Talking About Race and Mental Health Within Black Families

In our latest Q&A, Center for Parent and Teen Communication’s Dr. Joanna Lee Williams spoke to Mia Smith-Bynum, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and Associate Professor of Family Science in the School of Public Health at the University of Maryland, College Park, about the importance of talking about race and racial issues within Black families and how managing mental health during these stressful times is crucial.

Mia Smith-Bynum, PhD

Joanna Lee Williams: One of the core areas of your research is on the topic of racial socialization. Can you explain what racial socialization is and why it’s important for Black adolescents and families?

Mia Smith-Bynum: Racial socialization is basically any communication, verbal or nonverbal, about race and racial issues, from parents to kids. It’s referred to in the mainstream media or popular culture as “the talk.” I think that the term has only gained currency because of the amount of police brutality we’ve seen in recent years. However, over the generations, these conversations have always taken place in Black families because it’s been necessary for them to not only be able to navigate their own communities, be well-versed in Black culture and Black cultural norms and the joyful parts of Black culture in our history, but to also know how to navigate predominantly white spaces because they’re not always welcoming or hospitable. There are at least two sets of cultural norms there and so for kids, if they’re trying to be upwardly mobile, they often must have those skills in order to be able to navigate both those settings effectively.

JLW: You have observed many conversations between Black parents and their teenage children that focus on racial incidents. Can you tell us what you’ve learned from these observations and what the takeaways are for parents?

MSB: I started video recording families because most of the time when people ask about how parents focus on racial incidents or how teens experience it, they are usually filling out questionnaires, so you’re not getting at the spontaneous parts or the actual content of the speech. I started presenting hypothetical dilemmas to teenagers and their parents and playing short stories that would signal different cues about the presence of racial bias or racial discrimination. For example, we raised more subtle things such as unfair treatment. We then asked the families to discuss for five minutes how they would handle the situation. What I’ve been able to glean is that the arc of the conversations reflects how close the emotional relationship is between the parents. Yes, that piece is sort of implied in some of the literature that relies on questionnaires about this topic, but you can really see it on videos. The challenge parents face is how do you teach kids about the realities of racism without frightening them or embittering them? That is the essence of Black parenting. It’s like walking on a tightrope.

JLW: In addition to having conversations teaching teens about race and racism, we also know that it’s important to instill a sense of racial-ethnic pride. Can you speak to ways parents can promote this aspect of identity development?

MSB: One of the things that fall under the umbrella of racial socialization is building up a child’s positive sense of self. There’s a large body of research literature right now that teaches kids to be proud of being Black. The reason that’s important is because Black people are still at the bottom of the so-called racial hierarchy. You also have a lot of history and norms in terms of how racism operates and affects Black people. Therefore, you have to intentionally go in and shield your kid’s self-esteem and identity as they’re moving through each stage of their childhood. And how do you do that? You make sure that your child has opportunities to be around Black people in Black spaces. Some examples of those spaces are places of worship, predominantly Black neighborhoods, even though some may not have a lot of resources. Predominantly Black communities affirm Black children and families in general. It’s a shared sense of community—knowing that you’re a part of a space.

JLW: The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified levels of stress and for many families across the country, there’s been an increase in levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms across all demographics. However, in some facets of the Black community, there’s stigma against seeking help for mental health issues. As a clinical psychologist, how have you dealt with this kind of stigma in your work?

MSB: I believe the origin of the stigma is steeped in American racism. To  admit any type of struggling, particularly in terms of “not being right in the head,” which is a colloquial way of referring to it, would almost give justification for discriminatory treatment towards Black people. One of the coping mechanisms that people will use is to just gloss over the distress and to keep on pushing on. Black people in general tend to prefer to get mental health care from their spiritual and religious leaders. While it’s fine to seek care from your pastor, you should also see a therapist. The myth about psychotherapy is that you need to have a formal diagnosis to benefit from it and that’s not true. A good therapist is also a good life coach. They can hold up a mirror and offer you some tips and strategies for how to adjust and adapt to the challenges in your life. It is important to take care of your mental health and psychotherapy is a good thing. It doesn’t have to be this sense of doom or this sense of failure or stigma, it can help you manage the challenges that a lot of Black people are dealing with today.

JLW: How does a strength-based perspective on parenting or parent-teen relationships, in Black families show up in the work you do?

MSB: We’re living in times right now where there’s so much tragedy and exhaustion from the impacts of institutionalized racism in many different forms and we’re inundated with everything on the news. A concept that’s gaining a lot of currency in academia over the last few years is the concept of Black joy. Even when we’re thinking about all the deep suffering we’re all going through, we forget it’s fun to be Black and the ways that Black culture is emulated and embraced around the world. Our music traditions, our dance, all the ways in which Black people innovate and reinvent things and make them their own. So, parents and kids must hold on to that as we move through these times because those things help us remember our full humanity and are part of the reasons why we love being Black.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity by LaShieka Hunter.  

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About LaShieka Hunter

LaShieka Hunter is a health, parenting, and entertainment writer living on Long Island, NY. Her work has appeared in The New York Times; O, The Oprah Magazine; Essence; Dr. Oz The Good Life; Men’s Health; and Ebony.

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