Written by:
Shereener Browne

PlayFight: The adultification of Black children

Read time:
5 minutes

PlayFight: The adultification of Black children 

A critically acclaimed piece of theatre, PlayFight holds a mirror up to the systemic racism in schools, particularly the adultification of Black children. Ahead of a run at the Pleasance Theatre in Islington, actor and theatre producer Shereener Browne explains how the play was inspired by a shocking incident in school involving her six-year-old son.

Picture the scene: you’re six and playing at school – boisterously, of course, because you and your friends are Power Rangers. Suddenly a grown-up, many times stronger than you, angrily grabs you from behind and stands between you and the Yellow Ranger. She is shouting. You’re in trouble – simply for pretending to be a Power Ranger.

This is essentially what played out before my eyes in a school hall many years ago. One of the Power Rangers was my son. I was surprised by the teacher’s intervention, not least because a similar scene was being played out across the hall, only this time it involved white boys whose childish play was left to peter-out on its own. I was also surprised because it seemed like a massive overreaction. Sadly, this difference in treatment would become an unhappy hallmark of all of my children’s times at school. 

This experience was the inspiration for PlayFight. It has fuelled the play’s research and development over the past four years. First produced as a work-in-progress in September 2019, PlayFight will open for a five-night run at the Pleasance Theatre, Islington on 29 May. 

The play explores what many Black children experience in our predominantly white society. Subtle, yet overt, messages informing you that you do not belong. That your presence is tolerated but not entirely welcomed. In that school hall all those years ago, I didn’t have a name for this other than plain, old, ugly discrimination. A particularly insidious brand of discrimination based upon the colour of one’s skin or ethnicity. However, following the recent high-profile case of Child Q, the term ‘adultification’ has been rudely inserted into our lexicon.

‘Notions of innocence and vulnerability are not afforded to certain children’

In a 2020 article for the journal Critical and Radical Social Work, Jahnine Davis and Nicholas Marsh argue adultification is when ‘notions of innocence and vulnerability are not afforded to certain children’. They continue: ‘This is determined by people and institutions who hold power over them. When adultification occurs outside of the home it is always founded within discrimination and bias. There are various definitions of adultification, all relate to a child’s personal characteristics, socio-economic influences and/or lived experiences. Regardless of the context in which adultification takes place, the impact results in children’s rights being either diminished or not upheld.’

Adultification – or adultification bias – gives us a pithy label for what I suspect every Black person in this country has experienced at some time, and to some degree, during their childhood. The expectation that, even as a child, you will be better able to cope alone, handle distress (or even sexual advances), withstand pain, and perform great physical feats. The expectation that you will be aggressive and violent. 

These are not merely micro-aggressions – although, to be clear, innocuously labelled ‘micro’-aggressions slowly eat away at your mental well-being – rather they are used to continue the oppression of Black people. 

Our children are more likely to be stopped and searched by the police. More likely to be subjected to a strip-search when stopped. More likely to be charged following arrest. More likely to receive a custodial sentence and for that sentence to be longer than one imposed for a similar offence upon a young white person of a similar background. Black children from Caribbean backgrounds are more likely to be expelled from school. It is a depressing list – and it is not exhaustive. Essentially, Black children are less likely to be seen as, well, children.

‘This is a public health emergency’

The result is literally life threatening. Children are left unprotected or put into dangerous situations, as they fall through the cracks of our failing care system, NHS and adolescent mental health services. In extreme cases, they are left vulnerable to exploitation by individuals involved in crime or go missing from home having been forcibly trafficked to be used in the illegal drug trade. Some, tragically, end up sectioned under the Mental Health Act, unable to cope with the trauma they have suffered, in prison or worse. Looked at properly, without the distorted lens of discrimination, this is a public health emergency. 

The problem is borne out of a legacy of discrimination rooted in slavery and colonialism, as Davis identifies in her 2022 paper Adultification bias within child protection and safeguarding. In order to justify the large-scale trade in human beings, those human beings had to be dehumanised, to be ‘othered’. Centuries of ‘group defamation’ cannot easily be erased. We see it every day – on our streets and in our schools, in our newspapers, and on our screens and on the stage.

PlayFight is an attempt to tell the story of what might happen when a child is constantly told that they are bad. Some, if they are lucky, will prove the label wrong and perhaps even over-achieve. Others will not. PlayFight is for them.

A former criminal barrister turned actor and producer, Shereener Browne is the co-founder of theatre company Orísun Productions. Written by Christina Alagaratnam and directed by Leian John-Baptiste, PlayFight opens on 29 May for a five-night run at the Pleasance Theatre, Islington. Tickets are available here and information on youth workshops is available here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.

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Photo © Sharron Wallace

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