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The Skin We're In

Teaching Our Teens To Be Emotionally Strong, Socially Smart, and Spiritually Connected

About The Book

Shepherding children through the demanding years of adolescence can be a struggle for any parent. But black parents must also help their children confront the psychological fallout of racism. With this in mind, Dr. Janie Ward, who spent fifteen years researching the moral and psychological development of African-American boys and girls, offers parents a comprehensive four-step program -- Name it, Read it, Oppose it, Replace it -- that provides strategies for healthy resistance to negative social influences and complacency in children throughout the formative years. Ward offers parents advice on such topics as:
  • Helping boys deal with and control emotions like anger, frustration, and fear
  • Encouraging girls to appreciate their growing bodies for more than just looks, and to develop a healthy sense of identity
  • Developing skills in teens that allow them to act effectively in social, academic, and business settings
  • Teaching children to resist the power of peer pressure from those in their communities who believe there is only one way to be black
  • Convincing teens that it is essential to develop their spirituality and participate in a spiritual community



It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.


Just a handful of years ago we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The footage that television news shows broadcast to commemorate the event was dated, of course, but the black children's faces, suffused with courage, dignity, determination, and spirit as they climbed the school steps toward equal education, opportunity, and justice, transcend time. As I watched them I wondered if, as a child, I would have been able to muster the kind of strength and hope that moved those children forward, through the phalanx of state troopers, past the godless gaze of white supremacists, into history. I wondered if I could marshal the courage now, as an adult. I wondered, too, if we, as African Americans, have lived up to the dream that the Little Rock children held so close as they mounted those steps. Have we done all that we can? What have we done wrong? Can we right it? What have we done right? Can we do it better? How can we best help our youth to be strong, self-confident, and resilient? How can we fortify them to resist racism when they experience it firsthand and when they witness discrimination against others?

Black parents across the country struggle with these questions every day. And every day they invent new ways to help their children feel confident of their racial identity -- both personally and as part of the African American community -- and to recognize and name racism and oppose it in healthy ways. With a confidence born of their own childhoods and shaped by their experiences in the civil rights movement, they are teaching their children to be strong and resilient, and to stand up for what is right and against what is wrong. They are fusing what their own parents taught them with "black folks' truth," the collective wisdom of African Americans. And they are refining, adapting, and reinforcing that knowledge to help their own children counter the obstacles and pressures they face today, including covert racism -- at school, in the workplace, and in the community -- and unbridled media distortions and influence. They are preparing their children to be emotionally strong, socially smart, and spiritually connected. And they are anxious to share what they have learned with other parents.

In my travels to talk with the families whose wisdom and experience fill this book, the children told me, over and over and in no uncertain terms, of the value of this preparation. Gina, a 15-year-old from Raleigh, North Carolina, said,

I've been warned that racism still exists -- that even though segregation is gone, racism is still here. So sometimes there have been things said or done that I did not realize were racist, and I went back and told my parents, and we went over whatever had happened. And they pointed out to me where racism could have been the issue. Like I've said, I've been warned. And because I've been prepared for it, it doesn't bother me as much. I know people are going to be people. Racism has existed for many years. I don't want to say I accept it, but I don't have the hostility I might have had if I hadn't been taught about it before.

Reality is that today's black children are burdened by the facts of their lives. They are poorer on average than their white counterparts; they face discrimination and racism, both overt and subtle; they are judged by double standards; they all too frequently must come of age in unhealthy communities, with decaying surroundings, increasing crime, and substandard services, and within unhealthy families. Our children are also burdened, as all contemporary children are, by a glut of media information -- from magazines, newspapers, advertisers, song lyrics, movies, and TV -- that purports to tell them about the social world and their place in it. And the grip the media has on their attention is tighter, and starts earlier, than ever before. As a middle-aged girlfriend of mine told me, when she was growing up she didn't know she was a Negro or poor until told by a white girl in a newly integrated elementary school. But black children today are told early and often about their devalued racial and social-class status, and the demeaning and disheartening messages depress and derail them just at the point in their lives when they are constructing a sense of who they are and making choices that will determine where they want to be.

The media information that black children must decipher is particularly onerous and unfair: they must thread their way through portrayals of blacks as disproportionately violent (as in portrayals of young black males), disproportionately promiscuous (as in portrayals of young black women), and disproportionately lazy, cool, or athletic. It's even more confusing today, because from hip-hop to basketball, black youth culture has become the model for white culture. In fact, since the electronic media is often their primary source of reference, the way our black youth make sense of their lives and determine who they are is shaped by the images that the media project. Black parents today are faced with the formidable task of helping their children interpret information developed and delivered by a system that was in its infancy when they themselves were children, that continues to develop at breakneck speed, and that can have a staggering influence on their children's lives -- in fact, some experts say, as much or more influence than a parent or schoolteacher. The truth is that although the lives of our youth are becoming increasingly complicated and increasingly filled with media messages, our children are receiving less and less direct attention from their parents (10 to 12 fewer hours per week since the 1960s, according to one study). The costs of the decline in parental focus are particularly high for black teenagers, who need all the adult guidance and support they can get in understanding the changed nature of racism and how to overcome it. If concerned parents find it hard to help their children decode the media -- to understand what is and isn't true about media portrayals of their lives -- what will become of children who are left on their own to make sense of this information?

We must also summon our strength and stamina to help our children know how to recognize and resist what I call the "new racism." By this I mean the covert, subtle, institutionalized racism that has replaced much of the overt racism -- separate schools and entrances, discrimination in housing and employment -- that was made illegal after the civil rights movement. The sobering reality is that racism that was once individualized is now institutionalized as a system of privilege and control. The new racism is hard to recognize and just as hard to counter. Sometimes the perpetrator is not a person at all, but a company, a school, the police department, or a financial institution.

Too many of our teenagers are angry and frustrated. In addition, too many are complacent -- about inferior education opportunities, negative stereotyping, and injustice -- or they are simply apathetic. Some have given up altogether, surrendering to feelings of fatalism and despair, sure that they will never obtain work that will pay well or a chance to advance; sure that racism will always exist and that they will always be victimized; sure that they have no allies; sure that the boat they're in is leaky and sinking fast. What has happened? Why aren't more of our youth thriving?

The biggest problem is that almost no one is talking to African American teenagers about racial matters in meaningful ways. What we read in the press and hear politicians say tends to obscure, distort, ignore, or belittle racial matters. Politicians and journalists in the popular press are keen to promote the notion of "color blindness," as though saying that race doesn't make a difference will somehow make it true. But this is intellectually and historically unsound, minimizing as it does the existence of race-based attitudes and behaviors that are deeply entrenched and institutionalized in American culture. Anthropologists critique the very idea of race as an arbitrary, abstract concept with little biological support, a hot potato that needs to be abandoned as quickly as possible. Some social scientists, such as Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, the authors of America in Black and White, argue that the social conditions of African Americans, the attitudes of white Americans, and race relations overall have improved to such an extent that racism will soon become a thing of the past. Others, following the lead of William J. Wilson in The Declining Significance of Race, maintain that social class, not racial membership, is now the sole impediment to social advancement for African Americans. Still others criticize African American civil rights leaders for focusing so much on racial barriers, refusing to acknowledge, so they say, the gains made by blacks over the past few decades. Or they criticize those who advocate heightened racial consciousness, alleging that it "unfairly infringes on individual autonomy."

The politicians, social scientists, and popular journalists who speak about race in these ways provide little guidance regarding what we say at home to our children about racism and race-related issues. Their focus, instead, is on race relations -- on interactions between groups: whites and blacks, blacks and Koreans, Jews and blacks, Latinos and blacks, and so on. They say precious little about intraracial issues, for example, what it's like to be a member of the diverse group known as African Americans. And they fail even to speculate about what it might take to help our black youth become healthy and confident, secure in their personal and racial identities, resilient and resistant, in a society that incessantly devalues them because of their race. They do nothing to help black male teenagers understand why they are met in public spaces with suspicion and fear, or are picked up repeatedly by the police for the offense of "driving while black." They do nothing to help the young black girl who is struggling to understand why the standardized test scores of students in her urban high school are consistently so near the bottom of the scale. And they do nothing to help black teenagers understand why so many black youths in their neighborhoods have "papers" -- a juvenile file at the police station or courthouse. Our social scientists, pundits, and politicians offer no instruction or advice about how to stay connected to the black community and promote the collective good, or about what it means to take your place in the world as a responsive, responsible black adult.

What is loudest is the silence about racial matters, a silence that is insidious because it can lead to the belief that racial injustice doesn't exist and therefore demands no reform, a silence that can lead to abdication and survivalism. Our challenge today is to break that silence, to speak the unspeakable, to bring issues of race to the forefront for discussion -- in public debate, in our schools, and in our homes. For the parenting of a black child in America today cannot be color blind or silent. We cannot afford to forget, or neglect, or refuse to talk about race with our children. Talking about race challenges misinformation -- media distortions that confuse our children about who they are and what they can aspire to -- and clarifies racial reality. Talking about race also provides a forum for identifying and planning ways to counter racism. And talking about race with our children, consistently and thoughtfully, with all our patience and energy, directly challenges the widespread denial of African Americans' lived experiences.

We black baby boomers remember when resistance was sweaty, tangible, and in the street. Now it is in the mind. Even though it can't be seen, it can be taught. And now, more than ever, it must be taught.

The African American family can provide a safe and loving context -- a "home space" -- in which our adolescents can question the social inequities they see. Within the security of the home and community, teenagers can observe and question models of African American identity that successfully integrate the best of both cultures: the dominant culture and our traditional black culture. Here is where they can learn ways of bicultural living that are honest, that will allow them to feel whole, that will make it possible for them to remain at once independent yet connected to others of their race, and that allow them to build on the best of African American history, our struggles and truths, our tragedies and triumphs.

What I set out to discover is how the tasks of parenting converge with the forces of racism. I looked for answers to the following: How can we help our children form a positive racial identity while at the same time preparing them for the possibility of victimization based solely upon their skin color? How do black families foster in their children a sense of commitment to the social and economic progress of the race itself? Are there identifiable messages that parents pass on to their children that allow them to stand tall in a world that would drag them down? And how do we middle-aged baby boomers stand tall ourselves, providing the role models our children so sorely need?

There are more than enough studies of why African Americans fail. I wanted to understand why we succeed. I wanted to discover what African Americans tell their children they need to survive. What would fill our own children with the kind of strength, hope, and courage to dream that illuminated those children in Little Rock as they climbed the steps of Central High School?

The greatest lesson I learned is that black teenagers need to develop the ability to resist racism effectively. The resistance I'm talking about isn't knee-jerk, and doesn't look for a quick fix. It isn't resistance by withdrawal, defiance, or disrespect. It isn't resistance simply for survival. The resistance I'm talking about is thoughtful, intelligent, responsible, and starts from within. It involves the mind and emotions, the heart and the soul. It is healthy and life-affirming and taps into moral beliefs about justice and caring for others of the group, despite those who dismiss such attachments as retrograde "identity politics" in a global economy and society. In order to resist responsibly and effectively, our teenagers need both psychological strength and social knowledge. And they need caring adult guidance to help them understand what they are facing and how best to deal with it. They need adults who will listen to them, support them, calm them, and teach them practical skills, like the four-step model Read It, Name It, Oppose It, Replace it, which I describe in this book.

Without adult guidance our youth are left to resist and flounder on their own. They are particularly vulnerable to retaliation, and not just the kind of public humiliation that goes on in places like department stores, public transportation, and on the streets, but also behind closed doors, in places like school offices where tracking, suspension, and grading policies are decided. Our black children are disproportionately labeled and tracked; they are subject to policies created by criminal justice systems to monitor and control black teens, particularly black males; and they are routinely denied access to valued resources. Although the urge to fight back reflexively, mindlessly, and aimlessly is sometimes understandable, it is not the answer. The answer is to imbue our teenagers with a sense of mission and purpose, strengthened by spiritual beliefs and made vibrant by unshakable hope. With our help and the help of other experienced, responsible, trusted adults, they must take warmth and fire from the knowledge gained and sustained by their African American parents and forbears.

Silence is destructive, even deadly. Failure to recognize and confront racism leads to a sense of ineffectiveness and worse. It even takes a toll on our bodies. Research on hypertension suggests that college-educated African Americans who faced racism in their lives and on the job and fought against it, had the lowest blood pressure. The group that didn't think they were affected by racism or failed to challenge unfair treatment had the highest blood pressure.

Research on African American students and academic achievement suggests that black students who are aware of racial barriers and are comfortable in their own ethnic identity do better in school. In my own research, young black women who recounted receiving messages of strength, perseverance, and resistance against the odds, of being reminded of the blacks who had come before them and the blacks today who aren't fortunate enough to share their advantages, showed a higher frequency of leadership activities as adults. Several of the women had achieved positions in class government and in local social-service agencies such as Big Sister organizations.

African American parents who are willing to take the time and thought to talk about racial matters with their children, no matter how painful the task may be, are precisely the kind of parents our black youth need. Parents who articulate a stance against racism, sexism, and social-class bias -- who are able to understand what discrimination is and how it has shaped their lives and can effectively strategize around it -- are parents who pass on to their teenagers the tools necessary to negotiate adulthood in this society.

Several years ago I began a research study in which I invited black teens and parents to talk with me about racial socialization and how it is transmitted. To find these stories I decided to go where black people really are -- into the living rooms and dining rooms and kitchens of everyday families. I was curious to hear about diverse perspectives and wanted to assemble a sample that would capture the heterogeneity of African Americans. In order to make sure I talked with families in urban, rural, southern, and racially isolated settings, I aimed my sights at Boston, Philadelphia, Raleigh, and Albuquerque. Friends and colleagues in these cities provided me with names and addresses of African American parents who were either in the process of parenting teenagers, or had recently done so.

I visited these generous parents in all kinds of situations: in their homes, at their work sites, after church services, and once even during a child's softball game. To interview black teenagers I made contacts through public school teachers and counselors, church youth leaders, and again, through friends of friends. I interviewed the teenagers in their homes, in school libraries, and in one case, in a McDonald's over lunch.

In general, the parents, who were 35 and older, and the teens, between 13 and 20, were not related to each other. They came from the middle or working classes and low-income groups. They also came from a variety of family configurations. While most were two-parent families when we spoke, some were, or had been single or separated or divorced, and several of the teenagers were young parents themselves. Their education levels varied widely as well, from less than a high-school diploma to doctoral degrees.

As an African American mother and educational psychologist I know well how tired black parents are of hearing everyone outside the black community explain us to ourselves. Social scientists, especially traditional child and adolescent psychologists, still define African American teenagers by their adversities. On the rare occasion when a social scientist does address racial matters, it is most often with the assumption that racism only affects blacks. Researchers who interview African Americans often start with the negatives: "What are the worst problems confronting black youth?" "Why are so many black teenagers killing others, selling illegal drugs, getting pregnant?" Although I knew I could rely on questions like these to jolt a conversation into motion, I instead asked both the parents and the teenagers to talk about who they are as African American women, men, boys, and girls. Many were surprised and mystified at first. Nobody had asked them these kinds of questions before.

Black culture's vitality and vibrancy came through in the telling, retelling, and embellishment of stories, in the host of cultural understandings, metaphors, symbols, and traditions about race that I and the people I interviewed recognized and enjoyed in each other. Sometimes the conversations flowed easily, lubricated by our intimately shared experiences of race. Other times our talks were inhibited by our differences in age or in our educational or regional backgrounds. It can be exhausting to engage in debates with white colleagues about the existence, prevalence, degree of influence, and relevance of racism. The conversations that we as blacks can have with one another, and with our children, are a necessary and welcome respite. We say to one another, "Of course it matters. Of course it exists. We aren't crazy!"

My research was about stories: the oral tradition that has always been a key part of our culture. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. has said, "Telling ourselves our own stories -- interpreting the nature of the world to ourselves, asking and answering epistemological and ontological questions in our own voices and on our own terms -- has as much as any single factor been responsible for the survival of African Americans and their culture." That tradition, I found, is alive and thriving today in black families across the country. It is the everyday anecdotes and stories we blacks tell one another that help all of us -- children, teenagers, and adults -- connect to the past, make sense of the present, and prepare for the future. These stories form the backbone of this book, the base that allows me to move from the purely descriptive to the actively prescriptive.

Parenting is about aspirations, about working toward an ideal even when we aren't always sure of the path. Although black parents aren't always in agreement about the best ways to reach the ideal, we are unified to a remarkable degree as regards our parenting concerns and goals. We worry about what we feel our teenagers must learn to resist, and what we think they should be motivated to stand up for. These are all themes I explore in the following pages.

When I began my research I hoped that I would meet some African American mothers and fathers empowering their teenagers with lessons from their own lives, lessons that would respect the past and guide the future. What I found, in fact, was a multitude of such people. I found teenagers with an overwhelming hunger for such messages, and adults with an overwhelming desire to share them. And I found many, many African Americans -- men, women, and children -- who are struggling to make the best of themselves and their families in a confusing world in constant flux. It is for them that I have written this book.

This is a book about race and about raising children in a society where, despite arguments to the contrary, race still matters. In the conversations I had with parents and teenagers that form the foundation of this book, there was a necessary simplification of racial issues, with the result being that I present a dichotimization of the world that is not altogether correct. Ours is a diverse, multicultural world, with as many gradations of skin color and ethnic origin as there are stars in the sky. However, when most of us talk about race, we talk in terms of black and white, not Latino or Asian or others. This is most likely because when we talk about race we are talking about power dynamics, and in this country, power has historically been in the hands of whites and continues to be. It might be helpful to keep in mind that sometimes we use the word white as a kind of proxy, a stand-in for any person who isn't black and who fails to treat us with the fairness and dignity we are due.

General Colin Powell is fond of saying, "Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, but Martin Luther King Jr. freed the American people." It is now up to those of us who came of age under Dr. King's tutelage to liberate our own children from the myths of equality and meritocracy, and the false notion that the life of an African American is anything other than a struggle -- but a struggle out of which strength can be born. By helping African Americans reconnect with the lessons and messages, the collective lore and group values that have always sustained and fortified us, we can replace the tyranny of racism with an exhortation of individual and group affirming racial expectations. I hope that the following pages will illuminate the way.

In Part One, parents of black teenagers share their experiences growing up black in the 1950s and 1960s against a backdrop of dramatic social resistance and political change. Reflecting upon the lessons about race that they received as children, black parents explain how and why they are modifying the messages of the past to fit the challenges faced by their teenagers today. I present a model that parents can use to teach strategies for developing healthy and responsible resistance in racially charged situations. In Parts Two and Three, parents and teenagers explore a variety of issues black youngsters must negotiate during the adolescent years, including gender socialization, racial identity formation, dating, financial responsibility, and moral development. Part Four is a discussion of two enduring institutions that have great impact on the lives of black children: schools and the church. School-based conflicts call for especially thoughtful and deliberate resistance strategies, such as those proposed here. In the final chapter, black parents and teenagers share what they have learned about the importance of developing a spiritual life as a source of strength and purpose, both of which are critical components of healthy resistance.

Copyright © 2000 by Janie Victoria Ward

About The Author

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Raves and Reviews

Alvin F. Poussaint, M.D. Harvard Medical School, and co-author of Raising Black Children This insightful book is just what parents of black teenagers need...I highly recommend this book to parents and caregivers.

Ebony Bookshelf An empowering guide for black parents.

Rocky Mountain News The Skin We're In is unique, thoughtful, and intelligent, and should take its rightful place...on every black parent's bookshelf.

James Comer, M.D. Yale Child Study Center, coauthor of Raising Black Children Powerful and riveting! The reader is engaged on every page as Dr. Janie Victoria Ward tackles the tough issues associated with black child development in a complexsociety...Solid and eminently practical.

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