Last week, we published the first article in the “How To Raise Pro-Black Children” series. We spoke about the importance of parents addressing their own anti-Black sentiments to ensure that they don’t pass those messages and self-sabotaging thoughts onto our children. The truth is, if you live in most places on earth, you’ve been exposed to anti-Black ideologies. They’re on the television, in our textbooks, and while we might not like to acknowledge the reality of this, a lot of the sentiments are passed down from generation to generation within our own families.
My mother often tells the story of how her mother, my grandmother who I love dearly, who would take her fingers and slide them down my mother’s nose in an attempt to make it straighter. She called it shaping their nose. It sounds innocent enough but this shaping was to make their noses appear more narrow, more European. I’m sure if you told my grandmother she was promoting a Eurocentric standard of beauty to her children she would have denied it. Still, she likely would have struggled to explain why she preferred her children’s noses to be narrow instead of wide.
Growing up in communities of color, it would be virtually impossible to keep your child from hearing statements about a preference for lighter skin, looser hair, or words that reflect an attitude of self-hate. But what you can do is make sure you address those statements both with your child and the family or community member who may have said them. See what professionals and Black parents, including my own, had to say about the topic of checking your family members’ ignorance when they utter an anti-Black sentiment in front of or about your child.
Chanda D. Griffin, LCSW said it takes a certain level of emotional rawness to be able to check or correct someone, particularly a loved one, who has insulted your child. But she says that you can start by expressing your own emotions about what they’ve said about your child.
‘It angers me that you would express that to him or her. One, because I think he or she is beautiful. But two, how is she supposed to feel if you’re telling her that her hair or skin color is not good enough, not beautiful enough?’ It takes a truly vulnerable place to say that. And also to educate them, if you’re in a place to say that.
Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Linda Cedeño, Ph.D. said educating a person about their ignorance can be as simple as asking them questions.
“You can go, ‘Oh, what makes you say that?’ That is one way to go. It’s modeling and it can be interesting. And when you take that approach, someone might stop for a second as opposed to getting defensive and react. They might say something like, ‘Well…I don’t know. I didn’t mean that.’ Or ‘I always was taught x, y, z.’ And then you can say, ‘It’s interesting because the way that I see that is it’s misinformation or a design to keep people in their place.’ So you can speak to it from different levels. But what becomes very difficult in these conversations is that things can get out of hand. People get defensive, we have trouble regulating our emotions and then before you know it, it’s a sh*t show. Which is okay, because we’ll have many more opportunities to try again.”
Dr. Cedeño said that there are times when you might not be able to have the conversation based on whether or not your emotions are too and you’re too activated by the comment the person has made or action they’ve taken.
My father, Edward Wells, who I interpreted as King of Pro-Blackness growing up, had a different take on that.
“I say it right then. Anybody’s company I’m in, I’m not afraid to speak the truth. That’s ridiculous. I don’t let those go by, you address that right away. That negativity is planted until you address it. Don’t let it fester. Children are so impressionable. That’s why we always, always, always jumped on anybody who tried to mess you guys’ self-esteem or ego.”
Dr. Jasmine H Winbush, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, who specializes in racial identity said that in correcting family members who express anti-Black statements, we’re exhibiting a healthy behavioral pattern for our children.
“That is modeling in and of itself. This is important, we talk about it. And you also model taking a stance on something that’s important. And it’s hard. You don’t want people to be like, ‘Don’t invite her. She always has something to say.’ You can use humor when it’s appropriate. Sometimes you don’t even have to say anything, you can just give a look.
If there’s that foundation of love and respect, it can be a conversation. Also, there’s a way to do it. I’ve found myself not doing it the right way and then later being like, ‘This is the way I could have handled that.’ And sometimes you’re just tired, ‘Like whatever, they’re going to do them.’ But when you have a little person looking at you like, ‘What is right? What is wrong? How do we respond to this?’ I find myself having these conversations, even if I’m not in the mood to do so.
Griffin made sure to note though that before someone says something anti-Black to your child, you have to have been planting different seeds, seeds to combat the negative messaging that will inevitably come.
And for the kid, it starts before someone says something like that to them. This is the world that our kids walk into, people challenging and devaluing them for several reasons, race and other reasons. And there are lots of books that talk about hair and talk about colorism in a very positive light. Start doing that early on so when they do encounter someone who says [something negative about their Blackness], they know that it’s not them, it’s that person. It’s that person’s problem. And then talking to your children afterward, ‘Oh God, grandma said some not-so-nice things to you about your skin color. How did you feel about that?’ Get them to talk about it and then tell them what you think. And tell them, ‘People may say things like that but, it’s not true. You’re beautiful whatever you are.’ How do you hold on to your own sense of value? You have to build the reservoir by positive images, reflecting self-love, reflecting self-value, parents have to model that. And when kids experience that backlash, one way or another, make space for them to talk about it.”
It was a sentiment my mother, Carol Wells, echoed. You start [affirming your child’s skin complexion, hair texture, beauty etc.] early on. Because in your mind that’s all you hear and if somebody tells you it’s not true, you’re like, ‘What?!’ And then what happens is, when that’s embedded in you, it exudes in the way you carry yourself. And when the conversation comes up, because it will. Your child should feel, ‘I’m sorry that you feel that way. But I know that I’m beautiful.’