Tearing Down the Wall
An EmbraceRace interview with psychologist Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith about kids, racial identity, and racial anxiety
Our four different skin colors would ultimately provoke more fear in my daughter than having hands like baseball mitts or bread rolls.
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?”
Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child psychologist and professor in San Francisco.
"He's building a wall... and I'm afraid we'll get separated."
EmbraceRace: We think a lot about race and power and we talk to our kids about those dynamics, too. But we don’t always know when we’re going too far. For example, if you read someone like psychologist Marguerite Wright, who wrote in the 1990s, she’d say, don’t traumatize kids with all this talk of bad things that happen as a result of systemic racism.
Allison: I really disagree with that, but we can come back to that.
EmbraceRace [Melissa]: OK, here’s an example. Lola, our 7 year-old, was crying in bed the other night [in early 2016] and came out of her room. [Andrew is black, Melissa is biracial white/black, and our kids are biracial. They have 4 different skin colors in our immediate family.] When I asked her what was wrong, she said:
“Mommy, I’m really worried that Donald Trump will be president.” And I said, “Oh that won’t happen!” — can you believe that was my first reaction?! But then I asked, “What do you think will happen if he becomes president?” And she said, “He’s building a wall, and he’s going to put brown people on one side and I’m afraid we’ll get separated.”
EmbraceRace [Melissa]: I was surprised and wanted to comfort her. So I said, “People aren’t going to let him build a wall. The truth is that he’s really anti-immigrant right now, your grandparents are all immigrants but you’re not. You have a lot of privileges. You have American citizenship. You have medium brown-skin privilege, you have parents who are educated, you’re middle class.” I tried to point out all the ways in which she was safe and give her lots of hugs. I got her to stop crying. But I also told her that she had to take those advantages and use them to stand up against people like Donald Trump. And that, for all the supporters Trump has, there are many people of all different colors — people she knows — who are standing strongly against him. It was hard.
Allison: It’s heartbreaking. As a clinical psychologist, this issue is huge! I can not tell you how many kids I’m supervising, or doing clinical work with, for whom this is coming up. A lot of kids are having nightmares about Donald Trump. It’s a big clinical issue.
So there is a case that I’m supervising now where the [8 year-old] kid is Mexican. And the kid is basically saying, I know that Donald Trump doesn’t like Mexicans, and I know that a lot of people like him so it means that a lot of people don’t like me. And it came up in the therapy in terms of asking the white therapist whether she supported Trump. He’s trying to understand whether all white people like Trump.
This issue is permeating our culture and kids are getting it. Our kids are not protected from the political debate [just] because they don’t watch the debate. They’re still hearing that there’s someone who wants to build a wall and separate us. And so that fear is really palpable and really dis-regulating for a lot of kids.
Lola, self-portrait at 7-years-old
Helping kids "make a way out of no way"
EmbraceRace: So let’s suppose Trump doesn’t become president. There are still a lot of people who will have supported him because of, or largely because of, those [racist and xenophobic] views. So what do we say to Lola?
Allison: One of the things I really think about and hold onto is part of the language of our black spirituals which is about “making a way out of no way.” Like, that’s what our history has been about, that’s what our future is about: trying to make a way out of no way.What we actually have to do is we have to equip our kids with knowledge of that pathway. Meaning, there are other black folks who have made it out of oppression, out of slavery, out of bad things. In fact, here I am right now! And so we have to remind them of that.
And then we also have to give them strategies for getting out of their experiences of oppression, out of their experiences of being treated badly, out of their experiences of being treated not fairly.
What I hear that you did with Lola is that you were trying to pave a way out of no way by talking about all the things you have in your favor. You have educated parents, you’re not an immigrant, you have medium-brown-skin privilege. You were creating these ways in which to say, this is not going to happen to you. So that’s one way to make that path. I think there are other ways, too. I always say, you know your kids, you know your family, you know what they need to calm down.
What I also hear Lola saying, what I hear a lot of other kids saying, is that their biggest fear is that they will be separated from their parents. And so another thing you can be saying that, no matter what happens, I will always have your back, I will always try to keep you safe.
My goal in talking to kids, talking to other adults and talking to myself as a parent, is to try to articulate a pathway out of this mess…it’s important that we do talk about all that bad stuff that’s happening but also that we try to pave a way out of that no way.
EmbraceRace: So when you say that you’re seeing this big up-swell in anxiety among kids, I wonder if you’re seeing patterns there? Is it more from Asian American and Latino kids who are more likely to come from families who have immigrants in them? Is it kids of color, white kids? And are there nuances to the answer you give depending on who’s asking the question?
Allison: Yep. This goes back to your first thing you said in terms of response to Lola. I actually wouldn’t say, don’t worry, I’ll always be with you, because there’s a lot to worry about, right?
So to answer your question in terms of the nuances, I can’t promise the kids that I serve that their families won’t be separated. Because in fact the reality is that they are threatened by that. Many of the kids I serve are part of undocumented families, are part of communities that have ICE raids in the middle of the night, and now people are gone. And that's the context of trauma, too.The question you raised before about not overwhelming and possibly traumatizing kids by telling them the truth. I really don’t believe in that and here’s why.
The kids that I work with are kids who have seen unbearable, terrible things and they are surviving it. So they don’t need me to pat them on the back and tell them bad things won’t happen because bad things do happen.
The uptick in the level of community anxiety is because I work with communities where families are undocumented and because I work with brown and black people. But the uptick is also because post-Ferguson we’ve had a lot of protests here. On Martin Luther King Day they shut down the Bay Bridge for Blacks Live Matter, which was powerful and moving and confusing for a lot of kids, but also an opportunity to help kids learn. So there’s a lot of conversation in that moment.
I can’t promise that bad things will never happen to the kids that I serve or to my own kids. The only thing I can promise as a parent is that I will love them. The only thing I can try to do as a therapist is assure them that they have people who will keep them in mind and try to keep them safe. So, that’s hard.
“A lot of kids are having nightmares about Donald Trump. It’s a big clinical issue.”
Trump, Race, and Threat
EmbraceRace [Andrew]: One of the things I like about the response Melissa gave Lola is that, on one hand, the threat to different kids and families is different, and in some cases very real, so you can’t overpromise. On the other hand, what she started to say is, yes, there are people who support Donald Trump and perhaps support him precisely because he’s making this promise to separate people and kick some out of the country. But there’re a lot of people of all racial stripes who would strongly oppose that, probably the majority. One thing I worry about is that Lola comes to understand Donald Trump’s threat only in terms of his racial identity — that Trump is making that threat as a powerful white man and therefore that all white people are threatening.
Allison: Which would make sense for a 7 year-old to think that. And the opportunity that we have is to try to correct that. Correct that by explicitly narrating and showing, well you know that [white] person and they don’t think this way, and you know that person and they don’t think this way. And Donald Trump is not everybody. But that is what 7 year-old brains are equipped to do, is to generalize in that way. So we do need to actually prepare and help kids and anticipate that what they’re doing is making that assumption.
I think what Lola is doing, and what a lot of kids coming to my awareness clinically are doing, is trying to figure out how race works here.
So I think there’s definitely a social location piece that kids are feeling in different ways. It is an open wound, a fresh example of how kids are trying to make sense of the world. And, you know, we’ve had multiple opportunities for this — whether it’s kids growing up in Oakland with Black Panthers figuring out where they sit with power and privilege, or the Japanese internment and sitting with power and privilege. We’ve had all these opportunities to help kids figure it out.
EmbraceRace: What would it mean to take advantage of the opportunity we have to talk to our kids about Trump and Ferguson and today’s racial politics?
Allison: I hope that what we get a chance to do as grownups is to explicitly narrate and talk about what’s going on so that our kids are not left to their own devices to figure it out. Because imagine if you’d just said to Lola, don’t worry about that baby, go back to sleep. I can understand how we might get there — that’s not to judge a parent or anything — but for a long time that would have been the tack to take.
What [kids] are learning through the example of Trump is that race and ethnicity and immigrant status are means of separating people, are means of figuring out who’s on top and who’s on bottom. And I think what Lola’s trying to figure out is, is this race thing going to separate me from the people I love? And I think the Mexican kids that I’m working with are thinking, is this going to separate me from the people I love? And the kids that I work with who have families that are deported are feeling, this is why I can’t see my father or can’t see my grandfather.