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More than Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic: Racial Socialization for Black Children

 Outside of home, schools are typically the place children spend most of their time. School should be a place full of lively learning and discovery! But what if it’s not? Imagine, the following scenario.

While attending a family reunion this summer, I was approached by a bright, beautiful, young cousin who was interested in befriending me. I cut to the chase – what did she like about school? She told me math. Okay, what don’t you like about school?

Having not met her before, I was surprised at how forthright she was with the area of research I just happen to conduct.

“Well, my teacher is racist, so I’m not looking forward to having her next year.”

Why do you consider her to be racist, I inquired? My cousin explained that her teacher constantly skipped over the Black students to select the White students to answer questions.

My cousin is only 10 years old.

Research indicates that pre-kindergarten has the highest rate of expulsion for Black children[i], in comparison to their non-Black peer groups, and that teachers express and engage in racially biased practices against Black students in schools across the country[ii]. Many White educators maintain a colorblind perspective that people are the same and that they do not see race[iii]; teaching from the perspective that all children have the same opportunities and that they treat all of their students equally. A color-blind approach may shield practitioners’ ability to see disproportionate rates of racially-biased discipline or opportunities within their own classrooms to connect with students. For some teachers, it is an unconscious bias. Dr. Renee Navarro defines unconscious bias as “social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness.” Students are keenly aware and observant of bias. Managing rejection is difficult, some students withdraw from classroom participation as a strategy for managing teacher racial bias.

Teaching Aware

As educators, we need to ask ourselves the following questions:

-What are my practices within my classroom? Do I suspend, call upon, or set differential expectations for students based on their race?

If you are a teacher, evaluate your practices in relation to children’s identities (e.g., race, socioeconomic status, sex, etc.), are you providing an equitable experience for all children within your classroom? Is your classroom a place where your students can discuss what is happening in the world around them?

Another opportunity to assess your teaching is an evaluation from a peer or instructional coach at your school. Ask for a review of your lesson plans and an observation of you teaching. Let them know the kinds of feedback you are seeking.

Whether you conduct a self-evaluation or receive feedback from a peer or coach, if differences exist, a next step to consider is seeking supervision or consultation to address these disparities or attending a professional development that will provide you with resources and opportunities to practice improving your instruction.

In another example, first graders were having a conversation about the impact of then Congressmen Obama winning the U.S. presidency. Their six-year-old selves were so aware of the importance of such an election, and used terms like slavery, segregation, and racism to support their responses. (Did I mention they were six?) And this makes sense – children are able to detect differences in race as early as pre-school[iv] but are sometimes discouraged from talking about the “controversial” topic because adults fear they do not understand at such a young age. Trust me, if they are sorting Starbursts at this age, they can understand how discrimination works. Children often come home from school and share experiences and conversations about race, but because conversations about race are not limited to the classroom, parents also need a tool kit.

Parenting Preparation for Racism

As parents and caregivers, we need a tool kit:

R/ES has been traditionally defined as verbal or nonverbal messages parents communicate with their children or youth’s admitted acquisition of those parental messages[v]. Proactive R/ES involves communicating Black history, celebrating culture, demonstrating an appreciation for the legacy of Black Americans, and sharing personal experiences that children can draw on when they face racial encounters and experience racial bias. For example, teaching children about Black scientists, artists, musicians who are often omitted from school curriculum, allows them to draw on this knowledge when they are in school. As early as pre-school, a home that includes cultural artifacts has been shown to have an impact on school performance[vi]. Proactive R/ES can be a buffer against negative encounters and bolster racial identity and self-concept among Black youth.

My cousin informed me that she tried to talk to her mother about her teacher, but that her complaint fell unheard. As psychologists who talk with Black families about the impact of racism and discrimination on their lives, we are keenly aware that children need support systems with whom to share their frustration and concerns. Many Black parents prepare to have racism conversations, while others haven’t figured out what to say.

-What will you say to your child?

What do you say to your child or a child you care about when they share with you that he or she has had an experience with racism? For many Black parents, aunts, uncles or caregivers, this is not the conversation that we just can’t wait to have. In fact, some of us hope we don’t have to have it all or that the conversation comes late in a child’s life. We want them to enjoy the innocence and discovery of childhood unhampered by racial encountersA racial encounter is a negative experience during which you are treated differently because of your race. When we have conversations about racism and how to manage racial encounters we are engaging in racial/ethnic socialization (R/ES). R/ES represents individuals’ acquisition of intellectual, emotional, and behavioral coping skills to compensate for or counteract racial tensions in relationships[vii].

As a parent, you will need to develop a R/ES Toolkit that includes helping your child to manage a racial encounter. Listen carefully to your child, practice what you would say, write it down and have it handy, develop a support system for you and your child for managing these kinds of encounters. Ask how they feel and what can you do to help? Acknowledge children’s feelings and yours. Spend a bit of time thinking about how you feel when you have experienced racism or witnessed someone else experiencing racism to help you figure out how best to support your child. Supporting your child may include conversations with school administrators and teachers. Affirm your child, regularly participate in cultural immersion experiences that reinforce their identity and brilliance!

I really hope that my cousin can go into her fifth-grade classroom with a sense of safety, equity, and academic prowess that she so rightfully deserves. I hope her teacher can help to provide this sense for her and that she begins to feel supported by her mother.

Whether you are a parent looking for R/ES resources, or a teacher working to improve your practice, two excellent texts are Promoting Racial Literacy In Schools Differences That Make a Difference and The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys. Both of these books are easy to read and offer user friendly strategies for managing racially stressful encounters, confronting bias and meaningfully connecting with and supporting Black children.

If you prefer quick “how to” readily accessible references on the web, Today’s Parent has a guide for how to talk about racism with children organized by age that can be found here. Arizona State University has a resource titled Working Against Racial Bias for teachers. Through an online module, teachers  (or anyone interested in developing skills to address racism) can learn about defining implicit bias and actions to take that can work against racial bias.

Reference List

[i] Gilliam, W. S., & Shahar, G. (2006). Preschool and child care expulsion and suspension: Rates and predictors in one state. Infants & Young Children, 19(3), 228-245. doi: 10.1097/00001163-200607000-00007

[ii] Gershenson, S., Holt, S. B., & Papageorge, N. W. (2016). Who believes in me? The effect of student–teacher demographic match on teacher expectations. Economics of Education Review,52, 209-224.

[iii] Michael, A. (2015). Raising Race Questions Whiteness and Inquiry In Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

[iv] Swanson, D. P., Cunningham, M., Youngblood, J., & Spencer, M. B. (2009). Racial identity development during childhood. Retrieved from

[v] Bentley, K. L., Adams, V. N., & Stevenson, H. C. (2009). Racial socialization: Roots, processes, and outcomes.  In H. A. Neville, B. M. Tynes, & S. O. Utsey (Eds.), Handbook of African American Psychology (pp. 255-267).  Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

[vi]O’Brien Caughy, M., O’Campo, P.J., Radolph S.M. & Nickerson, K. (2003). The Influence of Racial Socialization Practices on the Cognitive and Behavioral Competence of African American Preschoolers. Child Development.73(5), 1611-1625

[vii] Stevenson, H. C. (2014). Promoting racial literacy in schools: Differences that make a difference. New York: Teachers College Press.

Author biographies 

Dr. Valerie N. Adams-Bass is an Assistant Professor of Youth and Social Innovation in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. A developmental psychologist, she holds a doctorate in Interdisciplinary Studies in Human Development from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master of Education in Urban Education from Temple University. Dr. Adams-Bass’ expertise is in racial/ethnic socialization and racial identity processes of Black adolescents. She is most interested in examining how racial/ethnic socialization experiences are related to media exposure, inter-personal interactions and the social and academic experiences of Black children and youth. Dr. Adams-Bass has regularly trained youth development professionals to use culturally relevant practices when working with African American children, youth and families. Each spring she teaches an undergraduate course on Black media images and African-American adolescent identity. Dr. Adams-Bass has lived and taught in Namibia as a Volunteer Teacher for Africa and served as a Rotary Ambassador Scholar in South Africa where she participated in a community-based research project with South African youth that resulted in a book of short stories, Food for the Ear, published in both English and isiZulu. She recently co-authored Hardly ever, I don’t see it: Black youth speak about positive media Images of Black men in Media Across the African Diaspora Content Audiences and Global Influences and is co-PI of a recently awarded grant to investigate shifting identities titled, The Changing Face of Race: New Black Immigrants in American Public Schools. She is an affiliate faculty member of the Racial Empowerment Collaborative at the University of Pennsylvania, the Samuel Dubois Center on Social Equity at Duke University, the Center for Race and Public Education in the South and the Youth-Nex Center to Promote Effective Youth Development at the University of Virginia.

Riana Elyse Anderson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. She received her Ph.D. in Clinical and Community Psychology at the University of Virginia and completed a Clinical and Community Psychology Doctoral Internship at Yale University’s School of Medicine. She also completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Applied Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania supported by the Ford and Robert Wood Johnson Foundations. Before joining the University of Michigan, she was an Assistant Professor in Preventive Medicine and the Department of Children, Youth, and Families in the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California. She uses mixed methods in clinical interventions to study racial discrimination and socialization in Black families to reduce racial stress and trauma and improve psychological well-being and family functioning. She investigates how protective familial mechanisms such as parenting and racial socialization operate in the face of risks linked to poverty, discrimination, and residential environment. Dr. Anderson is particularly interested in how these factors predict familial functioning and subsequent child psychosocial outcomes, especially when enrolled in family-based interventions. She has recently developed a five-session intervention entitled EMBRace (Engaging, Managing, and Bonding through Race) to alleviate racial stress and trauma in parents and adolescents in order to facilitate healthy parent-child relationships, parent and adolescent psychological well-being, and healthy coping strategies.

Blog Topic: Racial socialization and child development: Opportunities and challenges