THROUGH A DARKER LENS: THE TRAUMA OF RACISM IN COMMUNITIES OF COLOR
As I watched my son walk across the stage at his high school graduation I was a ball of emotions. I was happy and excited to watch my firstborn reach this pivotal milestone. I was a little sad because this officially signals the end of his being “my baby”. I was excited for all the adventures that he is about to experience in this new phase of his life. Underneath all of this were more two emotions that I never wanted to feel but are never far from my consciousness; anger and fear. I feel anger from knowing all that my son had to endure to get to that point. I am constantly fearful for what he will face as he goes forth boldly into his destiny. There is also sadness and frustration because the challenges, the pain, and much of the frustration that my child will face are because something completely out of my control. Because my child was born Black and male.
According to the American Psychological Association trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. In communities of color traumatic events are commonplace. When I say this people often go to thoughts of Gang and gun violence, drug related crime or other things told on the evening news. While those things are present they do not constitute the lion’s share of traumatic experiences I am speaking of. The experiences that I’m speaking of might, on the surface, seem to be inconsequential, however they have left scars that have endured for generations. For communities of color we must look at the trauma caused by structural oppression, implicit bias and racism.
As I gave birth to each of my four children I was both overjoyed and worried. I had infinite hopes and dreams for them. I also had a sense of dread at the thought of the treacherous road that lay before them. The perpetual trauma of racism and oppression that would most surely be as much part of their journey as Kindergarten, little league, and scouts. I would work with all my might to shield them as much as possible from the sting; however how do you protect a child completely from the air. Oppression and trauma are the air we breathe. Its effects are all around, in school, in the neighborhood, everywhere…. Like the air.
When my oldest child was 5 my husband was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and was given 2 weeks to live. During the course of my husband’s battle with cancer he would often become sick and be hospitalized for weeks without warning. During this time our children couldn’t see him because his immune system was so compromised. My son was deeply affected by “daddy going away to the hospital”. At one point my husband suffered a heart attack and fell at my son’s feet. I took my son to a local mental health provider to help him deal with the trauma of these experiences. I was told by the therapist that my son had no issues because “he had two married parents in the home and her wasn’t killing small animals and setting small fires because that’s what black boys do.” I looked at the therapist incredulously. Due to the implicit bias of the therapist my son was profiled, and denied proper care (not that I would have wanted him to receive care there anyway). The family structure and the situation that was presented did not fit the “the profile” for an African American family in the mind of this therapist so there couldn’t possibly be anything that needed to be addressed. You may say that this is an isolated incident with one bad therapist. The fact is that the literature shows that there is significant bias against black boys. According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology author Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD said “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent,”
When my son was in 7th grade he began experiencing challenges with maintaining focus in class. He had always been a very popular and chatty child which in combination with the inattention caused him to talk in class. He wasn’t disrespectful or mean in any way, he was what is often known as a “Class Clown”. There were quite a few of these class clowns in that particular 7th grade class. The way the “Clowns” were treated was quite different. The white boys were reprimanded in class and the black students would either receive ISS (In school suspension) or out of school suspension. I went to the school several times to advocate for my child. I requested testing for my child to see if there was some challenge that could be helped with some extra supports. I was Bcc’d in an email exchange between some of the teachers and the Special Education
Coordinator for the school who indicated that she didn’t want to “waste services” on my child who was clearly suffering from a lack of discipline for his behavior problem. I took him for outside evaluation and after his diagnosis of severe ADHD he started on medication and did much better (in a different school). Once again my son was profiled. He had never fought, never been disrespectful, or did anything other than be a good student with a motor mouth. During my sons high school career I went to his school several times to advocate for him against the “Thug” label. A teacher once told him that he was headed straight to prison because he had skipped a class. This wasn’t a normal behavior for my son, he was an honor roll student who had completed the majority of his high school requirements by the end of 10th grade. After a number of these interactions with teachers my son became disengaged in school. His grades dropped, he was frequently late and he stopped doing his homework. When I tried discussing this with him he said “those folks don’t care about me” “They said that I’m not going to be anything anyway.” I went to his administrator who told me not to worry because he would graduate because of all the work he had already done. I said “what about college? He needs the grades to get into a good college.” She told me “He will graduate on time!” I knew in that moment that despite all of the excellent work that my son had done he was not seen as college material. The black boy bias strikes again.
During summer before my son’s senior year of high school he was beaten in an attempted robbery while he was returning to his friend’s house after a trip to the store. When we called the police to report the crime we told the dispatcher the address and we were told that we couldn’t get a police response because “it had been more than five minutes since the attack”. I took my son to the hospital (in my car) to get care for his injuries. Upon our arrival at the hospital the triage nurse asked us what happened and when we recalled he events to her she said incredulously “No one responded to you?” Then she said “Call from here, use this phone, you will get two cops.” I didn’t understand but I complied and just like she said we had two officers on the scene in a matter of minutes. When the officers arrived they looked very concerned and asked the nurse for my son. However, when they saw my son their demeanor changed. They talked about and asked him questions about his sneakers and asked him a couple of obligatory questions. There were two witnesses (his two best friends) who were never questioned. I later heard that the two people who tried to rob my son robbed two other people that same night. My son said that his interaction with the police was worse than getting beaten and almost robbed. He said that they made him feel “like a criminal”. “They asked me about my shoes like as if to say how a black kid from the city could afford such shoes.” The bias of the officers impacted the way they interacted with my son. Their interaction further traumatized him and because of his previous experience with systems he had no hope for a positive outcome or any desire to pursue anything further.
Despite these experiences my son does well. He’s in his first year of college and is very engaged. He recognizes injustices and also knows that he, and others young men like him, can persevere and be successful. I asked him what was helpful. What could adults in the lives of Black youth do to support resilience? He said three things
1. Be consistent in your engagement. If it’s once a week or once a month whatever it is be consistent.
2. Be real!!! Don’t sugar coat stuff or be fake. Acknowledge challenges and provide guidance in overcoming them.
3. Don’t let stuff slide. If you see bias/ profiling happening call it out!! Much of the hurt comes from watching good people do nothing.
Every child is our own and the trauma of racism, institutional oppression, and bias are very real for black youth. However, through awareness, acknowledgment, and action by adults that trauma can be mitigated paving the way for bright futures.