This is the first of many conversations Andrew and Melissa of EmbraceRace have had with the wonderful child psychologist Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith. Allison is an expert on trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, and how children understand race. Our discussion focused on how caregivers can support children of color to be strong and resilient despite too-frequent experiences of being devalued because of their racial identities and/or immigrant status. Allison is also a black woman partnered with a white and Mexican man with whom she has two young children.
EmbraceRace: Allison, you have kids who are 5 and 7 like our kids, so let's start there. What's going on for you this week in race and parenting?
Allison: There was an event yesterday that made me really proud. We went to pick up a little girl for a playdate. She’s half Argentinean - her mom is kind of “read” and seen as white - and half Afro Brazilian - her father is really dark. And the little girl is this beautiful brown girl and we went to pick her up. My kids are black, white, and Mexican and they go to a Spanish immersion school.
And so we were coming home and the little girl started singing the song “Glory” from [the movie] Selma. The little girl has a beautiful voice and she got me all teared up! And I asked her, “Are you learning that song for Black History Month?” And she said, “Yes, and you know what’s really exciting? Everybody in my group who’s singing the song is black!” And my son said, “Are you black?” And she said, “Of course I am!” And my son said, “I am too!” And it was this joyful moment of black pride and support.
And I texted her mother and saw her later that night. And her mother came to me with tears in her eyes and said, “Thank you so much! As a woman who’s perceived as white who’s raising a brown child, it made me feel so good to know she was affirmed in her blackness.”
So, it was a nice parenting moment. And also for me. They were singing in the car and it just felt like a real live moment of, huh, maybe talking about this race stuff has translated into them feeling connected and good about themselves.
The little white girl who said “No!”
EmbraceRace: You became interested in the effects of trauma on kids as a high school volunteer working with child victims of trauma. And that led to your interest in how kids perceive race when you were still in college. How did one lead to the other?
Allison: Well, one theme emerged pretty quickly, which is that most of the kids I was serving were brown kids. And that was true while I was in Hawaii, when I was in California, and when I was in Boston. The stark disproportionality of the kids who I served — and if they weren’t brown, they were white and they were poor. And that really got me curious as to what was going on and how oppression worked.
I got really interested in examining that and did an undergraduate thesis about how kids recall information that’s more congruent with stereotypes. Which you can imagine is really problematic. If you rely on the testimony of a kid, they’re going to come up with a story that’s along the lines of a stereotype. Like, the black guy did it! Actually, adults do this, too.
But in particular there was one moment where I was collecting my data for my undergrad thesis and I had to interview all these kids. And I had this one 7 or maybe 8 year-old girl, a little white girl. I was asking kids to look at pictures of cartoons of white kids and black kids and I had them attribute positive or negative attributes to each. So I asked things like … Which one of these kids is smart? Which one of these kids is dumb? Which one of these kids is happy, nice, kind? And for the most part the kids gave answers in line with pro-white and anti-black bias.
But this little kid looked and me and she said, “I’m not gonna do it.” And I said, well, I have a thesis and I need to get this done. And she said, “No, I’m not gonna do it.” And I went back and forth with her for a little bit but she refused and so I asked her why. She said, “My parents told me it’s not OK to judge people just because of the color of their skin.” And again, it’s another moment that for me got me hooked! I had interviewed over 60 kids, all of whom had complied with me. All of whom were fine indicating their biases.
And this little 8 year-old white girl stood up to this older African American woman in the classroom to say, “No, I’m not going to be biased!” And it got me really curious about what her parents did to enable her to do that, to fight against an adult and operate in unbiased ways. And since that time, my research has followed that singular question: “What can parents do?”