Reclaiming Our Way promoting the well-being of African American children & families


Raising African American Youth in a Racially Unjust Society: A Message to All Parents

Quick note... A printable version (7 pages, PDF) of this essay is available for download (click here).


Introductory Note:

This essay is an expanded version of a shorter piece published in
Adoptalk, a publication of the North American Council on Adoptable Children. The initial request was to share reflections on the Trayvon Martin tragedy in Florida, and the critical responsibility parents – including white parents – of African American children share to prepare them for the realities of racism in American society. While developing the smaller article for Adoptalk, it became clear that a fuller version was necessary because of the seriousness of this issue and the ideas.

I acknowledge up front that others may be better equipped to speak about the experience of being raised as an African American child by white parents. I have numerous African American friends who have this as their own personal experience. Admittedly, my sensibilities are shaped by my experience growing up within an African American family and community (born of a white mother and African American father; adopted and raised within a culturally centered African American family). Yet I offer my observations and perspectives about this dynamic as well with the hope that they are useful to other parents and their children.


We fit the profile!

By now many of you are aware of the tragic killing of the young African American teenager in Sanford, Florida in February of this year.  The killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin sparked months of national protests and intensive media coverage because of the initial refusal of the local police department to arrest and charge the admitted killer, George Zimmerman.  At the time Zimmerman was the self-appointed and seemingly overzealous neighborhood watch captain with a not-so-secret longing for a career in law enforcement (the prospects for which did not appear too promising, I should add).  After weeks of protests, petitions, national news coverage and increasing pressure on local, state and federal officials to intervene, Zimmerman was eventually arrested and charged with second-degree murder.

A review of the circumstances surrounding this tragedy suggests that Zimmerman profiled the young teenager.  According to Zimmerman’s own reports (although his specific account of how things transpired seems to have ‘evolved’ over time), he made judgments about the young teenager based on what he perceived to be Martin’s race, height, attire (he wearing a hooded sweatshirt), and the path he traveled while walking through the gated community.  Also, according to Zimmerman, Trayvon’s observed characteristics matched those of other young men he identified as being involved in recent burglaries within the small community.  In other words, Zimmerman saw someone he thought fit the profile of a criminal or someone otherwise up to no good.

This case has an interesting twist to it, however, in that it involves an encounter between two private citizens.  We typically hear about these sorts of killings involving police officers and unarmed Black men.  The justifications, however, are usually similar.  Someone who fits the description of a “suspicious individual” is accused of doing something the officer finds threatening, thus justifying the split-second decision to use “unavoidable” deadly force.  In this case, it would seem from listening to the audio recording of his 911 call, George Zimmerman assumed the authority of law enforcement in his pursuit and eventual confrontation with Martin.

The point, however, is that it doesn’t always have to involve law enforcement.  To the contrary, these types of judgments people make daily tend to affect the life experiences of African Americans, especially African American men and boys.  Sometimes these experiences do involve life and death encounters, although more frequently they don’t.  Even when they don’t, however, these experiences leave the lingering feeling of being constantly targeted, profiled and harassed.


Children see what’s going on!

These dynamics are critically important for parents to understand, precisely because they speak to a broader pattern of profiling that has historically shaped public perceptions of, and reactions to, African American men and boys.  Parents who are interested in effectively preparing our young boys for successful adulthood frequently feel the need to familiarize them with these racial dynamics to minimize the likelihood that they will become yet another tragic victim of “unfortunate circumstances” (as the media often and quite disrespectfully refers to them).

I remember a few related experiences during my own childhood years.  In one incident my father was pulled over for an alleged traffic violation in Dearborn, Michigan.  During the 1980’s Dearborn was widely known to be a racist community that openly discouraged African Americans from visiting or driving through.  We frequently drove through Dearborn on our way to neighboring Inkster, the small city where my mother grew up and where my grandparents still lived.  While I don’t remember the specific reasons for the traffic stop, I remember mom and dad talking about how unfair it was, and my brother and I in the back seat both confused and a little bit startled.  What I remember most in that experience, however, is that the energy and tone of the interaction with the officer was very serious and tense.  Dad didn’t appreciate being stopped for some senseless reason, and the white officer didn’t seem to appreciate our presence in general.  I remember dad talking immediately afterwards about how unfair that incident was, how unfair things can often seem with police officers (or people in general who use their positions of authority unfairly), yet also how to respond in these situations so things don’t escalate.

I recall a few other encounters between my parents and law enforcement officials during my childhood and teenage years as well, all of which left lasting impressions.  Some of the incidents were like the one in Dearborn, and at least one involved a confrontation (not physical, however) between my father and several security officers.  I’ve found myself reflecting on these incidents and experiences numerous times over the years, most notably when I’ve been stopped by the police or otherwise experienced some sort of racial profiling or seemingly race-based treatment.

These are not all old experiences.  Within the last few months, I was pulled over for an alleged traffic violation while beginning a pretty typical weekend family visit to one of the Smithsonian Museums in Washington, DC.  I was noticeably angry and frustrated in my initial exchange with the officer, and quickly recalled my own childhood experiences when my son and daughter both started asking multiple questions about what was happening and why I was so angry.  They wanted to know…  What was going on?  Why were we being stopped?  Why didn’t the officer answer my question about why they pulled us over?  Why did the officer seem so mean?  Why was the officer on the passenger side of the car standing off to the side with her hand on her gun?  Why didn’t they give us a ticket, even after taking my driver’s license and registration back to the police car for what seemed like an eternity?

Both of my children were a bit shaken up by, and genuinely curious about, what was happening.  They kept saying that it didn’t seem fair.  We ended up having a long conversation immediately afterwards – not unlike when I was a child – about these sorts of interactions with police officers, the ‘safe’ and ‘appropriate’ ways to respond, and broader dynamics related to fairness, potential abuse of police power, and what can happen when law enforcement officials feel we aren’t “cooperating” appropriately.  I talked to them about the reality of police abuses, other abuses of power by people in positions of influence and authority, and how a lot of these dynamics are fundamentally about the subjective perceptions and judgments of individuals and institutions… perceptions too often shaped by misinformation and stereotypes.  I then made the connection between these types of incidents and the long history of injustices experienced by people of African ancestry in this country.

One of the points I made was about the need for African Americans to always “have our stuff together,” precisely because some people will pick any little thing to justify targeting us.  Some people will notice us faster and more often because of our (perceived) race.  Moreover, if they feel compelled, they’ll always find some reason to single us out, pick with, or otherwise target us.  Our job is to prevent folks from getting away with that kind of unjust behavior and treatment, and to resist such treatment whenever we are able.

Consider again the recent incident I just described, for example.  Had my vehicle registration been overdue, had I not had proof of registration, missing insurance papers, or had I any outstanding tickets, any of these factors could have given the officers an excuse for more punitive actions (i.e. further harassment or worse).  Moreover, had I complained or expressed frustration with the officer(s) about the petty nature of the stop and interaction, the traffic stop could have easily escalated into what they could claim was a “dispute”, and could have ended tragically.  In that scenario, the officers could have used any of these dynamics to “suggest” the “kind of person” I am (references to my character), and thus why they should be given the benefit of the doubt for their actions.  This certainly isn’t fair, but it’s a scenario that far too many African American youth and adults are familiar with.

Interestingly, after all of this discussion, my daughter’s reaction was telling.  With no direct reference and prompting from me, my daughter asked if this is what happened to Trayvon Martin.  We talked about the parallels, even if the circumstances were different.  It all made sense to her, even at such a young age.  And she kept insisting how unfair it was/is.  Our children see and feel much more than we give them credit for.  Our responsibility is to help them make sense of it all, and recognize this society’s racist pathology for what it is.  It’s also our responsibility to instill within them a commitment to (and a set of skills for) doing something about it.

Of course this wasn’t the first of these types of conversations we’d had about racial injustice and oppression.  I started having these discussions more with my daughter when she was around 6, and increasingly with my son as he has grown older.  The conversations increased in frequency in the lead up to the 2008 presidential elections, and have continued since.  While we don’t have these conversations daily, it’s safe to say that there is no shortage of natural opportunities to have them, given the increasingly polarized climate of race in this country.  These are not academic exercises.  Our children’s futures are at stake.


Helping African American children make sense of the world they experience!

The discussion I had with my daughter and son after being stopped by the police officers in Washington, DC is consistent with the discussions many African American parents have regularly with their children all over this country.  It’s not a new discussion, either.  It’s one that has been happening throughout our history.

These discussions about justice, integrity, and the balance of resistance and effective survival strategies took place among our ancestors when they were initially abducted from their families and villages, and taken to the slave dungeons on the west coast of Africa.  They continued inside the horrid dungeons while they anxiously awaited their transfer through the Doors of No Return and to the awaiting ships that would transport them to the erroneously named ‘New World’.  The same discussions would take place on the ships as many courageous Africans resisted captivity and attempted to take over the ships (sometimes successfully).  These discussions continued upon our ancestors’ arrival in the “Americas”, and throughout the several hundreds of years of African enslavement on the North American continent.  Naturally, these discussions have continued since the early years of the 20th century until the present as the slow and grinding process of securing legal protections against racial discrimination and abuses unfolded – and continue to unfold – in this country.

The talks my parents had with my brother and me, and those that I’ve had – and will continue to have – with my son and daughter are a part of this tradition.  While not all of the encounters between African Americans and law enforcement officials, and for that matter other people in positions of authority, are characterized by racial prejudice and racism, awareness of that dynamic remains a very real and defining dynamic in the developmental and socialization experiences of African American children, especially among African American males.  It’s also worth pointing out that all racial, ethnic and cultural groups have similar processes for teaching and preparing their children to understand and respond to the circumstances they experience in any given environment.

Many of you are directly familiar with the “talk” many African American parents have with their children.  Others of you have likely heard or read about these sorts of discussions.  I actually don’t care for this reference to “the talk” because it’s not just one discussion, and none of the discussions tend to be exactly the same.  The point is well taken, however, as the themes and purpose of these discussions remain constant… balancing the natural inclination toward integrity, justice and resistance against challenging and unjust circumstances with the real need to develop and employ survival strategies in the face of real and life-threatening experiences.

So what “themes” are communicated in these discussions between African American parents and their children about encounters with police officers?  They frequently include: playing it cool; staying calm and even-tempered; not arguing; keeping your hands visible to the officers at all times; avoiding any movements or behaviors that might be interpreted as threatening or some form of resistance; showing deference to their authority; addressing the officers as “sir” or “ma’am”; and complying with any requests or demands.  The primary message in these discussions is that the goal of any police encounter is survival and getting through it alive and unscathed.  Even if the encounter is unfair, and even if the encounter reeks of explicit racism, the goal is to get through the encounter, after which one will at least have an opportunity to fight for justice.  These talks can also include information about each of our rights as citizens, and strategies for strategically asserting these rights when confronted by unjust practices and treatment.

Similar versions of this “talk” focus on how to carry ourselves when we go into stores and other shopping areas, places of business, schools and other places where we can be singled out and targeted by others with some level of influence and authority.  These messages often involve how to dress, how to speak, who to be with (or not), not touching things, keeping our hands visible, and how to carry ourselves more generally so as to put others at ease with our presence.

It’s important to note that these are not scripted and textbook conversations.  They usually happen in real time when families directly witness something, when we see reports of something on the news, when we hear about an experience that someone we know has had, or when some other issue related to racism and African American life in this country comes up.  It happens more or less frequently depending on where we live and the dynamics that play out in our community.  Also, parents may feel more or less comfortable having these conversations depending on their own personal experiences and sensibilities related to racism and American society.  My own observation and experience is that children who have been more exposed to these conversations as a part of their developmental and socialization experiences tend to be much better fortified in their ability to withstand or get through racist and race-related experiences as adults.

There’s absolutely a high level of sickness and pathology involved with this human dynamic; but be clear that it’s very real.


What about white parents of African American children?

These dynamics are not only important for African American parents to be aware of and responsive to.  White parents of African American children also must become more aware, responsive and accountable (as should parents of all children for that matter).

My first comment is that white parents of African American children must first recognize and accept that their children will likely experience childhood and adulthood in ways that are very different from their own experiences.  Their goal should be to help their children understand their reality and daily developmental experiences as they are actually experiencing it, and not as they (as parents) hoped their children would experience it.  This can be extremely challenging, even painful, for many parents.  Many white parents of African American children really want to believe their own family members are not racist, will treat their African American children as just another one of the family, and will accept, honor and celebrate them for who they are.  These parents likely expect the same from their children’s teachers, counselors, peers, and others.

It can be challenging to acknowledge and accept when these ideals and desires are not, in fact, the reality; moreover, the hurtful and traumatizing impact this reality is likely having on their children.  Aside from acknowledging and responding to the potentially hurtful and traumatic impact, it’s hard for some parents to even recognize the presence of the racist and/or insensitive behaviors and statements of others toward their children.  Racism and other racialized encounters can sometimes be hard to recognize if you’ve never experienced them.

It’s not just the obvious and explicit racial encounters and experiences of African American youth that take an emotional and spiritual toll, and that inflict real psychological damage.  It’s also the everyday slights and indignities (usually smaller and more subtle) experienced by non-white people in today’s racialized American society.  These micro-aggressions, as they are frequently called, include being followed around and watched in stores, being asked to represent the “black perspective” in classroom discussions, having people move away from you on the sidewalk, having women clutch their handbags when you get near them, being told you are “not like the rest of them” because of your mastery of the “formal” English language, being told by white people who when they see you they don’t see color (they just see a ‘regular’ person), among numerous other examples.

Either way, experiencing this dynamic frequently leaves children in these circumstances feeling isolated, abandoned and unprotected in the face of such dehumanizing and hurtful behaviors, direct statements and other messages.  Moreover, the children fail to see positive and productive examples of how to deal with these sorts of dynamics, and thus fail to develop the skills and strategies for interpreting and responding to these race-related and culture-related dynamics in healthier and less hurtful ways.

White parents of African American children, whether through adoption or other family configurations, must attempt to provide their children with the same life lessons many African American parents attempt to provide, even though their own childhood and adult experiences have been very different from what their children currently experience and will likely experience as they grow older.  To support this process, white parents must also study a range of African / African American historical perspectives and personally challenge white privilege.

This personal growth and learning process notwithstanding, I’ve also observed that some white parents of African American children find it challenging to acknowledge that there are lessons and aspects of their child’s reality (namely racial identification and cultural fluency) that they are not likely the most qualified to teach or develop.  White parents of African American children should take seriously the importance of surrounding their children with images, expressions and people who can naturally help to develop this aspect of their child’s identity, understanding and worldview.  This can be particularly challenging for white parents who have grown up and/or lived much of their lives in relative isolation (racially speaking).

It’s important for parents to create and keep an open line of communication with their children about race, ethnicity and culture, and the related encounters and experiences their children have.  The idea is not that this should be a scripted and forced conversation.  Children should know, however, that you “see” the fullness of their humanity, and that you are aware and concerned about the reality of race, racism, and any feelings of “difference” they may experience.

When major and very public discussions about race take place, like those surrounding the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin, create deliberate opportunities to hear your children’s perspectives, to learn more about what they are hearing and seeing, how they also experience race and racism.  I’m not arguing that you should force the conversation.  You may not even get much of a response at the beginning.  When children feel like the space is safe and genuine, however, they are much more likely to respond.  Over time, it will be important to have created a space in which your children feel comfortable and supported in sharing and being affirmed in this central aspect of their identity and humanity.  You also need to hear what’s happening so that, when necessary, you know when and how to actively intervene or respond.

When circumstances require, parents must be willing to intervene and challenge instances and experiences of racial injustice, insensitive comments and the many other micro-aggressions associated with racism and discrimination.  This may involve challenging those things said or done by other immediate and extended family members, neighbors, friends, colleagues, your children’s peers, teachers, coaches or others.  Sometimes this means calling people out for what they’ve said and/or done, educating them about why it was problematic, and even holding them accountable in some way when necessary.  The important point is that children need to know that we ‘see’ them in the fullness of their humanity, that we care about them, and that we are willing to stand up for them and protect them in the face of injustice.  They need to know they are not completely alone, or invisible, in their experience.  We can model these forms of resistance and strategies for responding to various types of challenging and unjust situations.

It may not be easy work, but it’s a part of the responsibility all parents have for supporting the healthy development of their children and their preparation for a successful and healthy adulthood.  Experiences and sensibilities related to race, ethnicity and culture are central aspects of one’s humanity… aspects of one’s place in the narrative of human history.  Our job as parents is to help our children understand their rightful place in that human narrative.  Our job is to help them understand that aspect of their humanity in an honest way; in a way that affirms the fullness of their beauty and their place in this world.  In the case of mixed race families, especially, a critical first step is to acknowledge that many of you have more personal learning to do, learning that may challenge some of your own personal assumptions, judgments and beliefs about life, about the world, and indeed about your own place in this larger human narrative.

Sometimes there are specific messages, skills and lessons that we can directly impart to our children.  Sometimes, however, the best that we can offer our children is our example of how to learn and evolve, how to develop the relationships that we continue to need over time, how to negotiate challenging dynamics and circumstances in life, and how to develop and acquire new social skills over time.  We can model a process of continued growth, continued understanding, and (when necessary) ways of protecting our children from those messages, people and experiences that might undermine or threaten their healthy growth and development.

It is not our responsibility as parents to always be right and have all of the answers.  Our responsibility is, however, to create the space and the experiences that help our children begin to understand and appreciate the fullness of their humanity, to help them develop the social skills that will allow them to maintain healthy relationships with others throughout life, to help them develop the range of other skills they will need to become healthy and successful adults (and parents if they so choose), and to help them resolve any related psychological or emotional trauma arising from their developmental experiences.  Moreover, we have a critical responsibility to instill within them the desire to change the sick racial dynamics of this society and the larger world for the benefit of our future generations.


Racism is still alive and thriving!

Whether we individually like it or not, and whether we individually feel prepared to respond or not, racism is still very real and affects our daily life experiences.  It also affects our children.  Our collective struggle must continue.  We are all affected by the sickness of racism in our society, and more than we probably realize.

We all have the ability, and the responsibility, to change these dynamics.

Our children’s futures depend on it!

Quick note... A printable version (7 pages, PDF) of this essay is available for download (click here).


Comments (6) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Oronde- thank you for talking about this. We like to believe that the blight of racism and other-ism is ancient history when it’s really ever present, harming our children and perhaps more alive in some respects today than 60 years ago. There has to be some sort of collective effort to safeguard the esteem and value of all kids especially those that society does not value.

  2. So appreciated this; passing it along to others. Thank you for writing it.

  3. Thanks for this very thoughtful article. I’m a transracial adoptive parent, and I really appreciate articles like this that offer great practical tips. I wish that it wasn’t necessary, but until wishing can make it so, I’ll be working to make it so.

  4. Excellent insights on so many levels. Racism is so insidious that even the most liberal-minded of non-blacks often perpetrate the same biases that they are quick to call others out on. Profiling in this country has become a rite of passage for many poor children of color, while, ironically, more affluent blacks in particular face similar dynamics when they trail ‘white flight’ only to find that giving their children ‘the best’ can often mean sacrificing their identity if parents aren’t socially aware and involved in their children’s lives. We can try to pretend that some of us never experience racism, but that’s just a line we like to tell ourselves to hide from the pain it inflicts on us. Our children have to be prepared early to understand the complex dynamics of race and be able to handle them constructively. Thank you for taking what had to be a difficult experience for you and your family and turning it into a vehicle for reaching out and helping others.

  5. Thanks as usual for your powerful analysis and clear expression of the challenges our children and families need to be prepared for.

  6. what do you believe is the safest and most effective response for African American children to give people who bully them in elementary school about their race and/or transracial family? I know that each situation will require specific attention but I want my children to be armed with a response to someone with clear malicious intent because it will be difficult for them to think of how to respond during such a highly charged interaction. I have a couple of years before they enter school but these future situations weigh heavily on my mind.

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