Imagine being two months into high school, attending your first Homecoming dance. Your hair is done, you’re wearing a new dress, you’re jumping up and down and bopping to the DJ’s music with your friends on the dance floor. Suddenly, the DJ starts playing a rap song. Your heart sinks into your chest. Did you just hear half of your white classmates rap along to the N-word?
This is not an isolated event. It’s a common experience of teens of color living in predominantly white areas. It’s painful and traumatizing, and it’s only one example of negative experiences Black teens, like me, may have during their formative years.
Unsolicited advice on cultural mannerisms or hairstyles, awkward and poorly conducted classroom conversations on race, being singled out to be the token or “poster child” for your race—we need support from an older and wiser role model who can help us navigate the injustices of the world around us. Here’s what Black parents can do to help.
Engage us in contemporary Black culture
Is your teen insecure about their hair? Maybe they’re not seeing enough people who look like them in the media. When I was growing up, media portrayed Black women as “sassy” and Black stories were all about trauma and slavery. I felt like society was imposing a negative identity on me and it took a toll on my self-esteem. To counteract these negative stereotypes, it was important for me to see more positive examples of Black excellence in the media. If your teen is feeling insecure, try casually watching a Black movie together, or watch an awards show or documentary where Black people are sporting a variety of hairstyles. Show us examples of Black culture and traditions we can celebrate and cherish.
Make sure we’re learning Black history (and that you are, too!)
If your kids’ school has an African American History class, I encourage you to make sure your kids enroll in it. If their school doesn’t have a class like that yet, consider petitioning the school to invest in one. In the meantime, you can bust out the materials yourself at home! PBS documentaries are excellent resources surrounding Black history (try American Masters, Finding Your Roots, and American Experience). Thinking about a field trip? Try the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C. A visit there helped me feel connected to my heritage and the exhibits on civil rights especially resonated with me.
If you have gaps in your own knowledge, learn alongside us! When we learn about our Black history, we begin to understand the contributions Black people from African/Caribbean cultures have made to society, and we can feel proud of where we came from and dream about the possibilities for where we can go from here.
Support Black-owned businesses
Do you seek out Black-owned businesses and patronize them regularly? When I see a Black person behind the counter of a beloved business, I’m happy to take out my purse. Seeing money transfer to a person of color shows me that money should go into the hands of Black people. We need these positive associations to generate Black wealth.
Be prepared to take action against implicit bias and racism
When your child confides in you that they have experienced racism or you watch it happen in real time yourself, it’s important that you take action to respond to it because if nobody speaks out against wrongdoing, nothing is going to change.
My mother was attempting to enter my school after hours for a PTA meeting when she was harassed by a school security officer. So she started a dialogue with the school principal, which then resulted in the officer being promptly dismissed. My mother’s response showed me how to take initiative and that my words have the power to make change and demand respect.
If you want to set a good example for your kids but you find taking action against wrongdoing intimidating, there are plenty of resources out there from seasoned activists and change-makers designed to guide you along the way. Maybe you want to send a strongly worded email to a teacher or principal, write an educational social media post, or have a private conversation with the perpetrator with or without your teen in the room. Of course, use good judgment when deciding on the most appropriate and efficient response. Simply a Black family’s presence in a predominantly white area could be setting a good example, maybe more than you think.
Check your yourself before you wreck (your teen)
I feel it’s important to remember that we’re students of color, but that doesn’t fully define us. We’re whole persons living in an often unfair and discriminatory society, with internalized messages of racism, homophobia, sexism, and ableism. We want our parents to support us fully, which often means our parents need to unlearn discriminatory biases and messages programmed in an earlier time.
My mother, for example, didn’t know how to discuss mental illness after my diagnosis with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Unknowingly, she marginalized people with mental illnesses when she used phrases like “lost it” and “crazy” and she laughed at my concern when I brought the issue up. Fortunately, she’s the kind of person I can talk to about how her behavior was harmful. After we spoke, we both came to a greater understanding of how mental illness affected our society, and she realized that simply supporting my racial identity while perpetrating other biases (even in the “little things”) does not work.
To support us fully, we want our parents to stay current with social justice issues and make sure we’re not feeling supported in one way but dismissed in another.
Check in regularly
Our adolescent years as teens of color are difficult. We’re coming to terms with our identities, redefining ourselves, and facing conflict. We need your steadfast support. We also need time alone with you to talk. You provide us with a safer place to discuss difficult subjects, more than we might have with friends or any teachers or counselors at school. Repetitive incidents of racism take an emotional toll on us if they’re not taken seriously and we need to talk them through. You are our best example of how to navigate life with a marginalized identity, and we need you to support us as we grow.