Three Ways Parents Can Protect Their Children from Racism

This article was written by Matthew Landell, CPTC intern and undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.

I grew up in a Black immigrant household in Queens, New York; neither of my parents was wealthy, so we were familiar with working as long and hard as many other people of color with similar backgrounds. I went to a school that consisted of four overpopulated schools together in one building. It was so heavily policed one might wonder if the building was a school or a detainment center. The student population was mostly people of color. It was not until my later years that I understood my experiences of racism and discrimination, and how my parents had tried to protect me.

I recall the sense of urgency as my mother would constantly speak to me about how to carry myself around the officers at school. She also urged me to do my best to make the most of my education to develop a better understanding of the world around me and eventually be able to make a change. I also remember the conversations we had to prepare me to face racism as I entered predominantly White institutions. She expressed urgency in her voice when trying to explain potential situations I might experience. Back then, her urgency felt like a scolding. But now, I realize it was a form of protection. The seriousness in her voice stemmed from her need for me to grasp important lessons about racism and discrimination. 

My mother desperately wanted to protect me. She understood there would be spaces where she wouldn’t be there, and the consequences for me could be dire. She wasn’t upset with me. Her frustration was out of love. She only wanted me, her Black son, to be safe. What I misunderstood for anger was fueled by the urgency she felt to get these points across. It was the way she thought she could protect her child best as he prepared to enter society.

Parents Protect Teens in Different Ways

Decades ago, researchers identified four general parenting styles: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and uninvolved. Researchers are now digging deeper into specific practices parents use to raise their children and key differences between families. Some African-American parents use a sense of urgency to prepare and protect their children. They do so by building cultural identification, a sense of responsibility, and the ability to face racism. It’s important to consider the protective role it plays in many Black children’s upbringing.

I recall one moment with my mother responding to my angry feelings of wanting to cut myself off from predominantly White institutions. At the time, she  called me foolish. Now I understand that she meant to highlight the importance of knowing how to safely navigate such institutions as a person of color. The frustration and disappointment expressed by some Black parents deliver the messages and morals they hope will become a common understanding among their children. It communicates the way children learn values, perceptions, and attitudes of those who share their racial or ethnic group.

How does it work?

These messages serve as a communication strategy for Black families, aiming to reduce the racial trauma and stress that stem from racist interactions. The urgency and directness seen in Black parenting and communication patterns may provide a form of protection against discrimination and racism. It’s done to teach kids how to hold their own in difficult situations and not have as much of an ingrained reaction. The hope is that if a child can maintain self-control at home, they should be able to do it when on their own. These methods over time have become a characteristically Black parenting style used by many to promote respect and obedience in adolescents.

It’s important to acknowledge the experiences that research cannot cover. The association between “hostility” and love is not the same in every Black family. The two concepts do not always coexist. So, while some parents’ (like mine) “hostility” stems from compassion and love, this relationship is not experienced the same way in every Black parent-child relationship.  

Poverty May Also Play a Role

This type of parenting, where warmth is paired with a sense of urgency, is also seen in many Chinese and Latinx families. Poverty seems to be a common thread in some families incorporating  this sense of urgency that may appear on the surface as anger in their parenting. While it is not characteristic of any particular race, it may relate to the socioeconomic conditions of families. Parents have the urgent desire to protect their children from the conditions brought on by the intersection of class, racism, and discrimination. My mother, who clearly understood our status, just wanted to protect me from the pain and suffering she knew too well.

3 Ways to Help Resist Racism

Families can work to have the kind of relationship in which they can comfortably discuss issues and experiences related to race. Here are three ways families can prepare for and cope with instances of racism:

  1. Share Honest Portrayals of Black Families. It was important for me to see the experiences and viewpoints of other Black children in books, TV shows, and movies as I grew up. Now, as a young adult, works such as “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates and “To Lose your Mother” by Saidiya Hartman have had a significant impact on how I understand my racial identity. Seeing people I related to forced me to consider my identity within the larger context of the world.
  2. Talk early and often about race and racism. Representations of Black families in the media can be a good starting point for open and honest conversations about race and racism. Growing up, my mother would always have these conversations with me, helping me to understand my experiences further and embrace my feelings from instances of racism. She would ask…“Has this ever happened to you? Why do you think this happens? How did this make you feel?” She let me know it was okay to feel angry and frustrated. Conversations like these made me feel valued and helped me to understand that my experiences with racism are not acceptable. These interactions helped me break down my emotions as I put my feelings into words, which helped me feel more stable and grounded.
  3. Promote your culture and reject stereotypes. Talk as a family about your race and ethnicity and how racial stereotypes do not define you. Promote the idea that your family should be proud to be who they are and that they belong to a rich history. Celebrate your family’s accomplishments.  My mother affirmed and embraced our Jamaican heritage throughout my childhood through traditions and anecdotes, instilling a strong sense of belonging within me. I can recall the many stories my mother told me about her earlier experiences of defying stereotypes in school and at her job. She attributed this resilience to our cultural identity. Hearing stories like this made me feel proud to have my particular identifiers. 

Together, families can develop the skills and knowledge needed to confront discrimination and racism. When I reflect on my own experiences with my mother, I’m grateful for how she helped me develop these skills. It was what worked best for us within our relationship, and I wouldn’t change anything about it.

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