Racism in America: Helping Your Child Be Resilient

Tips for parents on tackling racism and discrimination

Posted Nov 25, 2014

On November 24, 2014, the Ferguson grand jury announced the decision regarding the case of Michael Brown. Brown was shot and killed this summer by a police officer in Ferguson Missouri (see here for more details from CNN coverage). Social media exploded after the jury announced “no indictment” and hours later protest became destructive. According to the New York Times, several buildings were burned and numerous arrests occurred overnight. 

Furthermore, Civil Rights activist – Rev. Al Sharpton – made a statement acknowledging the decision. Reverend Sharpton proclaimed that the case “exemplifies the concerns many African-Americans have towards law enforcement in regards to racial profiling and police brutality”.  Racism and discrimination are not new. Although we have made progress, there remains social injustice in America due to racial differences. This was highlighted by President Obama in his statement regarding the situation. In his remarks, the President offered a path forward for our country, noting that the situation in Ferguson speaks to broader challenges we still face as a nation including the mistrust between law enforcement and communities of color (click here to view the full statement). 

Although we have made progress in race relations, racism still exist – however it may be more subtle.  Subtle forms of racism have been labeled modern or aversive racism.  These forms of subtle racism are typically disguised and less obvious; and have evolved from the “old fashioned” form of racism, in which racial hatred is conscious and publicly displayed to be more unclear and difficult to identify (Sue, Capodilupo, Torino, et al., 2007). This form of subtle racism is referred to as a microaggression. Microaggressions are brief, everyday exchanges that send degrading messages to people of color because they belong to a racial group (Sue, Capodilupo, Torino, et al., 2007). 

These recent incidents in Ferguson and across the country have amplified our daily experiences of discrimination and racism, as well as, demonstrated how it intersects with social injustice. As we continue to fight these injustices, some may wonder why it is important. First, we need to work towards preventing further injustice and more lives being taken. Additionally, research has shown that covert racism and microggressions may lead to significant traumatic experiences and psychological distress (Bryant-Davis & Ocampo, 2005; Sue et al., 2007). In a previous post published by the American Psychological Association’s Public Interest Directorate, I discussed several ways to engage in conversations with youth about race and racism. For example, the following tips were noted: 

  • Before providing children with your opinion and beliefs about injustice, allow your child the opportunity to give their point of view. 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. 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.
  • 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.
  • Be mindful of inappropriate racial socialization (i.e., talking with your children about race and racial experiences) 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.

Coping with Media Exposure 

Although the media often portrays racism and discrimination among African Americans, other people of color also experience racism and are impacted psychologically. In her book – Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? – Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum discusses how fear of discussing racism often results in silence.  This silence may be an individual’s way of managing their anger and frustration. Silence may be a temporary fix, but it ultimately does not help address the situation. Unchallenged personal, cultural, and institutional racism results in the loss of human potential, lowered productivity, and a rising tide of fear and violence in our society (Tatum, 2003). To help your family, I have suggested the following tips for teaching your child how to cope with racism

  • Create a safe space to openly talk with your child about racism and discrimination. 
  • Be age appropriate. Younger children need limited information. If your child is a teenager, they may have already experienced racism and this will create opportunities to discuss better ways to deal with racism. 
  • Get involved in peaceful protest or become an advocate to combat social injustice. Not only can this help support efforts to address racism but it can teach your child more about the political process of change. For example, you could help your child write a letter to their local or national politician to encourage changes in laws. 
  • Seek emotional support. It is important to find someone who you can confide in about your experience or frustration. If needed, speak to a therapist or psychologist who is trained to help people cope with stress
  • The APA (http://locator.apa.org/) and Find a Psychologist (http://www.findapsychologist.org) provide resources for locating a therapist in your area. 

© Copyright 2014 Erlanger A. Turner, Ph.D.

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Bryant-Davis, T., & Ocampo, C. (2005). The trauma of racism: Implications for counseling, research, and education. The Counseling Psychologist, 33(4), 574-578. 

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. 

Sue, D.W., Capodilupo, C.M., Torino, G.C., Bucceri, J.M., Holder, A.M.B., Nadal, K.L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice, American Psychologist, 62, 4, 271-286. 

Tatum, B. D. (2003). Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?. New York, NY, USA: Basic Books 

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