Black Teenagers and My White Kids

I read an article last week about a new study from Rutgers University that found that Black teenagers, on average, experience racism more than five times a day. The details of the study are powerful and can be found here:

The study made me think of my experiences working with Black teenagers from low-income communities over the last two decades, as well as experiences I had as a young child when my mother worked in Harlem as a public school teacher in the 1970 and 80s. Being an adolescent was hard, even then. Today, it is so much harder, with new ways to feel insecure and ostracized and to be teased. But what I keep coming back to is how these affronts could affect a young person when the experiences could be happening 5 times a day.

I think about the micro-aggressions and overt racism that I myself have witnessed and I wonder if I have said or done enough. The answer is definitely no. I think about comments people have said in front of me, especially as a child, and remember feeling that if I didn’t speak up, it felt like a betrayal of myself. I have betrayed myself many times. If young, beautiful adolescents are suffering offenses five times a day, most of us are not doing enough.

It made me reflect on how I talk about these issues with my own children. A friend once told me that in spite of my extreme bend towards entrepreneurship and teaching other people’s children how to be entrepreneurs, my own children are not particularly entrepreneurial. She said, “…it’s like the cobbler’s children who have no shoes.” I’ve often thought about that, about whether I pass down my beliefs, my skills, my philosophies enough to my children. Do they understand and have they adopted my core values? Most days, I’d say yes, but then there are moments when I wonder.

Reading the study was jarring and it made me reflect on recent conversations with my own kids. Sometimes as a parent, one becomes complacent about these conversations and I know my responses are less robust and present when I am multitasking. I asked my daughter recently whether she would be going to a friend’s party.

“Will I be the only white girl there,” she asked me.

“I don’t think so,” I said. I paused for a moment.

“Maybe?,” I responded.

She was quiet.

“Would that make you feel uncomfortable?,” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” she said.

“Would that make you not want to go?”

“Definitely not!,” she responded.

I moved on to the next topic that had to be addressed, but I wonder why I didn’t stay there for a moment; why didn’t I use that as an opportunity to talk about what it might be like to constantly be “in the minority” and what kind of sensitivity that might create. But at the time, lunches needed to be made and classes prepared for and laundry pulled out of the dryer. And at the moment, those mundane things that needed to be done seemed more important than this tremendous opportunity to unpack how she felt, how others might feel and my own reflections on these issues — for her to see how I think about it and to grapple with hard topics together.

My son, an adolescent, might walk through life without ever feeling discrimination. He is stereotyped often for sure: we just had a conversation about what it feels like when people assume he is a “jock”, with all the negative characteristics that can bring with it, in terms of academics, depth of feeling and being aware of what is happening in the world. But racial discrimination? I can’t imagine, even in a situation in which he might be a numerical minority.

He has decided he’s going to let his hair grow until Spring, and instead of flopping over or looking shaggy like a surfer, his hair appears to be growing straight up with a very special mullet in the back. I’ve been subtly and now not-so-subtly encouraging him to cut it.

“No, Mom, I’m growing out the Jewfro,” he responds confidently. I have let it pass and moved on to whatever next topic I need to cover with him: how he’s getting to basketball practice, whether his homework is done, will he volunteer at an upcoming event I am hoping he will work. But then I wonder, if I were an African-American classmate, would I be offended by hearing him appropriate the word “afro”? Would I think that he was making fun in some way of my own hair, and would I see that as a micro-aggression, one of 5 that could possibly happen that day and every day? Shouldn’t I at least mention this to my son as a possibility?

This research has not changed much in the lives of the Black teenagers who live with these indecencies and pain points daily. But maybe this study can be a starting point for how those of us who have the ability to influence a change in our homes, schools and communities start talking about, and then acting out, change through crucial conversations — even when inconvenient.

The author’s son as an infant with TJ, a student, 14 years ago. The two are still closely connected.

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