Managing racial stress and teaching kids to do the same
We live in deeply stressful times. COVID. Racial tension and violence. Political polarization. Dire economic straits. The physical and emotional costs of stress crosses all demographic lines, but we know that the burden of chronic stress falls disproportionately on frequently targeted, racialized communities – Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian, Latinx, Multiracial among them. Chronic stress of any kind takes a toll on the mind and body; racial stress experienced by targeted groups has measurable and negative impacts on marginalized communities, including children.
Happily, there are strategies and practices we can use to lessen the effects of racial stress on our bodies and minds and on our parenting. Check out our conversation with Drs. Riana Elyse Anderson and Shawn C.T. Jones. Riana and Shawn are psychologists and researchers who bring deep experience and knowledge of the tools and practices families and kids can develop to help them “read, recast, and resolve racially stressful encounters.” Both trained with "racial literacy" giant Howard Stevenson and are affiliates of his Racial Empowerment Collaborative. Riana and Shawn also have a knack for making practices accessible, most notably with their web series, Our Mental Health Minute.
EmbraceRace: Hello and welcome, everybody! EmbraceRace is a community of support for adults, caregivers, grandparents, parents, teachers, who want to raise kids who are informed, thoughtful, and brave about race. So that's what we do, and webinars is one of the things we do. We're really excited tonight to be talking about managing racial stress, our own racial stress, and helping our kids to do the same.
I want to start off by reading a poem written by one of our guests before we introduce them that really actually inspired this webinar, and it inspired me. Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson is one of our guests. I was having an email conversation with about something else, and I got her outgoing message which was a "holiday haiku" announcing that she was taking a holiday break, and this is what the holiday haiku said.
COVID ravaged me / My people, and Detroit too / I respond with rest
Racial uprisings / Reverberated worldwide / I respond with rest
Divided nation / Continues to harm people / I respond with rest
The world kept moving / And we missed the lesson / I respond with rest / I respond with rest / I respond with rest
Resting til Monday, January 11.
Take wonderful care of you and yours - happiest of holidays!
Most sincerely, REA
Melissa Giraud of EmbraceRace: So, I saw that after the Capitol insurrection and felt it, felt it, felt it. We had just come off one of the first real breaks that we took as EmbraceRace because we started about almost five years ago, and we actually took time, that self-care time. And then, you come back, and there was more. So, the relentlessness of the high profile racialized violence and happenings has been really tough on a lot of people, and really tough on kids. So, that's something we really wanted to talk about today, how we deal with it so that it doesn't harm us. We hope this will be helpful to you.
Andrew Grant-Thomas of EmbraceRace: Let me introduce our two guests, who are awesome, two of our favorite people, both on camera and off.
Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health. She uses mixed methods and clinical interventions to study racial discrimination and socialization in Black families to reduce racial stress and trauma, and improve psychological wellbeing and family functioning. She's a co-creator of the video series and podcast, Our Mental Health Minute.
EmbraceRace: Then, her colleague and friend and partner in that work, Dr. Shawn C.T. Jones. An Assistant Professor in the Counseling Program, the Psychology Department at Virginia Commonwealth University, Dr. Jones seeks to improve the psychosocial wellbeing of Black youth and their families, by exploring the mechanisms undergirding culturally relevant, protective and promotive factors. He's particularly interested in the interplay between racism related stress and racial socialization processes. With Riana, he's the co-creator of the video series and podcast, Our Mental Health Minute. You know we love you guys. Great to have you back with us. Thank you so much for your help on this huge issue.
Let me start with just some basic definitional questions. You talk about racial stress and obviously, we're in a time above most times when a lot of people are feeling stressed across racial lines. What's the difference between racial stress and stress?
Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson: Fantastic. Well, thank you again, Melissa and Andrew. And hello EmbraceRace family. It's such a pleasure to be back with you. I'm not sure if the participant numbers are going to keep going up, but it's a little bit of stress out here. So, stress by itself is when we're thinking about how many demands that we have on the resources that we have. So, if you think about the example of a hand. If you have just a few things in your hand, that's not a particularly stressful experience for your hand. You have five fingers, or four fingers and a thumb that can carry all the things that you have to do, so that's fine. It's when there are too many demands on what it is that you have. This one hand can't carry more than it can. So, when you start placing balloons and elephants and all the things in one hand that it just can't contend with because it doesn't have enough resources to contend with the demands, that's when we start understanding this phenomena of stress.
Now, Shawn and I can go into a whole diatribe on the appraisal, the reappraisal process. It's a whole dorky thing that we're not going to talk about today. But essentially, how you make meaning of it is another part of it that we can talk about later, but the sheer definition of what stress is is what demands complicate our resources. Shawn, did you want to tag in for racial stress, or you want me to talk about it a bit?
Dr. Shawn C.T. Jones: Sure, I'm happy to tag in, and I would just like to echo the gratitude. Just awesome to see so many folks this evening, and really looking forward to the conversation. So, as you just heard Dr. Anderson talk about, and the great analogy with the hand and too much to hold or too much to carry, when we think about racial stress or racism related stress, think about that same concept of exceeding what we can hold, and now think about what is the reason why we are feeling like that hand is overwhelmed. It is due to the longstanding arm, the longstanding reaches of racism.
Even experiences stress. We'll even talk about how everyone may experience stress watching or viewing things that are racist or that are racially stressful for folks. We'll clarify a little bit about some of those distinctions. The last thing I'll just add about how we define racism related stress is that we're really also thinking about this ability to potentially threaten wellbeing. So, it's exceeding our available resources, and it's really a threat to our ability to be our best whole selves.
EmbraceRace: Who experiences racial stress?
Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson: I think the ability to think about the historical aspect of it is really quite critical. So, the idea that everyone experiences challenges with their life or with what's going on around us is unquestionable. There is absolutely a way in which we all think about what's being thrown at us or what we have to carry, but that analogy of the arm, when we're thinking about what are the ways in which the muscle has been built up over time to carry that thing, that people will actually say it doesn't matter, so you can just continue to get hit a number of times on your arm. Someone is physically holding your arm or your hand down, and your still expected to hold that up. These are the analogies and the metaphors that we can roll with because the idea of racial stress means that there are people for whom, the expectation is that stress is not supposed to be challenging for them.
People believe it's over and done with: "Hasn't slavery ended? Shouldn't you be over it by now?" There's all of this belief that the hand can hold all the things, but we've never built up the muscle, we've never trained the entire system to deal with what it is that's going on in the hand and in the arm. So, can everyone experience a form of stress? Absolutely. Are there groups for whom that racial stress is going to be exacerbated because of this threat, as Dr. Jones just said, because of this expectation that you should be able to hold everything up. That's where we start to see differences with who experiences racial stress more than others. So, we tend to talk more about Black populations with respect to this, but we know that there are many populations within the United States who have had a historical and contemporary impact of that stress on their bodies and minds.
EmbraceRace: Is it fair to say that a lot of people across racial identities will get benefit from following some of the advice that you offer, though it's developed in significant part for Black people and families, communities?
Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson: Absolutely, yeah. And we can definitely go into that for sure.
EmbraceRace, Melissa: So, I'm wondering in this time that has really been relentless, I'm going to ask you this, how you all are feeling and what you've been doing to deal with the racial stress in these times?
EmbraceRace, Andrew: Well, honestly, not enough, not enough.
EmbraceRace, Melissa: Okay, we can end the webinar now.
EmbraceRace, Andrew: Someone had an agenda. No, as Melissa said at the beginning, we took some time off. We actually, for probably 10 days, certainly a full week, we actually said, we're not going to do work. We're going to spend some time with our kids, we're going to check in with them, we're going to make a lot of phone calls, we're going to be in touch with family.
EmbraceRace, Melissa: You're not going to be on the internet.
EmbraceRace: To do the best we can. Obviously, it's more difficult. We chose not to be in person with them, tried to pick up my exercise a little bit with mixed success. So yeah, some things and feeling like more was needed to be honest. How about you all? Shawn?
Dr. Shawn C.T. Jones: So, I can begin this one. I will say to you that, first and foremost, Andrew, that I appreciate you sharing that, and I see you, and I see that effort. I want to just provide a little bit corrective experience towards you, if I may, that I think might go broader. So, when we say things about, "I did a little but not enough," I just want to gently also say, in this time, that having grace as we navigate, as we're still trying to craft and hone our strategies to cope with things that are, again, true threats to our existence, I often say, "The fact that I am here and present some days is doing it," right? So, I definitely don't say that, full stop, don't do any healthy coping strategies that we'll be talking about over the course of today. And I also want to say, I see your efforts. All of us who are trying a little bit, who hit the snooze button for 10 minutes to give their body some needed rest, who nourish themselves with a nice meal.
We were talking about treating yourself to a nice dinner, those small things, again, when we're talking about a nefarious stressor that goes for our minds and our bodies, anything that we can do to stiff arm, to say, "No, I'm not going to allow that. I'm going to pour a little bit more into my rest and to my body via exercise and to my physical person via nutritious meals, it's not doing just a little bit. That's a whole lot. Taking a nap is resistance, right? So, I just wanted to say that.
Now, having said my little spiel, how am I feeling? I'm feeling heavy. I've been trying to work on my shoulders because I definitely have felt weighty. I will say, over those last three weeks that you outlined at the beginning of our time today, I think there are some of us who expected that that weight would lift and I haven't, I have to just say, as for me in my house, I don't know that I felt it necessarily lift in the way that I think some folks have expected to, certainly for a moment, but not fully. And so, what do I do? I still continue to unplug as I need to. I cannot continue to give all of my attention and concentration to the constant 24 hour news cycle. I practice small acts of gratitude, small acts of grace, and small acts of self-care. And we recognize that piling those up one on one will make for an overall greater difference is my belief.
So, when we say things about, "I did a little but not enough," I just want to gently also say, in this time, that having grace as we navigate, as we're still trying to craft and hone our strategies to cope with things that are, again, true threats to our existence, I often say, "The fact that I am here and present some days is doing it," right? So, I definitely don't say that, full stop, don't do any healthy coping strategies that we'll be talking about over the course of today. And I also want to say, I see your efforts.
Dr. Shawn C. T. Jones
EmbraceRace: That's beautiful.
Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson: You want me just to leave now? Because I think Dr. Jones just killed it... No?
So, let me just add to what Dr. Jones said at the beginning of his statement, because he and I have been doing our work for a decade, and we've, over the past 10 months now, let's say that out loud, over the past 10 months, during a global pandemic, and then a historical pandemic, that we've been talking about this. And we talked during the summer, early summer in June, and came to this realization together that what the body is supposed to even do with stress. So, we defined stress, but we didn't really talk about the physiological symptoms that come along with stress. Your body exerts energy to contend with that stress for the moment because it expects you to do something about it in that moment, it's supposed to be temporal. So, time limited, time oriented, we're supposed to figure out a quick solution so that we don't have whatever is weighing on our body taking up through the day or even week, right?
We're in month 10, and for some of us the pandemic is a form of racial stress. As we read the haiku early from me, from day one when we understood what was happening with the sirens in Detroit, and I was listening to my neighbors getting picked up in ambulances, I knew what that meant. I saw the headlines on TV. There were people in community being taking from me, that was a form of racial stress from the beginning. Before the headlines said there were racial disparities, before George Floyd was asphyxiated, before these things came into the news, we knew that it was racial stress.
So now, we're talking 10 months of constant, chronic stress. That is different from what stress is supposed to be for us. Stress is supposed to be a reminder or an urge, an unction to do something. 10 months of chronicity with respect to stress is not how our bodies are supposed to react with it. So, I just want to double down on what Dr. Jones said. You being here today, being present, watching this, even if you have 12 things going on in the background, you being present and acknowledging that stress is impacting you, it's enough. It's enough. And it's a beautiful thing for you to be here, to be alive. I will not break down today in this call I promise, even though we have before, Dr. Jones. But you are alive, you are here, that is enough!
I too, like Andrew, felt like I wasn't doing enough for myself. I experienced COVID. I experienced people dying around me. I experienced a number of things. I experienced being overwhelmed this summer with requests. I had over 100 media requests. I mean, my body was just ravaged. It was horrible for me. Then, I'd get grants, and then I did all the stuff that I was supposed to do in the workplace because work didn't stop. People didn't say, "You should stop," so we just kept going. So, I had to do something really radical. I'm actually in Los Angeles, shout out to everybody in California! I saw you all shouting yourselves out. Whoop whoop to Cali and LA.
I actually relocated to LA because I knew that I needed sunlight. I knew that I needed something different than what I was getting in the Midwest because I felt like I couldn't take it, I felt like I was actually not going to physically be here if I wasn't able to get the things that I needed. So, I want to conclude my long winded section that didn't even touch on the question to say you have to be radical in these times, to say, I need to get what I need even if that means I'm going against something at work or against the grain, or losing money, or whatever it is. I have to live, I have to make it through this time.
EmbraceRace, Andrew: That is amazing and beautiful. Thank you for what you've said, and thank you, Shawn. I wasn't planning to go here at all, I just need to say a little something which may apply to one or both of you, may apply to some of the folks watching. When I feel my stress, many of us feel it in particular parts of our body, and for me, there's no question for me it's my stomach and it's my sleep. I was feeling it in a big way in my stomach every day really for the last month and more. This is the part that may apply to folks.
There is what I actually haven't until now thought of as a kind of survivors guilt, right? Because yes, there's lots to be stressed out about, but I'm also aware that we are so fortunate. Melissa and I and our family are so fortunate, and most of our extended family members in so many ways, that I feel like what am I... We know that only 20% of Black workers can work from home, but we can work from home, right? Only 16% of Latinx workers can work from home, but we can work from home. We know about the economic devastation happening to so many communities and families, but our income hasn't gone down because of the work we do. You know what I'm saying? Then, I'm like, okay, what am I... I need to feel that. I need to bust out the gratitude. What am I feeling bad about? So, it gets to be this meta thing. Anyway, I don't want to go off too much on that, but I really appreciate what you've said.
EmbraceRace, Melissa: Thanks for opening up about that. I think maybe I'll add, just because we're sharing, what I have been feeling. It's sort of the same, what Shawn was saying. I also feel it in my shoulders. I try to just relax the shoulders and I felt like something was going to lift come January as well, and it just, there we went again. So, I was thinking when a Black man and Jewish man won in Georgia, I was like, "Wow, the backlash is coming, but let's celebrate," and that afternoon this happened. So, it just felt like there was this, again, relentless racism, and explaining it to our kids, the whole thing. So, I would say that what's been great was taking some time off, and Andrew and spending more time together. His ginger tea really helped, his teaching us to play Hearts, we played a lot of Hearts, and I have a couple friends in town who live nearby who I walk with every Sunday. Shout out to Paula and Fara. We just do it. It's cold here, we just do it, and it's been sort of a pandemic, something that we started doing every weekend, and I just hope we keep doing it because boy does it help.
EmbraceRace, Andrew: Can you give us some insight into how our own stress mediates, complicates our relationship with the kids in our lives (whether you're an educator, aunt, uncle, grandparent, etc.)? What do we need to know? I mean, intuitively, we get it, but what are some of the pathways, what are some of the mechanisms we need to understand?
EmbraceRace, Melissa: We do some bad parenting under stress. We realize that, right?
Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson: Yeah. I hope Dr. Jones will allow me the hoop on this one because you said pathways, Andrew, I wonder if you've read any of my papers.
EmbraceRace, Andrew: You know I have.
Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson: This is dorky academic land, don't worry about it. So, I had a paper that I published in grad school that essentially looked at the impact of discrimination on parents depression, how that depression then impacted child's psychological wellness. So, that was an early paper, and it was one of the first saying that discrimination doesn't even have to happen to the child herself for that to impact her psychological wellness. So, we were all excited about that. Yay, grad school, great! Dr. Jones and I have been working on the follow up to that paper for the past two years, and we actually just got it published last week, so we're super excited about that.
Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson: Thank you so much. As soon as it's for real, for real published, I'll send you the link. But, why it's impactful, and the name of these papers are actually pathways. So, we're talking about pathways to pain. What we do in this second paper is take a look at how discrimination impacts the worries, the psychological worries that parents have about their children, and their ability to be discriminated against. So, we're adding a few different constructs here. We're saying that not only does discrimination negatively impact you as a human being, we know that, depression, anxiety, all those things happen, but it's going to increase my worry for my children, and my child is going to have not only worsened psychological wellness, but worsened externalizing as well. So, the things that they do to get their anger out is also going to be exacerbated, if I'm worried.
So, said another way, the pathway from discrimination to your child's wellness, and again, this could be parent, we could likely think of a lot of caregivers in this role, but our study looks at parents in particular, that discrimination link to your child outcome is strong and pervasive through so many different systems. Your child doesn't even have to be sitting in front of the TV or the smartphone for them to pick up on what's going on in your body, in your mind about them. So, that's our pathways paper. And we've seen it where if a parent is crying, if a parent is infuriated, if a caregiver is feeling any of these things for their child and doesn't communicate it in a way that lets them know why they're so stressed out, why they're scared, why they're frustrated about these systems, then the child may not know what that's for, and is going to pick it up internally or externally in some way. So, what Shawn and I argued in this paper is that the more effective communication and strategies around talking about race with our children actually alleviates that pathway. So, that pathway is not going to be as strong if we are talking to our children about race and about the racial stress that we have and the concerns that we have for our children.
EmbraceRace: So, it's therapeutic?
Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson: It is therapeutic. Yeah.
EmbraceRace: We have to deal with our own stress and also communicate about it with our kids. How do we do that?
Dr. Shawn C.T. Jones: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely, absolutely. So, I would say for one second to go back to what Dr. Anderson said, and I promise I'll swing it back through. I don't know if you all caught, and again, I'm sorry, I'm picking on y'all tonight, Melissa and Andrew, but there was an exchange between Melissa and Andrew when Andrew was asked to share how he's been feeling. And what I took from that is wow, here are two folks who know and care about one another, and they're picking up, even when there's not verbals, there is nonverbal exchanging that is happening that is still signaling something, I feel a way or something is amiss. So, I just want to encourage us, whether we are caregivers, parents, older siblings, educators, in that same way, youth who are around us can also know... I know we say, "Oh, I'm carrying it [the stress] in my shoulder, and it's in my stomach. They can't see inside my stomach, right?" But, we still are emanating, we still are giving off that worry that Dr. Anderson was talking about, in ways that our youth can make sense of it.
So, sometimes we take for granted the fact that we want safeguard, we want to protect, we want to shield our youth. The way that we think that we're supposed to do that is by not sharing those frustrations. But, youth are still picking up on those things. It might be that sly look at the dinner table really, really quickly. Or it may be them staying behind a little bit extra on your Zoom educator because they sense something, Ms. Johnson's not feeling all right today. And they just sit there, they don't say anything, but they're feeling it, right? So, let's give our youth credit.
So, how do we do that? Well, we have, as Dr. Anderson started to allude, we have to have honest and courageous and vulnerable conversations with youth that is also at the same time that is as developmentally appropriate as it is courageous and bold, right? I know there's a lot of concern, I'm seeing it in the chat right now: "Oh my goodness, I worry constantly about my sons, about my children, and I don't want to explain to them. I don't want to have 'the talk' in this level." Well, thankfully, we are working on ways of cultivating that language that is developmentally appropriate that you can sit down from 6 to 16 and talk about, "This is what it meant for me to see a confederate flag in the Capitol." I'm sorry. I probably should have said something before I said that. I understand even saying that could be triggering, so I apologize. And I notice that because I feel it myself, right? But, how can we communicate that to a 6 year old versus a 16 year old about what that imagery did for me, and why maybe I turned the TV off, or why maybe I got short with you in that moment. So, sharing that honestly.
But, you said something else, Melissa, and then I'll close here with my commentary, which is something that is near and dear to the research that I do. We also have to take time among caregiving systems to process. Giving ourselves time to reflect and converse with one another. So if you have loved ones, if you have colleagues that you're like, yeah, I know I got to do this work, I know I got to do this socialization work. But, we also have to steward our own understanding and stress, and be able for example, for Melissa and Andrew, or anyone else, to turn to one another and share, "This is how I'm feeling. I need to process this. I need to get this out." And then, again, as Dr. Anderson always reminds us, we use that extended metaphor, which we may forget over these last 10 months, but we secure our own mask in terms of really navigating how we are truly feeling about these situations that that can equip us and embolden us to feel able to have those courageous conversations with our children.
So, sometimes we take for granted the fact that we want safeguard, we want to protect, we want to shield our youth. The way that we think that we're supposed to do that is by not sharing those frustrations. But, youth are still picking up on those things... We have to have honest and courageous and vulnerable conversations with youth that is also at the same time that is as developmentally appropriate as it is courageous and bold.
Dr. Shawn C.T. Jones
Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson: May I just jump in real quick? Because I know people really like concrete steps, and I think Dr. Jones said it beautifully, so I just want to condense it the best way that we can. First is your own check in. So, you are a human first, you're not a parent first. You are a human being first, so you have to check in with yourself first. So, that's step one. Step two is to engage in some sort of practice, whether that's in the mirror, with a partner, a therapist, whomever it might be, practice. Because there's no way that you can engage in anything well without taking the time to do it. So, go ahead and get your practice on. The third is to do it. So, a lot of people, especially this summer, said, "I want to get all the books first. I want to learn all the things. I want to go to all the webinars. I want to do all the things before I say anything to my child." But, doing it is really the third step.
So, how do you go about doing that? You get age appropriate media like Dr. Jones was saying, you engage with text, with books, with Sesame Street, et cetera, to have your child actually sit with those materials. And then, ask the question, "How does that make you feel?" So, you don't even have to say anything first, you get from your child what it is that they're feeling so you can use that as a springboard. So, check in with yourself first, practice, and then just do it.
EmbraceRace: I want to pick up on that last point, Doctors, and especially around the children. So, as caregivers to children, a lot of parents say, "I don't know how she's feeling. I don't know what she's picking up." And certainly heard you loud and clear, Shawn about nonverbal communication, how powerful, how pervasive, how in fact, it can be at odds, right?
We can tell our children one thing verbally, but they may pick up on something very different non verbally. But, to all those parents and teachers and others who are thinking, you know what, "I don't know how my child is doing, she/he/they don't say a whole lot, it's hard to read, I'm just not sure."
Can you say more about what would we look for and the kinds of conversations we may have that allow us to effectively diagnose what our kids are feeling and thinking?
Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson: I think Dr. Jones is giving me the nonverbal there to get going. So, my thing has been data. I've been talking a lot about data, and if you've heard me say this before, my apologies, but data is really important. So, if you notice something different in your child, being okay enough to say, "Listen, I notice that you came to the dinner table a little differently today. You've been a bit more reclusive. I've seen you on your phone a little bit more." Especially these days, again the past 10 months have been so different for all of us that we've all probably engaged in different activities. So, as you've noticed, as we've even said from the top of January to today things can be different in your child. So, just remarking on that, and saying, "For the past several months, you were this way, and now it's a bit different. What's up with that?" We both have worked or currently work with kids, and we know it's not the easiest thing on earth to get children to talk about things all the time.
So, if we are thinking about way that we can engage with our children, I'm a huge proponent of media. So, finding a piece of media, I use Black-ish a lot in the work that I do. Finding a piece of media, finding a book that you can just start talking about. It doesn't have to be their own emotions or feelings, you can talk about something else, and then start making connections like, "I wonder if you felt that way." Then, saying how it is that you feel. Again, not putting the burden on your child, but saying, "Because when I watched this, I felt x, y, z. Does that resonate with you?" Just giving them entree there to have any sort of touchpoint can be helpful. So, I'll stop there, but that's what I would say is data and then utilizing various pieces of media or other things that you all can talk about to then reflect how it is that they are feeling, and they can resonate with that or reject that.
Dr. Shawn C.T. Jones: Well, one thing I was just going to very quickly say with regard to that, another really nice exercise or strategy tool that can be used is something called an emotion wheel, and they have emotion wheels that are appropriate for youth, and sometimes are highlighted even by colors. There are red and green and blue, different emotions. So, that's something else, just because I was seeing some of the commentary in the chat about finding the words.
I think sometimes those kind of external tools for example can be helpful as well to say this. Or, maybe even an image for a young child, like the Hulk. Are you feeling like the Hulk? Are you feeling like Superman around kryptonite? Are there other examples that can show some of the basic emotions? So, I think that creativity, and again, that can go a long way as well, so I just wanted to add that.
EmbraceRace: "Racial stress makes sense. How do I teach my son that he is still capable, strong, and resilient in the face of this?" So, I assume this question is from someone in a targeted group, and they want to talk about the cultural empowerment piece.
How do you talk about how being Black or being Brown is not only about being stressed?
Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson: I always share this story whenever I'm with you all of how we met. So, I'm the Director and Developer of the EMBRace Program- Engaging, Managing, and Bonding through Race. So, I went to a job interview, and I came back and my research assistants were like, "Dr. Anderson?" I'm like, "Yes." They're like, "We have to tell you something." I'm like, "What's going on? Did we harm someone?" I'm really freaked out, and they're like, "There's something called EmbraceRace." So, they show me the webpage of EmbraceRace, and they're doing the same, amazing, wonderful work in a different sphere, and so we start talking. And this was five years ago, and we have a beautiful, loving relationship from it. But, I say that because what we do with EMBRace, and what we've done with EmbraceRace in a lot of different ways, is think about the first step.
So, Dr. Jones mentioned "the talk," a very colloquial name for this really dorky research topic that we talk about, which is racial socialization. Socialization, generally speaking, is the way that we socialize our children to the world around us. So, when we say, "Look both ways before crossing the street. Don't touch the oven." These are all ways that we socialize our children to the world. Racial socialization is around race specifically. So, there are a number of strategies that parents utilize to socialize their children, but what the research shows and what's most impactful, and what we do with EMBRace is session one, Black is beautiful. You are fantastic and wonderful. We build up first. Because if you can imagine, just doing what the media is already doing to your child, if you can imagine what the convenience store owner's doing to your child, what the police officer, what any of these folks are doing to your child, if that just happens in the home as well, you can certainly imagine that your child's depression, anxiety, et cetera are going to be flared up.
So, the first thing that we do is stress the cultural pride that we have in being a part of our culture, in understanding and identifying the absolute richness, the absolute beauty and resilience and resistance that our people have. One thing that we said this summer was that it's really wild to think that the systems around us continue to do the things to us because we have resisted them for decades and centuries and generations. Isn't it silly of them to be doing these things to us when they know how powerful we are, how much we've changed things, how we change entire cultures and dynamics? That's silly of them. We're never going to break. It doesn't matter what you do to us, we're never going to break. And that's the energy, that's the mindset that we build into our children first before we say, "Now, can you understand why those people want to break you down? They see how beautiful and smart and resistant you are, and they don't want you to have that. They want that, they're jealous of you, and this is what that looks like."
So, we start, again, with really empowering and building up, so that when we do start to explore the challenges that they may be facing, they can pull from that and say, "It is because my hair curls beautifully and has spring to it, and because my melanin is so bountiful." They can go to that place and draw from that understanding when we start to get into the stress.
We're never going to break. It doesn't matter what you do to us, we're never going to break. And that's the energy, that's the mindset that we build into our children first before we say, "Now, can you understand why those people want to break you down? They see how beautiful and smart and resistant you are, and they don't want you to have that. They want that, they're jealous of you, and this is what that looks like."
Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson
EmbraceRace: That's a wonderful response, Dr. Anderson. One of the things that happens, we have in the EmbraceRace community, a lot of in particular White moms of children of color, whether those children are adopted or biological children of quote unquote mixed marriages and so on.
So, here's a question that introduces some complexity to it. Lisa says, "After the George Floyd shooting, my Black son became very fearful." She doesn't say how old he is. "I asked him to go to the Children's March, and he became despondent and tearful. He was afraid to leave the house for a while. Slowly, he's gotten better, but I'm worried about how to help him navigate this territory. I'm White, my husband is from Africa, and our son is adopted at birth and Black." Dr. Jones, do you have some general advice for Lisa?
Dr. Shawn C.T. Jones: Yeah. Thank you, Lisa, for sharing that. There's really a lot in there. So, I think that I want to start by just acknowledging the effort made. I think that all of us can relate if we're caregivers in any sense, we can relate to wanting our children, waning our youth to feel good, to feel better, to feel empowered. I want to really acknowledge and say I see the effort, and I appreciate that. I have a lot of curiosities, if I'm being blunt, about just some of the things that you alluded to, Andrew, so age, and also I couldn't quite make sense of whether or not the young boy did attend the Children's March and then was despondent and crying, or was despondent and crying because they didn't want to attend. I was unclear there, and so I'll do my best to speak to both, right? I think one of the pieces is recognizing our desires for our children.
EmbraceRace: He's 11 and he did not attend the march.
Dr. Shawn C.T. Jones: He would not attend the march, okay. Thank you so much for being courageous there and sharing that, Lisa, appreciate that. So, I think for me, my thought would be, okay, so didn't want to attend the march, this is a great time, going back to what we just talked about, about having one of those open and honest conversations, about sharing. Okay, well, what was our intention or why did we think that you attending this march might be something that might be beneficial? And also, understanding very clearly how he feels about attending, and maybe what the reservations are, or maybe what the source of the emotions might be.
Because again, it's really hard to place a name, and I think that in those moments, it's best for us to not make assumptions, right, but to really sit and ask and sit in that hard space, that tense space of having that conversation from love, and saying, "I really wanted to do this. I thought this would be a good idea or a good way to demonstrate or do some of this socialization. And I also want to appreciate that if you're not ready that that's fine, that's okay. What would make you feel good in this moment, right?" I think that that is where I would start.
And then, the only other I'll say before I pass it to Dr. Anderson is that it is tough. I say this all the time. We have a lot of catchphrases because we've been doing this for so long. This work, we're working on it. EMBRace, they doing it, but before EMBRace, there's not a manual for this thing. So again, I know you're going to continue to hear me say grace. But also, I think in moments like that, when I work with parents and they maybe try some form of socialization and it doesn't go over the way they thought it would, there's a lot of guilt. Maybe particularly when you don't share the same racial identity or make up of that child, there may be added guilt, like what did I just do, right? I just want to just affirm that there are still opportunities. When you're coming with it from love and care and concern, there are opportunities to repair, or to make up. So don't be so, so hard. I'm getting a sense that maybe there was some guilt there, and I just want to affirm that you were coming with it from a place of love, and if you can have that conversation similarly from love and seek understanding, that that'll go a long way. Dr. Anderson.
Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson: I definitely want to fit more questions in, so I'll just say to high five what you just said, it's not the talk, it's talks, right? So, if it didn't quite work, all right, brush your shoulders off, give it another shot. And just to echo everything Dr. Jones said, I studied this, I wrote the whole manual, and I struggle sometimes as a therapist with my own clients dealing with this work. It makes sense, it's a hard world that these kids are facing, and we're asking them to give us everything that they have. It's hard y'all, just know that it's a process, it's a developmental process.
EmbraceRace: So, there are a lot of questions from teachers wondering how, and a lot of White teachers, wondering sometimes in White environments, sometimes in environments predominantly of color just wondering how to basically create better spaces.
Someone asks, "What's your vision for how communities, especially multiracial spaces, can be proactive in insulating our children of color from racial stress or mitigating its impact?"
We kind of think of resilience as an individual level trait, right? People are either resilient or not. But it's also a characteristic of communities too, and of families, and of all that kinds of formations. Why is it so important that resilience can be a characteristic not only of individuals, but of communities?
Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson: Yeah, I'll see if I can cram all the thoughts that I have into this response. My advice to look within, to practice, and to just have a conversation is for everyone, so parents, teachers, community members alike. It doesn't behoove us to have certain opportunities just with children in one system or in one environment. We have to really think about the interlocking and interconnected, holistic picture of how do we support children if they're in a home, if they're walking to school, if they're in the school (whenever that opens.) We're trying to figure out how to best support them as caring and loving adults and caregivers, right? I think that advice is for everyone.
I also want to speak just briefly to your point on resilience. I used to love that word, it was in the title of my dissertation, and I was really obsessed with it. Then, you said it beautifully, that it's this individual characteristic. I think a lot about resistance and what we can do with that in ourselves, in our families, in our larger community. So, I really want to acknowledge that the resistance that we have toward these systems even impacting our child are going to be much more important that putting the onus on our child to be individually resilient, and to take what the systems are doing, and to bounce back from it.
So, I just want to encourage us to think about, what would our school look like if we were resistant to racial oppression and racial injustice? What would that look like for us to start the school day, particularly on a Monday, and I'm going to say this as a former teacher myself, on a Monday after a shooting or whatever, if you find yourself gathering for circle time, and practicing "A's" immediately, and not addressing what just happened in that neighborhood, you're complicit.
I'm going to name it and I'm going to be fine with naming that. Y'all can come at me if you want. It's not Andrew and Melissa, this is me. You're complicit with allowing that system to continue to harm our children if you don't acknowledge, "Wow, Trayvon looks a lot like the kids in this classroom. Wow, Tamir was the same age as the kids in this class." If you can't acknowledge that and stop! This is what the haiku was about the whole time. If we can't stop what it is that we're saying to say, "This is jacked up, and our kids don't deserve this," they don't need to be the ones sitting with this, it's us as adults. We're perpetuating this thing. We're allowing it to happen. We have to resist what that system is doing to our kids and stop, and check in. "How are you? How does that make you feel today?" And if we have to do it again later today and tomorrow, if I have to stop the testing to ensure that you are well, that is resisting what the system is trying to do to our children.
That's what I would say to our teachers, to our caregivers, to anyone outside of the house context that if we'd simply go with the status quo, and we allow our children to be bombarded and consumed with what the world is throwing at them, we are depending on them to be resilient, and it's up to us to be resistant.
That's what I would say to our teachers, to our caregivers, to anyone outside of the house context that if we'd simply go with the status quo, and we allow our children to be bombarded and consumed with what the world is throwing at them, we are depending on them to be resilient, and it's up to us to be resistant.
Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson
EmbraceRace: That's beautiful. Yeah, and so true. I mean, you do hear a lot in questions this hesitancy because people don't want to offend or upset kids or traumatize. That's a great concern of course, but the thing that people are missing is that actually they're feeling it, they know it. They know that you're ignoring it, you know what I mean? And they have a feeling about that, that speaks volumes. So, your deciding to do it or not to do it is a decision, and you're speaking either way.
Is resistance in institutions analogous to resilience in individuals?
Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson: No, so I mean, the sheer definition of resilience is about one's ability to bounce back in the face of adversity. Resistance can be across levels arguably, but it's about being impervious to those adversities, to not have to experience it in the first place is what it's talking about.
EmbraceRace: Right, so bounce back isn't necessary?
Dr. Riana Elyse Anderson: Certainly not. Okay, two second spiel. I use this analogy of the rubber band, right? So, you have this rubber band, you stretch it, and yeah, it comes back, great. Then, it sits by the window a little long, so the sun has weathered it, and then you try to do it and it snaps. Oh, you left it in the cold Detroit room, and you try to expand it and it snaps. You just done it one too many times, even if the environment hasn't had a chance to put their hand on it, you're asking this thing to just continue to do this thing that it should have the characteristic and the quality to do, but you've now taxed it one too many times, you've stressed it to go back to that one too many times. It no longer has the capacity to go back. So, we shouldn't rely on our children being the ones to come back, we should be blocking them from having to stretch in the first place.
EmbraceRace: We did get a question about a parent whose child was seeing everything, I believe a Latino kid in a Latino family. He was in a phase where, about 10 years old, where he was seeing everything in terms of race, and everything was about race, and she had a hard time helping him think outside of race, and also think less "Black and White" about it. "Not all White people are like Donald Trump, not all X are like this."
Do you guys have any advice for a parent who's child is really stuck in a very negative "Black and White" place about race?
Dr. Shawn C.T. Jones: So, I'm going to give him the old school spirit here. So, here is what came to mind for me. Again, both Dr. Anderson and I tout ourselves as thinking about things developmentally. So, one of the things about identity and the development of racial identity is we often think about how that is not always a linear process, and that there are encounters, or that there are these events that are critical inflection points. But, that when we step back over time, we can watch one's development unfold. So, my quick advice there is that assuming and presuming that the reflection on things through a racial prism is not leading to any untoward malfunction or any difficulty in every day functioning, I think that there's space. It might maybe feel awkward, but to sit with that a bit because if you look at, again, nerdy, nerdy models of things like critical consciousness, awareness, or things of that nature, it could be that he is having a bit of making sense of that, particular at 10. And we've been there. "Is every cop like the one who was on George Floyd? All those lights, who are they stopping now?"
And some of it has to do with, again, developmentally our social cognitive abilities to process things. So, I think that is again where that socialization and that support as caregivers, and I'm sure by the way you're doing a fantastic job, caregiver. But, continue to do that, and continue to hold space as they're making sense of the racialized world around them. Because it sounds like there was some critical consciousness and awareness and development that's going on, and again, we wouldn't want to swelter that at all. We would want to obviously support that in a way that is also balanced. So, I think that's another thing that we often advocate in this racial socialization or the talks, is also having that balance. So, that's where their pride, that's where not having this just overall blanket weariness comes into play, and we can provide and mold through examples, and explanation, and again, courageous conversations. But, I would support some of that exploration.
EmbraceRace: That's a great answer. We so love you guys, and love having you on, not only for the substantive wisdom and advice, but just the comfort. You're just good people to spend time with.
We felt like it was coming home to have you guys here for our first conversation in the new year. So, thank you. Again, love you guys, lots of respect, thank you so much.