continue to have them, challenging ourselves and our community, in order to create real, tangible systems of support and safety for our Black youth. It is the least we can do.