By Erlanger “Earl” Turner, PhD, (Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown) and students from his Multicultural Psychology course (Damaurriah Butler, Jonathan Otero, & Caroline Smith)
In the United States, race relations has had its challenges across history. Although strides have been made over the course of history, we continue to battle racism and injustice in the 21st century. The recent incident in Ferguson, Missouri has re-energized efforts to address race relations, racism, and discrimination. If you’ve been avoiding media or hiding from technology, CNN has provided information on their website detailing the events and current status.
Many may ask, “Why is Ferguson or racism an issue?” The fact is racism impacts us all on some level. According to the work of Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum (1992), racism and oppression hurt members of the privileged group as well as those targeted by racism. For example, White individuals who support social justice for all oppressed individuals may be treated negatively by those that have been targeted in the past or may not have opportunities to interact with other racial groups due to voluntary or involuntary isolation. For people of color, racism and discrimination affects both physical and mental health. A meta-analytic review (Pieterse, Todd, Neville, & Carter, 2012) found that adults who were the targets of racism experienced anxiety, depression, decreased life satisfaction, and psychiatric symptoms (e.g., post-traumatic stress, paranoia). You can imagine that for children, both exposure via media and real life experiences will also negatively impact their psychological functioning.
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of opportunities to teach our children about racism. Racial and ethnic socialization refer to the transmission of information regarding race and ethnicity from adults to their children (Hughes et al., 2006). As with other topics that parents can offer guidance on —be it sex, religion, money, etc. —parents should be open and honest with their kids regarding race and race relations. Though adults often talk about the “colorblindness” of children, the fact is that children as young as three notice physical differences such as skin color, hair texture, and the shape of one’s facial features (Tatum, 2003). Attitudes and beliefs toward such differences are simultaneously learned through family, friends, and the media. It is when people are hesitant to speak about racism that the topic becomes taboo. Given that children recognize racial differences early, some have called for anti-racist education in schools. The anti-racist education approach assumes that schools reflect the larger society where racism and injustice exists (Husband, 2012). Husband (2012) suggests that we can improve relations by education and reflecting on the beliefs, policies and practices that further injustice.
As a parent, it is important that you play a role in talking with your child about race and racism. Although the racial socializing of children can begin early, the topic of racism is quite complex and younger children may not be cognitively ready to understand the full meaning of the concept. Accordingly, it is a good idea to start slowly with very simple terms. As previously mentioned, younger children, particularly children of color, grasp the concept of racial differences as young as three. Therefore, early conversations can focus on the concept of race, race relations, and ethnic differences. As children cognitively mature, the discussions can become more complex. Your initial conversations concerning racial differences and race relations will have laid the groundwork for these subsequent more complex discussions.
Below are some suggestions to engage in healthy discussions about race and ethnic differences:
Although race and culture differ, introducing other cultures to your child at an early age would increase the effectiveness of conversations pertaining to racial tolerance and differences. This will also help your child better understand clichés such as “we are all human” or simply not overgeneralize one concept to a particular group as a whole. However, it is important that as children get older, discussions about race need to address the power and privilege that comes along with racism.
Conversations with young children about racial situations should be encouraged and related to real-life circumstances. For example, Disney movies can create opportunities to talk about differences. From Dumbo to Aladdin, each film brings to life a variety of social differences, from cultural to socioeconomic and beyond. Racism is not a problem that will go away if it is ignored.
Before providing children with your opinion and beliefs about injustice, allow your child the opportunity to give their point of view. If they provide inaccurate information or views that potentially lead to poor racial interactions, provide age appropriate information that encourages appreciation of differences. For parents of color, children may also need help in developing coping skills for dealing with racism and discrimination they will encounter in the world.
Keep things simple and use examples. As adults we are so used to interacting with other adults that we forget that young children do not view the world in terms of stereotypes, discrimination, and race. Young children view the world in far simpler terms. One example to talk with children about race is to use crayons. Every crayon is a different color with their unique characteristics. Just like some children dislike a color without any real justification, some people dislike others in the same way. In the end, it is important to remember that even though colors are different we are all still a part of the same box. We live in the same world, and when working together, we can create masterpieces.
It is important to monitor your negative emotions and “passion” surrounding racism and injustice around your children. Although it may be counter-intuitive (or feel unnatural), displaying your negative frustrations without resolution will not help your child be resilient. Inappropriate racial socialization has been found to lead to increased anger among African American youth. One study found that African American boys who reported receiving frequent messages reinforcing cultural pride also reported higher levels of situational anger (Stevenson, Reed, Bodison, & Bishop, 1997). It is possible that through socialization these boys were made aware of the unfair treatment experienced by African Americans, but were not given corresponding messages regarding appropriate ways to manage the anger that results when one feels unjustly treated.
Be proactive! As your child becomes an adolescent or experiences injustice first hand, talk with your child about ways to cope with and move beyond injustice or become an activist in your community to combat systemic racism.
Seek advice or talk with a psychologist, therapist, or pastoral counselor if you feel that you or your child needs professional help to cope with distressing events. The APA (http://locator.apa.org/) and Find a Psychologist (http://www.findapsychologist.org) provide resources for locating a therapist in your area.
Erlanger A. Turner, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Dr. Turner’s research focuses on access to child mental health services, health inequity, help-seeking attitudes and behaviors, and cultural competency in clinical practice. He teaches courses at UHD in clinical psychology, multicultural psychology, and child psychopathology. Dr. Turner is also a blogger for The Race to Good Health. He was recently awarded the 2014 Judy E. Hall Ph.D. Early Career Psychologist Award by the National Register of Health Service Psychologists. Dr. Turner is a member of the American Psychological Association and has served in numerous leadership positions throughout APA and APA Divisions. He earned his B.S. in psychology from Louisiana State University and an M.S. and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University.
Damaurriah Butler is an undergraduate psychology major at UHD. Butler is interested in pursuing a graduate degree in Clinical Adolescent Psychology.
Jonathan Otero is an undergraduate psychology major at UHD. Otero is interested in obtaining a graduate degree in Counseling Psychology and pursuing a career in marriage and family therapy.
Caroline Smith is an undergraduate psychology major at UHD. Smith is interested in attending graduate school to study Autism Spectrum Disorders in children.
Hughes, D., Rodriguez, J., Smith, E.P., Johnson, D.J., Stevenson, H. C., & Spicer, P. (2006). Parents’ ethnic –racial socialization practices: A review of research and directions for future study. Developmental Psychology, 42, 747-770.
Husband, T. (2012). “I don’t see color”: Challenging assumptions about discussing race with young children. Early Childhood Education Journal, 39, 365-371.
Pieterse, A.L., Todd, N.R., Neville, H.A., Carter, R. T. (2012). Perceived racism and mental health among Black American adults: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 59, 1, 1-9.
Stevenson, H.C., Reed, J., Bodison, P. & Bishop, A. (1997). Racism stress management: Racial socialization beliefs and the experience of depression and anger in African American youth. Youth Society, 29, 2, 197-222.
Tatum, B.D. (1992). Talking about race, learning about racism: The application of racial identity development theory. Harvard Educational Review, 62, 1, 1-24.
Tatum, B. D. (2003). Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? New York, NY: Basic Books.