“The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” This African proverb perfectly expresses the rage and grief of this moment. As a black mother the past few months have been devastating. The pandemic has hit the black community with staggering force and then the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd were a bludgeoning of the spirit. I am raising my daughter in a world that does not value her life as it does others and I can’t quite find the words to describe how deeply painful that is.
Despite this pain, I am full of hope about our future. I am a psychologist and I specialize in helping women process and heal from traumas like child abuse, loss, and sexual assault. I am also an anti-racist trainer. I know that as bleak as things may seem, this fight is a sign of our strength and resilience. It is also a critical moment for parents to help build a better future.
Our children are watching us very closely right now, some from the front lines of protests and others from the living rooms of our homes. We have to talk about this, and by this, I mean structural racism and state-sanctioned violence, because, if we don’t, our kids will learn from the loudest people on TV, the murkiest corners of the Internet, and their uninformed friends.
I’m going to offer some tips on how to get started raising healthy kids in this culture right now. The first thing to acknowledge is that structural racism is pervasive, insidious, and traumatizing to communities of color, and it's not too great for the psyche of white folks either (more on that later). Since the impact is different, we each have different tasks in our parenting to address this.
For parents of color, we carry the heaviest burden. We worry about the physical, emotional, and spiritual health of our children and have our own experiences to navigate. It is critical that you take care of yourself. Sacrificing your own wellness will not work out in the end and is not a good model for our kids. Therapy, spirituality, exercise, eating well, and finding safe spaces to connect to others and express your feelings are so important. As Dr. Joy DeGruy states, given everything your ancestors survived, “you are a miracle,” so handle yourself with care.
Yes, parents of color, please teach your children the truth about racism and strategies for keeping safe. But you must also balance this with hope. Children need regular positive images of people of their race/ethnicity to counter the barrage of negative ones that pervade our culture. Keep them connected and knowledgeable about their history because most of them won’t learn it accurately in school. Teach your children to see their peers of all backgrounds as equal. Finally, pump endless love and fun into their lives as their joy is a form of resistance.
For white families, your task is different. Many of you now are feeling guilt and shame and unsure of what to “do.” My first advice is to sit with that feeling for a while before taking action. Sometimes, action is a way of distancing from hard feelings. Educate yourself, there are tons of lists of books and films being shared on social media. Engage with black art. Take an anti-racism workshop. Speak up when you see injustice and when you have questions, even if you don’t have the perfect words right now. You risk so much less than non-whites do when they speak up. Most of all, listen when people of color speak, move toward discomfort, and learn to tolerate it because that’s where you will grow.
For white children, the goal is to counter the messages they receive from our culture that they are better than others.
Internalizing superiority makes you do awful things to other people. This work of undoing this messaging is also done with tons of love. They too need to know our country’s true history and have constant exposure to positive images of people of color. Books, movies, TV, and dolls should be diverse. Don’t teach them to be “color-blind.” Teach them to understand what color means in this country. And when you don’t have all of the answers for their questions, model humility and resourcefulness. And teach your children how to investigate answers and critically evaluate information. Take a look at your friend group, make sure the people around you are diverse (but please don’t go up to people of color and try to make friends this week; we are very tired).
And for those of us in multi-racial families, we sometimes can replicate the silence around race even in our homes. We must talk about this openly and often because if people who love each other cannot tolerate the discomfort of this work, how can we expect the rest to?
Finally, for all of us, remember, if one person’s child cannot breathe then none of us can. It's up to each of us, to make this right.
This is an opinion column written by Lisa Martin, Ph.D., a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Tampa. Follow her advice at Heal with Dr. Lisa.
Check out "Critical Moment to Build a Better Future: Spread Your Sunshine Racial Inequality Webinar'' on Wednesday, June 10th, beginning at 4 p.m. The complimentary one-hour webinar will feature Christopher J. Harris, Executive Pastor of Crossover Church, Host of The Wise Idea Podcast, and author of The Temporary Assignment, and former State Representative and former Chairman of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, The Honorable Edwin "Ed" Narain. Harris and Narain will lead a discussion about systemic racism, how to talk about it, and how to lean in to change it. Follow this link to read more.