The researchers who found that suicide rates have doubled for Black children while declining for White children were surprised by their own results. These are the first recorded data in history for which Black suicide rates surpass that of other race groups. Suicide is what can happen at the extreme of when youth and adults are marginalized and lack the resources to cope with this marginalization. The reasons for the increase in Black children’s suicide are unknown. In today’s climate, however, efforts toward protecting children from the subtle and not-so-subtle burdens of discrimination and oppression seem warranted.
I, personally, never anticipated that I would need my psychology Ph.D., my research in African American identity and emotional health, or my understanding of implicit bias and institutional oppression to navigate my child’s pre-Kindergarten classroom. As it turns out, I need them all. The preschool to prison pipeline is real. While “educational” systems are not fatal in the traditional sense, they can engender low self-esteem that subsequently kills motivation along with academic and intellectual performance.
What is less well known is that young, emerging adults who have a less than positive cultural identity and who internalize racism are also more prone to depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide. Parents and other caregivers must protect Black children from subtle messaging that their lives don’t matter. Such messaging can be more detrimental than fractured limbs and bruised faces as it’s hard to heal what one cannot see.
Many biased teachers are well meaning and would never intentionally mistreat a child. The teachers themselves are from all backgrounds and races. Nevertheless, teachers are humans—educated and socialized in the same racialized system. The empirical and epidemiological data are overwhelming. Black children often considered older and “less innocent” than their White peers. Relative to White girls, Black girls are more harshly disciplined in schools. Black preschoolers are twice as likely to be suspended from school as White preschoolers. Until these statistics change, parents must be increasingly cautious about the childcare and educational settings in which children are entrusted.
Parents must question patterns of suspicious or overly punitive disciplinary practice. It is difficult, if not impossible, to know when a child is being treated differently from other children if the parent is not in the classroom. However, there are usually “clues” available. Suspicious disciplinary practice might look like being called out/formally reprimanded on the second day of kindergarten for age-appropriate behavior. Suspicious behavior might look like your child saying that the teacher cannot pronounce her name correctly, more than a month after the school year has begun. Suspicious behavior could look like school suspension for a 4-year-old. Note also that the suspicious behaviors do not occur in isolation. There are usually multiple, seemingly innocuous, incidents.
It is important to be familiar with the school’s discipline protocol. Teachers and administrators should use appropriately progressive, increasingly firm strategies to correct behavior. If a typically well-mannered child is suspended from school because the adults in charge are not using discipline protocol, this is problematic. Still, keep in mind that the teacher may not have any mal-intent toward your child. S/he may be singling your child out because the child is perceived as having the capacity to “do better” given stricter expectations. Always, the first response should be to call a teacher conference to better understand the teacher’s perspective. If a second conference is warranted, express your concerns that your child’s interest in school could be impacted long-term if s/he suspects unfair treatment. In your teacher/principal conference, cite statistics regarding disproportionate punishment of Black youth and how zero-tolerance policies impact children’s long-term outcomes.
I am writing as a researcher and scholar, well-versed in African American mental health, but I am also an African American mom who has experienced and heard far too many (common-place) stories of classroom mistreatment.
We want “the best” for our children, including the educational best. Sometimes that means putting sons and daughters in settings where they are “the only one.” At the same time, we cannot naively assume that educational advance supersedes psychological and emotional well-being. If a child is smart and well educated, but suffers emotional turmoil that prohibits him or her from reaching full potential, what has truly been accomplished? While many children are resilient, and you yourself may have survived a system that failed to reaffirm you, we can and must do better. Hoping that things will get better is not a strategy for protecting our children.
Dr. Rheeda Walker is a tenured Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Houston (UH). She is an expert in African American adult mental health and suicide science and has authored/co-authored more than 30 peer-reviewed papers. Her program of research to date has examined how stress and other psychological problems interact with cultural buffers such as religiosity and ethnic identity Her research efforts have been supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the University of Georgia Research Foundation, the Southern Illinois University Foundation and the South Carolina Research Foundation.