As the United States and the world experience a shift in consciousness around race, parents are looking at how to engage with children on the same subject. Many of us have been grappling with how exactly to include children in the movement for racial justice and how to parent so they truly embody the values of equity and respect for all.
To learn more, I spoke with Dr. Maysa Akbar, a PhD psychologist in Connecticut specializing in racial identity development and the married mother of two children. Dr. Akbar’s first book, Urban Trauma, lays out a framework for understanding the traumatic impact on children and families from social conditions like poverty, community violence, and educational disparities that have persisted for centuries in communities of color. Her second book, Beyond Ally, launched July 15, 2020.
Tell me a bit about your professional background working with kids.
I have always wanted to work with children since I was really young. I obtained my Masters in Community Psychology and my PhD in Clinical Psychology with a concentration in children and adolescents. While completing my Masters, I spent several months in Jamaica studying how Jamaican children developed their racial identity as compared to African American children here in the US, where the construct of race has been historically contextualized to create and sustain systems of oppression. In Jamaica, kids can belong to different ethnic categories, like Chinese, East Indian, and Syrian, but their pride in being Jamaican far outweighs any conversation about slicing hairs about race. In fact, they didn’t really know what I was talking about when I brought up the topic of racial categorization. Being from the Caribbean, I intuitively knew that black kids in the US were socialized differently, because here, they know it’s a checkbox that classifies them and relegates them into a trajectory of being a “minority.”
The study showed that Jamaican kids had higher levels of racial identity which led to higher self esteem. It was the inverse for black children in the US. Their racial identity was lower, and their self-esteem was also lower.
So I asked, what drives children to feel anchored in their racial identity? How is racial identity created in kids anyway, and what is the impact of not having a strong sense of self? My dissertation expanded my original study to explore the role of racial socialization. Were families responsible? I looked at a cohort in the US that included three generations: children, parents, and grandparents. I wanted to know who had the highest impact on identity development and self-worth. And I found that the highest mediating factor in positive racial socialization was the grandmother! Those were phenomenal findings. And the medium by which that identity is made? Engagement in activities such as music, food, and art. Exposing children to the history of African royalty, black inventors, scientists, and thought leaders, taking them to eateries that make ethnic foods, and attending cultural activities that include music, dance, and spiritual connections. Introducing them to black role models doing great things. Showing them their rich history. Grandmas have a great way of doing all of that.
Were you able to do that when you became a parent?
Yes definitely. My husband and I actually became parents really young, in our early 20s. Our son helped us grow up and become better human beings, the way children can. Both my husband and I wanted to interrupt cycles of trauma we lived through during childhood. We poured everything we had into our kids. And it worked! We were very intentional in that we had the kids anchored in racial identity, celebrating all the wonderful things about their Caribbean heritage, our kinship, our music, food, collective and spiritual nature, positive images of achievers in our family and in our culture. They didn’t create their identity around mainstream society’s narrative about black and brown people; they had their own exposure and were able to develop their own narrative anchored in their own truth.
How old are kids when they first begin to understand race?
Well, the first thing they understand is color, like the various colors in a Crayola Crayon box. When my son was almost four, he came home and said, “Mommy, did you know that Daddy is brown, you are yellow, and I am orange?” That whole year, whenever he drew pictures of us, those were our colors.
Can kids be racist at that age?
No, remember that race is a social construct. So, they are unable to conceptualize the implications of social issues until much later. But kids can be mean and hurtful towards each other when they are mad. My son went to a mostly white daycare. A little boy called him the N-word when he was five, but my son didn’t know what it meant. He knew that the boy was yelling, pointing a finger at him, being mean. He knew something was wrong. When he told us what happened, we knew we had to help him understand it. These are tough conversations.
If parents who haven’t had this experience want to know what this feels like, they should watch the video brilliantly narrated by Proctor and Gamble called The Talk.
When I spoke to the daycare, as a psychologist, I made sure to educate them that the child who said it did not know what he was saying. He knew he was being mean, perhaps he knew he said a “no-no” word. However, the sad part is understanding that he was picking this language up and simply just parroting what he’d heard, without truly understanding the meaning or implications.
So what happens later in children that changes?
Around seven or eight, they learn that ethnicity is unchangeable. They could have been yellow or brown before, different changing colors when they were younger. But at seven, kids understand who they are, the racial differences. At this age, when they say or hear mean words, they know it’s meant as an assault on who they are. When mean things happen, they try to navigate what it means to their identity. “Why don’t my friends like me, should I be different?” They think, “My skin color is ugly,” because they see that blackness is associated with being bad. Also, because they are associated with a specific group of people, they start noticing when kids in certain groups receive better or worse treatment. That’s why racial identity and its impact on self-esteem are so important.
If a child has a fragile identity, messages can be extremely harmful. Not all parents are capable of supporting children in their identity development. It can be because of something simple, like parents having a stressful work situation, dysfunctional family dynamics, or maybe they didn’t have strong identity development themselves. This is why it’s important to have grandparents involved. And that’s not uncommon in the black community. It takes a village. You want that village.
There’s been a lot of conversation about allyship since George Floyd was killed. What is an ally?
In my new book Beyond Ally, I am proposing the ally identity model (AIM). To commit to the process of partnering with historically marginalized communities, you need to develop an identity around allyship. In other words, actively supporting the movement for justice is something you commit to doing in your life. It’s not a trend; it takes dedication. For allies who believe in humanity and in working for an equitable and just world, those who are against oppression, my book challenges you to consider the steps it takes to get there.
How do you ally effectively? Well, you choose to develop relationships with people who are different from you. You choose to make sure you are anti-racist, which involves calling people out who use harmful language or taking harmful actions. It’s doing concrete things to advocate for equity.
What might that look like in our kids’ lives?
When my daughter was in sixth grade, she had a white friend in a racially mixed school who had a lot of trouble with a black boy in her class. The mom and I were friendly and she talked with me about her daughter’s challenges. The daughter thought the boy was picking on her because he was black and she was white. They were around 10 and developing identity consistency. I figured that she must be hearing about race being the cause of their conflict from the adults in her life.
That’s not allyship. Allyship would look like that mom reaching out to the boy’s mom and saying, “Let’s come together and talk about the issues between our kids. Let’s see how together we can help them understand one another, help them develop some kind of relationship, and if they don’t want to, how to respectfully go into their separate spaces.” You teach them a life lesson about conflict, about how two productive adults came together to problem-solve a tough situation. These are life lessons.
What is a healthy way to talk about race? I remember seeing a white parent whose little child in the supermarket pointed to a black man and said, “Look, Mommy, that man has black skin!” And the mom just went, “Shhhh!”
As I mentioned, race is a social construct, but one that is gritty, stubborn, and rooted in intolerance. There’s the human race and then there’s the reality of how race is leveraged to justify bias and discrimination. It’s become what divides us. We’re dealing with a social construct created to be divisive.
The most important element in having this conversation with your children is openness: openness about racial differences and to have a dialogue. You can always say you don’t know but that you’re willing to explore together. Don’t shush them, especially if they have never had exposure to what they are noticing. What’s the lesson being taught to that child who’s shushed? It’s, “We don’t talk about that. It’s not acceptable.” What you want to say is, “Yes, that man has skin that’s different than your skin, let’s talk about it.” It’s nothing to be afraid of or embarrassed about. Black kids say the same thing when they see a white person for the first time. The difference is that black kids have to quickly learn about white culture in order for them to thrive in our society.
What is the difference between being an ally, which is positive, and being a savior, which is not?
An ally is a complex concept. There’s this automatic inclination in humans: when we feel guilty about something, we want to make up for whatever it is that we did to cause harm. Then we do that in a way that isn’t healthy, a way that isn’t inviting. It’s patronizing. That kind of impulse downgrades what allyship is all about. I’ve heard people say, “I am an ally, I give my clothes to goodwill, go feed the hungry at homeless shelters, I protest, I give money for education.” Those are all fine things, but they aren’t allyship. Allyship is believing in equity, that what you have access to, I should have access to. It’s behaving differently every day, challenging all the small ways systemic racism shows up in our lives.
What gets in the way of being an ally and how can we overcome those obstacles?
There can be fear that there will be less pie for people who do ally work. But it’s not pie. They won’t have less if oppressed people have more.
That fear is based in the narratives we hold. So in spite of having information to the contrary, some people will hold the belief that black people are overwhelmingly the receivers of public assistance and welfare. And that’s just not factually based. Or they will be fearful of driving through what they perceive to be a black neighborhood because they believe that black people commit more crimes than other groups, which is also not true. It’s about the narratives we have in our minds, which we can change. And that’s good news because it means we can change our reactions. So reeducation and reprogramming is a big part of being an ally.
The other thing to remember is how children receive information from us, how they learn. Over 70% of communication is nonverbal. It doesn’t matter if you’re reading the right books; kids will pick up on your nonverbals.
For example, let’s say I am white parent walking with my child through a black neighborhood. I may walk faster, clutch my purse, and become anxious. I start yelling at my child to walk faster and stop asking questions. I may not be thinking, “I am scared because I’m around black people,” but that’s what my child will pick up, especially if it happens again and again. I don’t tell her, “Black people are scary,” but my actions are communicating this to her. It’s especially powerful if she doesn’t have many interactions with communities of color. I’m passing down my fears and my bias, and in some cases my racism. You don’t have to be explicit for that to happen.
So I have to work on my own defenses or else I won’t notice how I react when I am interacting with a black or brown person. Those are the cues children are paying attention to. Allyship starts with this self-awareness and openness to confronting one’s own biases.
How can we open ourselves to our biases? Have honest discussions with yourself and with your children about being intentional. Decide that this is not something the next generation will carry on, even if those were the messages you got from your parents. Every parent has the opportunity to break the cycle. Make a decision, be intentional. It can stop with you.
Any last ideas about concrete ways parents can encourage children to work against racism and other forms of oppression?
With children, teach them to be inclusive, to be tolerant, to appreciate and celebrate differences. Start right away. You can begin with something simple, like a play date or your child’s first birthday party. Does your child have friends who don’t look like them? If not, why not? Who did you overlook? Who did you not even realize was there? Who can you reach out to if those folks are not in your circle? Some parents feel uncomfortable with that, so stretch yourself. I can’t tell you how often I hear from parents of color that all the kids in the class were invited to a birthday party except for their child.
You can also make diverse choices around toys and books, conscious choices. Buy them dolls with different skin tones. Black people in the U.S. have a long history of having white people violate their boundaries by touching their hair which feels othering. It can be a difficult experience for black children. If white kids play with dolls that have that type of hair, they become familiar with the texture, so when they are older, they will be less likely to want to touch black classmates’ hair inappropriately. Teach them how to build an inclusive inner play life with different characters. Be proactive and start as early as possible.
Anti-racism resources for parents
https://www.apa.org/topics/kids-discrimination American Psychological Association article about how to discuss discrimination with children.
http://ccie-catalog.s3.amazonaws.com/library/5024711.pdf Article about anti-racism practice in early childhood education.
https://www.vox.com/identities/2020/6/9/21283715/how-to-talk-kids-racism-race-protests Anna North interviews Dr. Howard Stevenson, an expert in the field of racial socialization, about conversations with children about race and racism.
https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/working-against-racism Study of racism in children conducted in 1980s-1990s
https://www.teachingforchange.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/ec_childrenraceracism_english.pdf Really interesting longer piece about how race awareness develops with dialogues with children of different ages.
https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-baby-scientist/202006/talking-children-about-racism Article by Vanessa LoBue, the Baby Scientist, about anti-racist parenting.