By NICK CHILES
They are among the most difficult questions a black parent has to face: How far do you go in preparing your children for the incidents of discrimination they will likely face during their childhoods? If you talk too much and too early about racial discrimination to your black child, are you shattering his innocence and making him too bitter or suspicious of his white peers?
My wife Denene and I grappled with these questions on a regular basis in raising our son and now in raising our daughters. We know our society is growing less and less race-conscious—What greater evidence of this than the occupants of the White House?—but we are still far from the racially tolerant mountaintop envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So we feel strongly that our kids must be prepared for the slings and arrows that will surely come their way—not so much by making them wary and worried, but more by making them confident and proud in who they are and the value of their people.
We were excited to get some good news for a change from the research community: When parents use racial socialization with their kids—promoting feelings of racial knowledge, pride and connection—it has a positive effect on their academic development and outcomes.
That was the conclusion of a study by educational psychologists from Harvard and the University of Pittsburgh published in the journal Child Development.
“Our findings challenge the notion that ‘race blindness’ is a universally ideal parenting approach, especially since previous research has shown that racially conscious parenting strategies at either extreme—either ‘race blindness’ or promoting mistrust of other races—are associated with negative outcomes for African American youth,” says lead author Ming-Te Wang, assistant professor of psychology in education at the University of Pittsburgh, who coauthored the study with Harvard University’s James P. Huguley.
“When African American parents instill a proud, informed, and sober perspective of race in their sons and daughters, these children are more likely to experience increased academic success,” says Wang.
The researchers say many studies have shown that racial discrimination can negatively affect black student success in school, particularly for black males, who are at greater risk for being unfairly disciplined, being discouraged from taking advanced classes, or receiving lower grades than they deserved. So it would follow that young black boys and girls armed with race pride and the knowledge that they are brilliant and talented—no matter what a particular teacher or classmate might say—will go far, unfettered by the baggage that race can present.
I can say this definitely worked for me, growing up in the household of Walter and Helen Chiles. My parents, who managed to cobble together an unusual combination of proud 1960s-style black nationalism and free-spirited, hippies-style open-mindedness, never let pass a day or week without feeding to me and my two sisters the idea that we were more talented, brilliant and confident than any kid who would cross our paths, black or white. Their methods at times were subtle, introducing us to some of the greatest writers, artists and thinkers in the African-American milieu, and at other times in-your-face—letting us know that we were expected to bring home the top grade in the class, without exception.
When I went on to Yale University and encountered an anthropology professor who handed me back a paper and wondered aloud if perhaps I had difficulty expressing myself in clear English—as if I had written the B-minus paper in black English—I almost laughed in his face. I wanted to tell this guy—by the way a Dutchman whose English was barely intelligible—that he had come along at least a decade too late to pierce the armor that Walter and Helen had constructed around me. But I simply responded that my capabilities in self-expression were developing just fine—and if he were truly curious he might want to see them on a regular basis in the student newspaper, where I was already one of the top editors and a regular columnist.
When my son was coming along in school, we had to develop code words for him to be able to express to us whether he anticipated a problem with a particular teacher—we’d ask him whether she was one of the “boy haters.” The unstated question was whether this was a white woman who seemed intimidated by rambunctious and opinionated black boys, which was frequently a problem of his.
These are all well-honed techniques that black parents have to develop to protect their children in the whole gamut of school settings, from the run-of-the-mill, around-the-way public school to the nation’s top Ivy League colleges. The challenges, the conflicts, the questions will come their way—and they must be ready for them
It is gratifying to get affirmation from researchers that these methods work and are essential in raising black children. Wang and Huguley explored questions such as how racial discrimination relates to the students’ educational outcomes—grade-point averages, educational aspirations, the sense of belonging to a school, and cognitive engagement, which is the initiative a student takes in his or her own learning.
They used questionnaires and face-to-face interviews of both students and parents, studying 630 African-American high school students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds in a diverse but mostly black urban area on the East Coast.
The study found racial pride to be the most powerful factor in protecting children from the sting of discriminatory behavior, with direct and positive correlations to grade-point averages, educational aspirations, and cognitive engagement.
“Our study provides empirical evidence that the longstanding practice in the African American community of cultivating racial pride and preparing children to face racial bias in society should be considered among appropriate and beneficial practices in parenting Black children,” says Wang.
Wang says he next will conduct the same kind of research with Latino and Asian-American teenagers. Can’t wait to read his findings.
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