“‘Post-Racial’ Socialization”: Putting the Cart Well Before the Horse

[ November 13, 2015]

“All lives matter but all lives aren’t being taken.” — Dr. Nakia Hamlett (2015, personal communication)

When an attempt was made to co-opt the #BlackLivesMatter movement by the #AllLivesMatter defectors, there was great pushback by the BLMers. While “society” has attempted to aver the belief that “we” are post-racial, those who acknowledge and experience racial stress are left to scratch our heads, often questioning whether we are making too big a deal out of our experiences.

Before we get too far, one might wonder what does post-racial even mean? We desire to break down what pre-racial and even racial means, but we’ll save that for another day. With regard to post-racial, Cohen (2011) gave a great working idea in her text: “[F]or many Americans, especially white Americans, the election of Barack Obama marked what they believed to be a major shift in the racial consciousness of the country, with a color-blind framework predicted as rightfully coming to dominate the racial landscape. In the wake of the election, commentators and politicians felt empowered to tell black people, and black youth in particular, that it was now time to stop the “whining” because they had no more excuses. The running dominant narrative–that the country has arrived at a place, in part through the victories of the civil rights movement, where color blindness is the fair way to make decisions, create policy, and distribute resources–helps produce such disparities in the political thinking of young people today.”

Disparities? you may question. How can some people believe that color is irrelevant while others believe it is everything?

Well, they’re actually not. To make it plain, millennials are acting a heck of a lot like their parents in contradictory ways: 1) they believe race should not be important but 2) they see race as a dividing factor. Perhaps the finding that the majority of families are not talking about race* — explains this difference. There is a hope, in many families, that the importance of race will somehow disappear, yet the evidence of that desire is minimal. If history is any teacher, we can confidently assert that this will not be the case.

To draw some comparisons in the generations before the civil rights (BCR) era, Muhammad’s (2010) The Condemnation of Blackness suggests that the BCR generations also had the same expectation that “post” something, in this case, slavery, would lead to an outcome that would benefit Blacks in America. Instead, only a selected few (or talented tenth, if you will), succeeded while the vast majority of Black folks remained relegated to a lower class due to economic, racial, and historical oppression. The generations after slavery (BCR) much like the generations post the civil rights era, or PCR, expected change to naturally happen as a result of the political movements or sweeping policy of the day. But it didn’t. Similarly, we are in a “post-racial” America where racism has magically been solved overnight and the expectation by Whites, and some Blacks alike, is that race relations in America will be solved naturally.

Enter: Post-Racial Socialization.

Racial socialization (RS), or “the specific verbal and non-verbal messages transmitted to younger generations for the development of values, attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs regarding the meaning and significance of race and racial stratification, intergroup and intragroup interactions, and personal and group identity” (Lesane-Brown, 2006, p. 403), has always been more common in families of color than White families, particularly for Black families who report using it more often than not (Hughes et al., 2008). (Remember that asterisk* from before? It refers to this info). There are several different ways to conceptualize RS, including ways that have shown to be beneficial to youth’s well-being (Neblett et al., 2008) and some revealing the complexity of findings based on various parent and child characteristics (McHale et al., 2006). What the recent surveys have helped us to know perhaps more clearly than ever before is that there is an explicit teaching from not just White families, but in the vast majority of surveyed families, that everyone should be treated equally.

But when youth are not being treated fairly, what are parents saying or doing that indicates to their children that they will not be next, or, for that matter, should not be the ones doing the unfair treatment?

There are lots of reasons parents may shy away from engaging in racial conversations with their children. Although every race/ethnic group may engage in socialization strategies, Black families may feel burden and dread as “victims”, wanting to end the cycle with their children, while White families may feel guilt and intentional distancing as “oppressors”, hoping that their children will not be exposed to beliefs of the “past”. Even within race, there may be differences. For example, high-income Blacks may believe they can shield their children from dread if they don’t expose them to others’, and often their own, racial trauma — that is, privilege without dread, while low-income Blacks may be unable to see generational, historical, and residential racial trauma, akin to a polluted fishbowl that has little opportunity for a fresh perspective.

Some parents may feel that RS will open an awareness within the child and fear that the historical narrative will be limiting to their future. However, from a clinical perspective, simply avoiding dealing with one’s depression does not mean that s/he will be well, it in fact often means delayed, or never-realized, psychological improvement. Thus, avoiding talking about race will not promote wellness per se; it may in fact exacerbate the internalized problems of the youth or just simply be alleviating the fear that the parent has regarding the discussion. Conversely, if Black adults and youth — who already indicate lower levels of discrimination than one may expect (Anderson et al., 2015; Cohen, 2011, etc.) — are not even aware of their own experiences of discrimination, is it possible to actually make a difference in this area?

Our collaborative would argue that yes, we can and will make change regarding racial trauma within families. To begin, as a field, we were likely focusing on the wrong question. Rather than asking “how frequently” parents and youth face discrimination, why not ask about the impact of any discriminatory practices on their well-being? In relation, rather than wondering just how much parents and youth talk about race, why not assess the quality with which these conversations are being had? If we anticipate that every “teachable moment” has some measure of competency, why not assess just how well parents and youth are addressing the stress, trauma, and practices related to racism? Finally, when we think about who is informing our youth, we know that the media has a much greater role than it ever did (Bentley, Adams, & Stevenson, 2009; Squires, 2014). How are we considering the dyadic and interactive interplay of youth and people from around the globe via social media, blogs, and the sordid comments section?

Although much can be debated, one thing is for sure: virtually every participant in recent race-related surveys agrees that there are more systemic racial problems than interpersonal (e.g., police brutality vs. neighbor to neighbor conflict), thus, how do parents, schools, and communities prepare youth, particularly those of color, to enter a world more racially subliminal than ever before? How can we provide the knowledge, awareness, and skills for ALL parents to engage in meaningful, competent, and healthy conversations around issues of race in order to reduce disparities in health, education, wellness, and a host of other indicators? Our racial literacy first requires that we confront our current racial climate, not simply imagine it in the past-tense. Moving past racial issues means putting the cart squarely behind the horse so that we can get a sense of how much weight the horse is carrying before assuming there is none.