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The "Other Talk" Black Parents Need to Have with Their Child

Don’t let anyone tell your child who they can or can’t be.

Key points

  • Protests of George Floyd’s murder prompted thousands of Black alumni from elite public and private schools to post experiences on Instagram.
  • Students of color cited deep wounds from what they perceived to be disparate treatment and discriminatory comments from peers and educators.
  • Educators should not erode the confidence of students, and parents should insulate their children from the effects of doubting comments or worse.
  • Parents should help their children question the veracity and intent of destructive and false predictions, maintaining their faith in themselves.

As a Black psychologist working in a PreK-to-12 school, I hear all too often from Black parents the worries they have about how their children may be treated by other students and even educators. There are parents who wonder about placing their Black children in a predominantly white school, questioning whether the choice will lead their children to become less self-confident or to doubt their value as young Black men or women in the future.

These fears ran high after the protests following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans two summers ago. Many former and current students of color, especially those who attend elite public and private schools, posted their experiences at these schools on Facebook and Instagram. School-specific pages created by Black students have attracted thousands of followers, and their postings are replete with testimonies about micro-aggressions, white ignorance, and blatant racism. Students talked about their names being confused for years, despite being one of only a few students of color in classes of fewer than 20. Numerous students report being told they should not bother to apply to Ivy League schools. Those who did gain admittance were told it was because people of color are held to a lower standard. Comments were made about the hair, lips, or skin color of these students. It was suggested to some that washing more would get rid of their darkness. Some were told they should change their names to be more stereotypically Black; while others were told they should change their names to be easier for a white teacher to pronounce. There are numerous accounts of students being called the “N” word. One young woman—the only Black student in her English class—recounted how the teacher, to "make students more comfortable" with the 'N' word while reading Huckleberry Finn, had them go around the circle and each say the word aloud." The list goes on.

It is now impossible to dismiss these student accounts as rare and unusual because so many alumni have made their voices heard. Thousands of current students and graduates have been internalizing these events, many of which will remain with them into adulthood. Students of color should not have to choose between rigor and right treatment. But as necessary as it is for these schools to change, it is also important for parents of color to talk directly to their children about the schools they attend and some of the people who populate them. The impact of racist words and behavior can be deep and wounding, particularly in schools that promise inclusion, community, and respect—values that are not exemplified in these accounts.

As someone who works in one independent school and was a graduate of another, I know that the negative experiences shared by many kids of color need not be so common. While no person can alter the climate of a school community single-handedly, parents are the ones who have the greatest control over the responses to these insults. It is important for parents of color to inoculate their children against derogatory and racist comments, strengthening them so that they become less vulnerable to these micro- and macro-aggressions.

The remote learning put in place during the pandemic undoubtedly reduced in-person incidents of hurtful behavior for students of color, but children are back in school now where micro-aggressions and worse are more likely. And, unfortunately, there are all-too-frequent reminders in the media of how unjust society can be, especially as the trials of those accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery and Daunte Wright have recently ended.

I can’t be sure which comments or acts hurt more, but the ones with which I take greatest issue are those uttered by teachers and administrators—because they should know better. They have more credibility in the community, and students look up to them. Their words have the power to sway or devastate these young people.

Parents of color need to teach their children to think reflectively about the messages being conveyed by school personnel. Their children must be encouraged to challenge the predictive validity of what is said to them by peers, teachers, or administrators—those comments that call into question their belonging and ability to succeed in elite institutions. For children of color, especially for Black students about whom negative stereotypes persist, it's important to acknowledge the hurt while silencing the reverberations of such insults in their heads. This kind of conversation with your children can begin to protect them against comments and predictions about their capability and future—preventing them from piercing their armor or derailing their faith in themselves.

Don’t let your children believe that someone who has known them for mere months can predict who they will be in 10 or 20 years. A truly great teacher will help your children improve. Does the school imagine that their students of color are so mediocre or that a great teacher can’t teach average kids? Do they think great coaches can only coach great players? Do they imagine people with more money are more important? Do they consider the head of school better than the teachers or than the people who clean the school? If you are a parent who gets financial support from the school, does your child imagine that the parents who pay full tuition are better parents or people than you?

Life is full of stories about those who were successful even when others had little faith in them. Decades ago, despite being in the top 10 percent of her class and in the National Honors Society, Michelle Obama’s college guidance counselor told her she wasn’t “Princeton material.” It’s a good thing she didn’t let this comment deter her from applying. Perhaps her parents expressed their faith in her and encouraged her to be confident.

Unfortunately, some students will listen to negative messages from teachers and administrators and follow their advice to nowhere. Since your children will not necessarily share the comments of these naysayers with you, remind them of their accomplishments and encourage them to persevere and be unswayed by predictions of failure that go against the data. Don’t let someone else tell your children who they are or can be.