When “Nurture” Is Anything But

The ways we form our identity, and how racism negatively impacts that development

Sherry Kappel
Our Human Family

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Photo by Marco Bianchetti on Unsplash

I imagine most of us have a few insecurities of one type or another — as well as a few transformative events in our lives that can raise us up or knock us to our knees. Oftentimes we may know that we’re perfectly fine on an intellectual level, but it’s still hard to convince ourselves emotionally when the world says otherwise.

Genetics (“nature”) is certainly a factor in who we are. But there is also a whole lot of “nurture” that goes into who we become, whether the world shapes us or we shape ourselves in defiance of the world.

My parents were born during the Great Depression, my dad never went to college and my mom didn’t finish until after three children, yet I am sure they meant it when they told us kids we could be anything we wished if we put our minds to it. There was the assumption that we’d go to college and possibly further, regardless of gender.

When I think about everything I’ve been given that enabled me, though, it would be hard to dismiss my whiteness — a false construct of race that has been far less kind to the Black community.

Of course, as much as parents would like to believe otherwise, a parent’s influence wanes a fair bit when we start school and the other kids like us or they don’t, the teachers call on us or not, the subjects come easily or we struggle. We might be decent athletes but few are Olympians, and yet that’s the standard too often held up: “Work harder. Don’t you want to be Simone Biles?” We play a chord or two on the piano, at which point someone mentions Carnegie Hall.

It’s not enough to build some coordination and learn to be a team player, or have an ear for music; one must aspire. And even if you’re a star sprinter or you can play all of Beethoven’s concertos, those don’t compare to being the starting quarterback or the lead singer of a rock band. There’s a hierarchy to everything, and it all goes into who we become as adults and where we go from there.

I have been blessed, I dare say, with as much as one could hope for in life with middle-class roots. I could not be a Kardashian, even if I wished, but we’ll come back to that. Certainly, this life has had ups and downs, but again — it’s been good enough. When I think about everything I’ve been given that enabled me, though, it would be hard to dismiss my whiteness — a false construct of race that has been far less kind to the Black community.

Some white folks claim racism went away when enslavement ended after the Civil War, while others point to desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement. (Any Person of Color knows neither moment came close.) Still, others have some sense of the impact of redlining, unjust justice systems, gerrymandering, and other inequities that continue today.

The effects of systemic racism on Black children and their opportunities in life cannot be underestimated. Although experts say the rate of illegal drug use is similar across racial lines, the laws and their enforcement are stacked against Black folks, a major factor in a third of all Black males experiencing incarceration and with longer sentences . . . which means cutting the income of an affected household in half . . . kids without a father figure . . . a mother who’s often absent as she struggles to pay the bills. A disruption of the family dynamic for a generation.

Then there’s housing, where predatory lending, racist home valuations, the housing bust of 2008 (which hit Black families far harder than white ones), and biased selling practices make homeownership financially difficult or out of reach for even most two-parent households. Less housing options often relegate Black children to tighter quarters, more frequent moves, sometimes less than ideal neighborhoods, and frequently in places with issues like contaminated water, lead paint, and other environmental hazards.

Photo by Marco Bianchetti on Unsplash

Clean water, some space of one’s own, and the ongoing presence of a father are more than just “things” one does or does not have. One can’t just work around them. Imagine, if you will, having a single mom who must work during most of your waking hours, dangerous streets, pests in the home, moving more often than you see your father. Sure, it’s a worst-case scenario, but not uncommon. Imagine, if you will, how much time a child in those circumstances will have to devote to schoolwork. How much encouragement or support they’ll receive. How hopeful or confident they’ll feel.

And these are just some of the more quantifiable effects of systemic racism — the stats that should alarm anyone paying attention.

Now let’s think about “the talk.” The effects of having to tell a child, whether rich, middle class, or poor, that “officer friendly” — as the schools sometimes call them — is to be feared and mistrusted, because they hate your skin tone. That in the eyes of someone society sets on a pedestal, you are not worthy. That you will be followed every time you walk into a store.

Let’s think too about that school experience. My husband taught at urban schools for many years, then at a school where poorer kids were bussed in — the same schools my daughters attended. While we were driving our kids, some of their classmates were spending hours on a bus every day. I heard how the Black children get called on less often in class. How teachers would shake their heads at how “loud” these children were. How their lunches were often less than nutritious. How they’re encouraged to excel at sports and nothing else. And ironically, the kids who “caused problems” were given a free pass because the schools are afraid of being publicly accused of racism; however, it also tells the child they aren’t worth saving.

. . . we can even help the banking and auto industries, but heaven forbid we help those we’ve hurt (are hurting) the most.

There’s more . . . a shortage of Black dolls . . . a lack of dark-skinned models and actresses . . . the click of a car lock when a Black person walks by. And more. Plenty more . . .

What is a kid, a mere child, but a human being and a contributing member of society in training, to make of all this? How is a kid supposed to develop a healthy sense of self-esteem, to rise up with so few of the basic supports I enjoyed, and in some cases many less? What if the village is unwilling to nurture? What will that child pass on to his or her own children?

Americans — especially white Americans — love to talk about “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” often in reference to the impoverished or Black-on-Black crime, oblivious of the advantages they’ve had as white folks. Why can’t “they” do better? Without acknowledging “they” are also us. We can help our farmers, we can help our college kids, we can even help the banking and auto industries, but heaven forbid we help those we’ve hurt (are hurting) the most.

Photo by Marco Bianchetti on Unsplash

Why don’t poor white folks “pull themselves up”? And if we go back to the Kardashian example, why don’t those of us who are middle class “pull ourselves up” to be a Kardashian, an Elon Musk, or Bill Gates? Because it isn’t that easy.

Just as it’s hard to pull yourself out of poverty if that’s all you’ve known (especially if you’re treated as less than), it’s just as hard to make yourself rich. It’s a different education, it’s differing expectations and support, it’s what you inherit, it’s who you know, it’s money growing money. Sure, some people manage. The Black community as a whole has done a remarkable job, all things considered, but that doesn’t make it easy.

Racism hurts. Obviously, it hurts Black people and other People of Color the most. Side note, it also hurts white folks’ ability to be the best people we can be. It hurts our country’s reputation and our future. But most of all it hurts the bright-eyed Black children, many of whom still dare to dream but must either succumb to the weight of generations of inequity or climb mountains to overcome it. We can and must do better by them.

Love one another.

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Sherry Kappel
Our Human Family

Looking for the Kind in Humankind. Heart currently Code Blue.