Amidst the nationwide protests and civil unrest since the murder of George Floyd, countless young people are struggling to find their way.
Older youth especially are increasingly exposed to racial injustices through everyday media consumption, seeing it firsthand in social situations, or even their own victimization in school or community settings.
As adults, we don’t have the luxury of remaining silent.
Research shows that racial discrimination can lower Black children’s self-esteem, reduce their psychological well-being, decrease academic achievement, and even lead to suicidal thoughts.
As Black parents across the country are going into protective mode more intensely, they may wonder when children are old enough for “the talk”.
This is the talk that many Black parents know they must have with their children at some point in life in order to prepare them for the painful realities of racism in America.
This is the talk that may eventually save their child’s life. While studies show that children are capable of understanding differences in skin color and developing racial biases as early as their preschool years, and that tweens and teens are intellectually capable of understanding the abstract concept of racism, many parents unfortunately shy away from these discussions or wait until it’s too late.
While studies show that children are capable of understanding differences in skin color and developing racial biases as early as their preschool years, and that tweens and teens are intellectually capable of understanding the abstract concept of racism, many parents unfortunately shy away from these discussions or wait until it’s too late.
Parents may underestimate their child’s readiness for these race-related discussions or simply not know how to address the elephant in the room.
Open communication may also be stifled by parents’ own unresolved experiences with racial trauma or their fear about introducing stress into their child’s life or rupturing their innocence.
However, remaining silent does a disservice to young people.
Avoiding or postponing discussion about racial injustices can lead them to assume that these experiences might be justified or “natural”, or to take out their negative thoughts and feelings in unhealthy ways due to the lack of guidance.
It’s vital for Black parents to make race a part of everyday conversation (versus having a one-time talk), and to help their children process the range of emotions and thoughts associated with observing racial injustices.
Black parents can use this moment in time as a catalyst to normalize talking about race, help their children cope and thrive within a system of racism, and cultivate activism.
Here are 6 Tips for Talking to Black Youth about Racism, Promoting Healthy Coping, and Cultivating Activism:
1. Model Hope and Optimism
Children learn through imitation. Parents of Black youth should find ways to convey hope and optimism through affirmations (e.g. “We are a mighty people”), using powerful “change talk” which suggests there is a window of opportunity for change to take place (e.g. “It’s our time to make things right in this world”), and shared updates of successful reform efforts unfolding across the U.S.
2. Community Engagement
Simply telling or teaching Black youth about racism may reinforce a passive stance or fear towards “the system” and be a missed opportunity for cultivating a child’s personal agency and sense of empowerment. Help Black youth develop their own strategies for addressing racial inequities in their communities. E.g. Take a child to a peaceful protest, help them make protest signs or protest art, create a protest dance or chant, or raise money as a family to donate to a racial justice organization.
3. Decolonize the Mind through Literature/Media
Children are especially susceptible to internalizing societal beliefs about white superiority. Guide Black youth in reading kids’ books and watching movies/TV shows created by people of color that have non-white protagonists and possess positive cultural messages about Blackness. This helps counter the narrative of Black inferiority and serves as a creative springboard for race-related discussions. Integrate Black American and African history books into the library which teach children about their ancestors’ struggles and successes related to freedom, equality, and civil rights.
4. Develop Race-Consciousness through Storytelling.
Anti-Black sentiments are everywhere; they are toxic and sometimes deadly. Tell personal and collective stories to teach Black youth how to be conscious of subtle racial dynamics in life situations and how to navigate predominantly white spaces (e.g. the invisible set of rules for Black people). Be careful not to go into overdrive and pass down intergenerational trauma by oversharing stories that are not developmentally appropriate.
5. Teach the “React vs. Rise Above” Distinction.
Black children need to begin to learn how to balance speaking one’s truth/fighting for one’s rights with safety/self-preservation. Teach them how to look for signs of safety and allyship that can help support speaking up and speaking out, as well as signals of threat that might call for them to rise above the immoral and unjust behaviors of others and channel their negative emotions into meaningful actions later on. Teaching through sayings (such as “there’s safety in numbers”) allows for mental shortcuts during times of stress and better recall of learned lessons.
6. Encourage “Good Trouble”.
May Congressman John Lewis’ extraordinary life and advocacy for “good trouble” be an inspiration for racial/social justice efforts – even amongst our young people. Teach Black youth ways to engage in social justice efforts without holding onto hate or bitterness. Teach youth about the student activist movements of the 1960’s and the philosophy of good trouble to help them learn the important values of selflessness, sacrifice, love, and uplifting others that form the basis of healthy activism.
Created for Darkness RISING’s Black Mental Health Tips & Tools Campaign by Dr. Jamila Codrington. See more tips & tools here or by searching #DRresources on Instagram.
Dr. Jamila is a New York state-licensed psychologist with over 15 years of experience. She inspires, educates, transforms, and empowers through psychotherapy, clinical supervision, trainings, workshops, community forums, and consultations. Learn more: Drjamila.com
*This does not serve as a replacement for therapy.*
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