By LAURA TURNER-ESSEL
Rachael Quinn Egan urged her fellow white, liberal friends to “do better” at questioning and challenging the whitewashed world their children inhabit. As a Black woman, I’d like to urge my fellow socially conscious Black parents to “do better” too. But probably not in the way you think.
No, I’m not jumping on the Bill Cosby bandwagon of blaming Black parents for every ill that befalls our community. I’ve read the self-flagellating posts by Blacks blaming Black parenting practices for the senseless murders of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice. (Of course, it’s usually my white friends who send me these posts, with a tagline of ‘WTF?’ and a confused emoji wondering when Black folks became our own worst enemies). I’ve seen the articles and videos urging Black parents to “step up” and “take personal responsibility” for the tragedies that visit our families and neighborhoods. One Black friend summed up Trayvon Martin’s shooting death as a case of “faulty upbringing and a lack of home training.”
I could not disagree more.
So rest assured that I am not here to add insult to injury. I firmly believe that most Black parents in this world are trying their hardest. They are carrying the burden of centuries of relentless, ongoing systemic economic, political, and cultural oppression on their backs. And yet they get up every day and go to work, care for their children, serve their communities, and attempt to do it all with a faithful heart. Their very persistence in the face of the challenges facing our communities speaks to their amazing strength and resilience. Black parents wage battle against oppression every single day, and the fact that we as a people even continue to exist on this earth is a testament to the fact that Black parents everywhere are doing a great job.
But here is where I worry that while we may win the battle, we are losing the war.
I want to urge my fellow Black parents to “do better,” not at teaching our kids to obey laws, speak properly, or work hard. Every day, I witness Black parents already doing these things. What I don’t witness are Black parents working collectively to build the institutions that we need in order to protect and sustain the futures that we envision for our kids. Consider this: everywhere Black parents are disgusted when they realize that their kids are portrayed as thugs. So they work hard to teach their kids how to dress, speak, and behave politely. How to respond submissively when a police officer approaches. In addition, Black parents seek out books, videos, and toys that will promote positive self-concepts for their kids. They share positive family traditions and talk to them about why prejudice is bad. They protest the negative representations of their children and their communities. They work hard to preserve their children’s self-esteem while teaching them the subtle art of navigating hostile environments.
And then, more often than not, they send them out to patronize schools and stores that will treat them as second class citizens. They welcome detrimental messages and images into their homes through Disney and Viacom. They entrust their children to agencies and organizations that, though well-meaning, were not designed with their children’s empowerment in mind. Most Black parents don’t seem to have a choice; these are the options most readily available to them. But they have unwittingly undone most of their own good parenting. It’s like giving a kid a healthy meal and then injecting him with a deadly virus.
What I want us to “do better” is shift the power onto ourselves, no longer depending on mainstream white institutions and allies to include, affirm, and validate us and our children. If there is anything we need to take responsibility for, let it be this: putting more of our energy and money into Black-affirming schools, media, and businesses so that we are no longer waiting for mainstream white people to decide that Black kids should be included in theirs.
Now this might sound like some type of call for a separatist community. Hell, maybe it is. But if so, it’s not a separatist community based solely on race, class, or even parental status. It’s a community based on values of radical multiculturalism, where our collective and intertwining human histories (and the resulting power dynamics) are not ignored but actually acknowledged, examined, discussed, and changed. Where we are interested in actively building institutions that unapologetically teach the richness of Black history, affirm the complexity of Black identity, and support holistic Black development.
I am not calling for Blacks to divorce themselves from White people, but for all people to separate themselves from white power, because that power is largely illegitimate, unearned, and abusive. And even if we’re not worried about the havoc it’s wreaking on us, we should at least be concerned about the impact that it will continue to have on all of our beloved children. This was the original message of the Black Power movement.
Dr. Stacey Patton discusses the ways that Black children are denied the sacred space of childhood in which to develop, grow, and reach their full potential. Given the longstanding need of white power structures (mainly the U.S. education, economic, political, and legal systems) to consider Black children as threats to be wiped out rather than innocents to be protected, it’s unlikely that mainstream white society will ever acknowledge the humanity of Black children. That’s why it is our job. But toiling in isolation, Black parents don’t stand a chance against the insidious forces of white supremacy.
Black parents must “do better” to support and uphold one another, and our common plight. Additionally, we need an internal infrastructure in place that supports and reinforces our efforts. We need to pool our money, time and energy to create and sustain our own institutions. If we can leverage collectively what Black families manage to do each day individually, we would have the real power to demand justice for our children. And more importantly, we would have the economic, political, and cultural capital to protect their childhoods and create for them the world they deserve.
Laura Turner-Essel, PhD is a counseling psychologist in Santa Cruz, CA who studies Black identity and its connections to family life and social systems. She is also a mother, wife, writer, traveler, and avid supporter of a healthy, thriving global Black community. Check out her blog Blackology101.com