Black Pain, Black Joy, and Racist Fear: Supporting Black Children in a Hostile World
This is the second in a series of blog posts that the American Psychological Association (APA) will publish regarding racial/ethnic socialization practices, programs, and approaches. APA is putting together a clearinghouse of resources to help parents/caregivers to protect youth of color and themselves from the psychological damage of discrimination and racism. For more information regarding APA’s new initiative and to provide feedback as we continue to engage in this series, please visit: www.apa.org/pi/res
By Angel Dunbar, PhD (Post-Doctoral Associate, University of Maryland)
On Saturday August 12, 2017, I awoke to images from the night before of dozens of White nationalists marching through the University of Virginia Charlottesville carrying torches and chanting “you will not replace us.”
This chant, “you will not replace us,” embodies the perception held by White nationalists that people of color are eminent threats to the continuation of White supremacy. However, this dangerous fear is not limited to self-proclaimed White nationalist. It runs deep within and across various institutions that impact adults and children alike, including the education and justice systems.
Taking in the images from Charlottesville and considering them against the backdrop of other overt and covert displays of racism in recent years, I was reminded of the intense emotionality of racism and its effect on Black children.
I imagine the level of fear it must take for a police officer to shoot a 12-year-old Black child within two seconds of arriving on the scene. I wonder about the level of hatred one must hold to be able to shoot at Black teenagers enjoying music in their car. I recall the anger and pain one feels at not only experiencing racism but also vicariously witnessing and learning about racism. And I consider the constant emotional restraint needed to remain composed so as not to become another victim of racist fear.
Unsurprisingly, parents and caregivers are increasingly concerned for the wellbeing of Black children. Research shows that:
their neutral facial expressions are viewed as more aggressive and threatening than their White peers, and
they are more likely to be expected to misbehave even when engaging in normal play.
When it seems like Black children are mistreated for expressing anger, fear, joy, or for simply existing, it can be a daunting task to figure out how to best protect them from harm while also allowing them to live and thrive unapologetically. Here are a few things to consider from the research:
1. Strike a balance
It is reasonable to encourage children to control their emotions (e.g., “don’t get too upset” “don’t react in anger”) and monitor their behavior in certain contexts—such as with teachers and administrators, law enforcement, and unknown adults—in an effort to decrease their chances of being harmed or treated with bias. Research shows that not talking to Black children about racism and what they may witness or experience can actually lead to more distress later, due to the shock of unexpected exposure.
However, excessive suppression of emotions without an outlet can lead to depression, anxiety, acting out, and can even take a toll on cardiovascular health. For balance, caregivers can encourage children to feel comfortable expressing their emotions at home and with close friends and extended family.
Speaking of emotional outlets…
2. Processing emotions is essential
As adults, experiencing or witnessing racism can be extremely emotionally upsetting. So imagine how overwhelming it must be for children, who are still developing the skill of managing their emotions, to experience or even learn about racism. Research shows that validating and being sensitive to children’s feelings of fear, anger, and sadness helps them learn to effectively cope with these emotions. It also helps to prevent depression, anxiety, and behavior problems.
Validation and sensitivity comes in many forms, including allowing children to express their feelings, comforting them with physical affection and reassuring words, and problem solving with them. Here are some questions you can ask your child the next time he or she is upset by images they see in the media or something that happened to them….
“What happened?” “Why do you think that happened?” “How did it make you feel?” “What can we do to feel better?”
Also check out this blog post by Dr. Riana Anderson about how our own emotional distress to racism can impact these conversations with children.
3. Surround children with love and remain joyful
Being discriminated against and learning that others may not like them simply because they are Black can take a toll on children’s sense of self-worth and overall health. Having positive, warm, and supportive relationships both in and outside of the home can buffer against the negative impact of racism.
Such warm and supportive relationships are a constant reminder to children that they have people to turn to and that they are loved, lovable, and have immense value. In addition to everyday love and support, sending children counter messages and positive affirmations about blackness can also boost their confidence and self-esteem.
Despite the violence against Black lives and the accompanying trauma, the Black community continues to persevere and remain joyful. In the words of activist and writer Kleaver Cruz, “Black joy is resistance.” Most importantly, Black joy is healing.
Dr. Angel Dunbar is a postdoctoral associate in the African American Studies Department. Dr. Dunbar completed her M.S. and Ph.D. in Human Development and Family Studies at the University of North Carolina Greensboro and her B.A. in psychology and sociology at the University of Delaware.
Dr. Dunbar is a Developmental Scientist whose research focuses on understanding the unique developmental challenges that children of color encounter and the family processes and individual factors that influence positive adaptation in the face of these challenges. Specifically, her program of research addresses the following: (1) the detrimental effects of racial/ethnic discrimination on the social-emotional, psychological, and academic outcomes of children of color, (2) the messages parents relay about race/racism and emotions in an attempt to mitigate these effects, and (3) children’s individual protective factors such as emotional, behavioral, and physiological self-regulation and emotion understanding. Dr. Dunbar’s research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health.