To speak or not to speak: Can Children From Racialized Groups be Prepared for Racism?

I have wanted to write about this delicate (even by my standards) topic for some time and been doing a bit of digging on the topic but have not identified any evidence based professional guidelines that touched upon how best to prepare children from racialized groups for racist experiences.  This has been a question I have pondered upon for years because of my personal experience.  Being exposed to racism is no unusual experience for those within whom ethnic/racial difference is located. As young children many will learn about people being hostile to them because of their skin colour and/or culture.  Facing incidents of inferiorization, pathologization and/or problematization either directly or indirectly by witnessing racist and discriminatory acts experienced by parents, siblings, friends and/or other members of their communities or; enduring them personally; can have long lasting consequences. In this post, I will present my introduction to racism as I raise a few questions.  This is a topic I am quite tentative about for reasons which may become clear in the article.

Discovering racism…in France

My discovery of racism was quite a brutal one.  I was perhaps 4 or 5 and had been playing with my sister and some of the neighbourhood kids in front of our Parisian cité block as was customary during school holidays or week-ends. There was quite a few of us; 15 perhaps even more.  Children of all backgrounds and creeds.  We were skipping, running around and laughing the summer afternoon away.  A (White) man erupted from a ground floor flat in the tower. After complaining about the noise, he ran directly toward my elder sister and pushed her from behind.  He pushed her so violently that she fell forward and scraped the floor for a few meters. Once immobile, much of the skin at the back of her arms had gone.  A bunch of children quickly ran to our second floor flat to alert my parents.  A few seconds later my mother appeared downstairs to find my sister, me and a few other children in tears and my sister covered in blood.  Within moments she was at the assailant‘s door furious and demanding an explanation.

She was greeted by a barrage of vile racist insults including the N word (of course), followed by ‘go back to your country’ and ‘you lot only ‘lay’ children (sorry, this is a literal translation from the French expression to lay eggs used to refer to women who have many children) for child benefits. Once his monologue over, the man proceeded to punch her on the head with such force that her skin turned blue-black, one of her eye became red with blood and half her face swelled up almost instantly.  Expectedly, all children by this point were crying hysterically; probably with terror.  I am not sure whether it was the sight of my mother‘s grotesque looking face or the hatred in the man’s eyes which caused us the most turmoil.  Things after the punch have blurred in my memory but I can still see my mother standing still after the punch.  Standing tall, defiant and in dignified silence.  Although I do not remember this; perhaps unsurprisingly; I am told the man was apprehended by the police minutes later as he was brandishing a knife threatening to kill her.

My sister’s injuries were in the end only superficial but it took several months for the swelling and hematomas to disappear from my mother’s face and she suffered recurrent headaches for years.  The psychological scars for all those who witnessed the incident, most of us children under 10, probably remained for longer.  I was not spoken to about racism before the assault; or just after, for that matter. In fact the incident was rarely discussed either at home, at school or even amongst people on the block.  No one it seemed could put words to what had happened even as the trial went on (the perpetrator was eventually jailed for ‘racially aggravated’ assault, I believe). Yet, like my mother’s beautiful face (she was a stunning woman) which had been deformed by her injuries, the world had suddenly turned ugly and scary because we were Black.  This was France, inner city Paris to be precise; in the mid/late eighties. It could easily have been anywhere in the ‘western’ world.  It was only several years after this incident that my mother broached of subject of racism. By then I had recurrently experienced it first hand and witnessed its various manifestations.

The impact of the ‘new’ racism

Naturally, racist incidents of that nature are admittedly rarer today. Hence, I thought I had no reason to speak to my son about racism when he was just five,  until he came home from school in tears because he was being called monkey, ‘darkie’ and mocked because he looked ‘too’ African. This was only a few years ago in London.  As he wept in my arms, decades after I had myself sobbed because of racism (and in a different country), I wondered whether I had failed him by not preparing him for the reality of racism and prejudice.  I thought that perhaps, he or I would have been hurt a lot less when first exposed to racism; if we had somehow been prepared or been told of its existence.  The honest answer is I don’t really know if it would have made any difference.  It seems the opinions of those around me are divided.  Although I tend to; almost instinctively; air on the side of talking to the child-and we do discuss racism at home now- I am also mindful of the huge potential to increase a child’s anxiety, unhealthy paranoia and of creating self-fulfilling prophecies.

It is evidently desirable for children to form their own worldviews and experience the world without being unduly influenced by parental expectations and fears.  Nevertheless, there is also ,of course, the real danger of a child becoming seriously disillusioned, for expectations of fairness to be shattered and indeed for deeper psychological wounds to be experienced if the subject is not addressed and experiences of racism ensue, particularly if they occur frequently (I have previously written about young Black men’s experience of the police in a previous post here which may add some insight to the current article).   I realise that the form of racism my son suffered may seem less traumatic. Indeed for most children of colour today when they face racism, there will be no threat to life. There will be no physical injury. It is unlikely the police will be involved.  Still, there will likely be inferiorisation. There may be alienation.  There will most probably be suffering.  As first generations of migrants, my parents’ expectations of justice and equality in their host country were probably low.  Certainly lower than mine and those of my children.  Perhaps this supported my mother’s psychological resilience after the attack.

Thus, I wonder whether racial slights which might have been experienced as minor infringements by first generations may in later generations, become more psychologically damaging because of potential feelings of entitlement to fair treatment, justice and equality. Indeed although racism may have changed its face so that, in the main, more covert and institutional forms of prejudice have replaced behaviours displaying overt prejudice and open racial hostility, some evidence suggests that those exposed to racism‘s ‘new’ manifestations may indeed pay a higher psychological cost.  The children of migrants are much more likely to suffer psychological distress than their parents.  Of course there are various factors that may be at play.  Nevertheless, some have argued that the increase in the incidence of psychological and psychiatric distress in second and possibly third generations of migrants may be in part attributable to the fact that younger generation’s expectations often do not match their reality…

So what to do?

Do we instill lower expectations when it comes to fairness and justice or; do we continue to project an aspirational version of a world? How many may come to painfully experience such a version as a sham, what might the psychological impact be for those who are disillusioned be and, what type of support might be appropriate? Sadly, yet again, such questions have not received much empirical attention and very few Psychotherapists and Clinical Psychologists specialise in this area. As a result, as a parent and as a professional I feel it is difficult to give evidence based guidance. I would be extremely grateful for people to share their views or refer me to relevant guides, articles on the issues.

What do you think? Have I missed something of importance? Have people/professionals done anything to try and prepare children from racial minorities for racism and if so; what type of conversations have people had and when?

Please comment if you feel able to or get in touch to share your views/experiences.

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