White Americans have Weaponized the Idea of GirlhoodRoundup
tags: gender, racism, African American history, childhood
Crystal Lynn Webster is a historian of African American women and children. Her book, Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood: African American Children in the Antebellum North, is forthcoming with University of North Carolina Press, June 2021.
On Dec. 26, Miya Ponsetto, a 22-year-old woman, was filmed assaulting a 14-year-old African American boy in a New York hotel after accusing him of stealing her cellphone. Within minutes of the assault, Ponsetto would learn that her phone had not been stolen and, in fact, had been left behind in a taxi.
In the days after the incident, Ponsetto attempted to explain her actions in a now-viral interview on “CBS This Morning.” She reacted aggressively when host Gayle King observed that Ponsetto was an adult who should take accountability for her actions. Ponsetto responded, “He’s 14, that’s what they’re claiming? I’m 22. I’ve lived probably just the same amount of time as him, honestly. I’m just as much a kid at heart as he is.”
What was notable in Ponsetto’s interview is that she not only infantilized herself, she also adultified the Black 14-year-old, making him out to be an adult to justify her behavior toward him. Ponsetto also described herself as a “woman of color” and patronized the boy’s father by saying she was sorry if she made them “feel inferior” or “hurt their feelings.” These were all attempts to absolve herself of blame as a “girl” and of racism as a “woman of color.” But while Ponsetto may identify as a woman of color now, she has claimed Whiteness in the past.
The incident exposed how Ponsetto’s race and age are shifting identities that she navigates deliberately. Her attempts to traverse these identities — Whiteness and girlhood — are part of a long history in which White men and women have used perceptions of childhood in ways that have damaging and deadly consequences for African American children.
Historically, Whites have attempted to claim childhood for themselves and adulthood for African Americans, regardless of age. They have used ignorance, innocence and immaturity to avoid blame while challenging the legitimacy of Black childhood innocence. They’ve used these behaviors to make false accusations, to evade prosecution and blame, and to justify racism and maintain racial hierarchies. Ponsetto may not know this history, but she nevertheless deployed it when she attacked the young boy and then attempted to say she was too young to know what she was doing.
Childhood, much like race, is not a fixed category. It has not always been treated as a unique stage of social development. Childhood as we know it today — with children considered fragile and innocent — is a modern phenomenon that developed in the 19th century. And this modern version of childhood was racialized at its origins.