Updated on Apr. 21 at 7:50 p.m. Eastern.
Just minutes before it was announced Tuesday that a jury found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty on all counts of murdering George Floyd, a Black 16-year-old girl was fatally shot by a police officer in Columbus, Ohio.
Family members and Franklin County Children’s Services identified the girl as Ma’Khia Bryant, according to the Columbus Dispatch and a GoFundMe page allegedly established by a family member. (Ma’Khia was in foster care at the time of her death, according to the Dispatch.) Columbus police have not yet named Ma’Khia as the victim and said the girl was 15; they also stressed that the Bureau of Criminal Investigation is leading the investigation into the case.
Body camera footage shown at a news conference on Tuesday night shows what happened when officers arrived on the scene: Ma’Khia appears to have lunged at another person before a police officer fired four times. A knife is briefly visible both in her hand and then next to her on the ground where she fell after being shot.
“She’s a [expletive] kid, man,” someone can be heard yelling in the background.
Earlier that night, Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther (D) took to Twitter to share news of the killing, calling Ma’Khia a “young woman.” Replies quickly poured in, noting that Ma’Khia was a child — not an adult.
At the news conference a few hours later, Ginther acknowledged Ma’Khia was a child: “The city of Columbus lost a 15-year-old girl today,” he said. “This young 15-year-old girl will never be coming home.”
But some still took to social media to criticize his initial characterization of Ma’Khia, calling it “adultification bias” — a form of discrimination that uniquely plagues Black girls, leading them to be perceived by adults as less innocent and more adult-like than their White peers, according to a widely covered 2017 Georgetown study.
The mayor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The 2017 Georgetown study found that adults’ biased perceptions of Black girls result in their being suspended from school at higher rates than White girls, and being more likely than both Black boys and their White peers to be disciplined for minor infractions, fighting and disobedience. Underlying these perceptions are stereotypes of Black women that originated during U.S. slavery and positioned Black women and girls as unable to conform to expectations of traditional White femininity, the study notes.
Advocates, scholars and doctors characterized the adultification bias emerging in the aftermath of Ma’Khia’s death as a form of misogynoir — a term coined by Black feminist scholar Moya Bailey. It’s a way to describe how “anti-Blackness and misogyny combine to malign Black women in our world,” Bailey wrote.
“The sexism that [Black girls] face is going to be different than what White girls experience and the racism that they face is going to be different than what Black boys experience — that’s because of the racist and sexist lens,” said Ijeoma Opara, an assistant professor in the school of social welfare at Stony Brook University. “We as a society view Black girls as grown women who aren’t capable of being talked to and respected and protected as children.”
To Opara, the shooting exemplified this, given the familiarity of the situation: kids fighting. But police aggressively responded to Ma’Khia because of sexism and racism, she argued.
“Children fight all the time, regardless of race, regardless of class level,” she said. “When we think about Ma’Khia or other Black girls like her … they’re not given the chance to be in situations that could be de-escalated.”
The incident also reminded Opara of the case of a 9-year-old Black girl in Rochester, N.Y., whom police handcuffed and pepper-sprayed after responding to a domestic disturbance at the girl’s home in February. Moments before pepper-spraying her, police officers scolded the sobbing girl, accusing her of “acting like a child.”
“I am a child,” the girl yelled back.
The mayor’s tweet in the aftermath of Ma’Khia’s killing didn’t help the situation, according to Marline Francois-Madden, a social worker, therapist and doctoral candidate in family science and human development at Montclair State University, who said Ginther’s characterization of Ma’Khia as a “young woman” on Twitter made the incident sound like a dispute between adults rather than between kids. That kind of adultification bias in the aftermath of a Black girl’s death can have mental and emotional consequences on other Black girls watching the situation unfold, she added.
“It makes other Black girls feel like they don’t know if they’ll be able to be protected,” said Francois-Madden, who is also the author of “The State of Black Girls.”
Francois-Madden has already heard about these impacts firsthand, she said. The video of Ma’Khia’s killing shows her wearing rainbow Crocs, a detail that she said has hit home for some Black girls who have seen the video or heard about the incident.
“I’ve already had several moms reach out to me and say, ‘My daughter has the same Crocs, and she’s 15,’” she said. “They’re like, ‘I don’t know what to say to my child,’ and that their child is saying, ‘I don’t know what to do; if I need help, who do I call?’”
For parents of Black daughters, Francois-Madden recommends talking openly about how incidents like this make them feel, and allow them to define who they are as Black girls.
“Find out from your daughter, what does she need in this moment?” she said. “Have real and raw conversations with her about who she is as a Black girl and affirm her Black girlhood.”
Rebekah Fenton, a pediatrician who wrote a Twitter thread on adultification bias in the aftermath of Ma’Khia’s death, added that parents of Black kids should make sure to acknowledge the realities of police brutality against Black people and initiate frank conversations about whether they should rely on police and how to respond if they choose to. She noted that Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than White men and that Black women are 1.4 times more likely to be killed by police than White women, according to a 2019 study.
It’s also crucial, Fenton added, for journalists not to reinforce adultification bias when they cover Ma’Khia’s death, pointing to a video of a woman who identified herself as Ma’Khia’s aunt and told reporters: “Either you report the truth, or don’t report nothing. She was a good kid. She was loving.”
“She promoted peace. That’s something I want to always be remembered,” she told local TV station WBNS.
It’s those memories, Opara said, that journalists should make sure to include in coverage of the girl’s death.
“Journalists need to stop for a second and reflect and think: ‘Would I talk about Ma’Khia this way if she was a White girl?’” she said. “We all really have to make a conscious effort to undo what we’ve learned in school and in the media.”