There are no words to describe how racism feels. Everyone deals with it differently. Some people lash out verbally, others withdraw into themselves. Some people can talk openly about how it feels, others hide it deep within... How many of our children are trying to learn in racist classrooms? How does a child reach their full potential and exercise their rights as citizens of this country when they are given messages every day that they are worthless human beings? What if it was your son or daughter? What would you do?                           

                                                                                                 –Mark Williams, 1999

Racist interactions experienced by children and adolescents can take the form of name-calling, teasing, being excluded, physical threats, and cyber-bullying stemming from the target’s racial and ethnic differences, such as skin color and cultural practices. Douglass found adolescents report an average of 3.5 racial/ethnic teasing experiences every 21 days. While she found the interactions were guised as being humorous they nevertheless had adverse effects on the target’s self-evaluation and psychological well being. In our (Iyer and Haslam, 2003) research, 86% of South Asian-American women reported being racially and ethnically teased as children, and for many such experiences contributed to low self-esteem, depression, body image dissatisfaction, and disordered eating. While such interactions can take place anywhere, i.e., at a grocery store or at a shopping mall, given the amount of time children are in school they are most likely to occur within a school setting. These experiences can lead targets and their parents to feel helpless and not know how to respond. Listed below are signs to look for that might indicate your child is being victimized, followed by suggestions for empowering your child and yourself to face these difficult situations.

Signs Your Child is Being Victimized

  • School refusal
  • Complaints of physical symptoms, such as stomach aches, headaches, in the absence of an actual medical cause to avoid going to school, but appears fine when home
  • Displays psychological symptoms of depression, anxiety, nervousness, crying, nightmares that are a change from before
  • Withdrawn, appears lacking in confidence, expresses not being good enough
  • Speaks negatively of ethnic/racial background, is disparaging of others of the same ethnicity, expresses desire to be a different ethnicity, i.e., expresses desire was white, had lighter skin
  • Embarrassed to engage in cultural activities or activities that call attention to ethnicity
  • Doesn’t want to participate in after school activities with peers, reluctant to play outside
  • Is scared to walk to school
  • Is bullying or taunting other children
  • Change in eating behavior
  • Begins to perform poorly academically
  • Comes home with bruises or cuts that are not explained
  • Is frightened to share what is wrong 

Ways to Help Your Child Cope with Racist Interactions

Talk to your kids and prepare them for the possibility that they might experience racism. Most ethnic minority parents teach their children about their culture by passing down information and traditions from their country of origin. However, research suggests, with the exception of African-American families, they are less likely to talk to their children about what it means to be a minority in a country that is primarily Caucasian and discuss experiences related to discrimination and racial teasing they might experience because of their ethnic differences (Caughy, Nettles, O’Campo, and Lohrfink,  2002). Preparing children for racist interactions is important because it allows them to attribute the discrimination and bullying to the bully, not to a personal defect within themselves or with their culture, and will encourage them to talk to you if it occurs.  

Don’t tell your kids to ignore the racism. Racism doesn’t go away just because they look the other way. Such experiences are likely to lead kids to feel powerless, ignoring them may lead to more helplessness and avoidance. Instead teach your child to be appropriately assertive, to talk to you, to talk to someone they trust in school, to develop good social skills, to not be isolated. Bullies tend to pick on kids they perceive to be weaker or dislike and usually victimize their targets in groups when the target is alone or with kids they do not feel will retaliate.

Encourage your kids to get involved in group activities such as sports or other interests. If they don’t feel comfortable in their athletic abilities practice with them, get them extra coaching if necessary. Help them develop the skills necessary to feel confident, which will allow them to make friends and be less of a target for teasing; if they feel confident they will be more likely to stand up for themselves if it occurs.

Don’t ignore racism yourself. Talk to the teachers, the school administration, press the issue if you don’t feel heard. As role models for your children by being assertive you will teach them to find their own voice and to stand up for themselves and others who are being teased. My girlfriend, who is Vietnamese, recently found racial slurs and swastika signs in the park outside her house. She went door-to-door to find out if anyone had seen what happened and tracked down two of the boys responsible. Upon calling the families she found one was receptive and brought their son to her house to apologize, the other became defensive and argumentative, regardless she let them know if it occurred again she would get the police involved. Get involved yourself. If you know racial teasing or discrimination is occurring in your school, in your neighborhood, get organized and get support to stop it, even if it’s not your child who is being taunted. Don’t ignore racism if you see it. It doesn’t go away if you close your eyes and don’t look.

Make time to get involved in your child’s life. Get involved in school and your children’s activities; know your neighbors; learn about your children’s friends and their parents who your children spend most of their time with in school; volunteer; coach their softball team; lead their Girls/Boys Scout troop. This will allow your child to integrate themselves in school and feel like less of an outcast.

Examine your own beliefs about your children assimilating into the American culture and what impact they are having on your children. While in many Asian cultures deference is valued, in America assertiveness and speaking up for one self are an essential part of development. If children are asked to not speak up at home given cultural norms of respecting and not questioning elders, they will bring similar traits to the classroom, friendships, and eventually work, in a culture that expects them to challenge authority and think independently. Are you concerned they may adopt values that go against your culture, such as dating, dating outside their ethnicity, or socializing with friends after school or on the weekends? Many kids, especially as teenagers, may do things you are not comfortable with such as dating, however, if you have a good relationship with them and are open, it may make the difference between them actually telling you where they are when they are out, versus telling you what they think you want to hear. Often children who are singled out and teased tend to be perceived by other kids as being different, weird, or are not liked. Preventing your children from assimilating may contribute to them being a target for teasing and being ostracized, i.e. because they dress differently or cannot participate in activities that other kids do.

Racist interactions are a common experience for children and adolescents who are ethnically and racially different. As parents being aware and proactive will allow you and your children to feel empowered and to address such experiences if they occur.

This post is a follow up to Part 1, Racial Teasing: Reflections On Being Different, which is a personal account of the experience of being racially teased.

References

Caughy, M. O., Nettles, S. M., O’Campo, P. J., & Lohrfink, K. F. (2005). Racial socialization and African American child developmentThe importance of neighborhood context. Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Atlanta, GA.

Douglass, Sara. Racial/Ethnic Teasing in Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood http://www.s-r-a.org/announcements/online-newsletter/2013-06-20-racialet...

Iyer, D. S., & Haslam, N. (2003). Body image and eating disturbances among South Asian-American women: The role of racial teasing. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 34, 142–147.

Williams, M. 1999, Racism: A Personal Perspective, unpublished paper, Aboriginal Education Unit, South Australian Department of Education, Training and Employment, Adelaide.  Quoted from: http://www.racismnoway.com.au/about-racism/understanding/schools.html

About the Author

Dana S. Iyer Ph.D.

Dana S. Iyer, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Laguna Hills, California.

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