Children who experience trauma are likely to feel the impact of those experiences well into adulthood, if not properly addressed. When that trauma is related to the color of their skin or racial makeup, it is particularly stressful.
In the second of a two-part conversation, Dr. Anu Partap, medical director for the Center for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, and Dr. Kia Carter, medical director of psychiatry – both of Cook Children’s Medical Center – share their thoughts about raising minority children.
Let’s talk about your personal experiences as minorities and mothers.
Dr. Partap: I grew up in a town where there were two Indians in my entire elementary school. There were four of us out of 1,500 high schoolers. So, I was always very aware that I looked different. And not just looked different, but ate differently, had different holidays, all those things. I experienced what I would now call racism, but at the time, I didn’t understand it that way. I still had friends, opportunities, etc., so I just sort of accepted that non-Indians would likely notice that I was different and sometimes that was neat and other times it meant hearing negative and hurtful things about me or my family. So as a mom, I’ve probably gone to great lengths to try to minimize those experiences for my girls.
Dr. Carter: I attended a HBCU for undergraduate studies and then went to medical school and residency training at a non-HBCU academic setting which helped me have a very diverse educational and training experience. I grew up in a lower middle-class area and attended places that I definitely did not always feel accepted. So, I am definitely aware of racial issues and the way I was raised has shaped how I handle those situations. Just being raised in a minority background, parents ingrain certain things regarding race and ethnicity in you as a child and that kind of stays with you, you bring it into your own life as you grow up. So, now I am very cautious about how I approach things with my own child so that I don’t persuade or sway her views about race and ethnicity or make it uncomfortable to talk about.
How has that impacted how you raised your own children?
Dr. Carter: I am purposeful when I do things with my daughter to make sure that what we do is diversified. I am very thoughtful when I think about what activities she does, where she attends school and where she participates in extracurricular activities. I want to make sure she has a well-rounded experience in her life and experiences interacting with people of all races and socio-economic backgrounds. I think this is super important and it teaches her what real life is like outside of our home.
Dr. Partap: When we had children, we actually picked our town based on how diverse it was across ethnicities and also because there were so many other people that “looked like us” For the first time, I wasn’t stared at everywhere I went and constantly asked where I was from. It’s a tough balance but one we have stayed committed to finding. I want my children to stay proud of their Indian and rural-middle America heritage, grow up surrounded by racial and ethnic diversity and still be ready for people who may not be accepting of their background.
How do you talk to your children about racial issues to prevent their experiencing trauma?
Dr. Carter: I think I’m just a little bit cautious in how I ask my daughter questions, because I don’t want to put anything in her head that may not already be there. I do ask a lot of questions, but I try to be careful in the way that I approach her, so that she doesn’t think something’s wrong. I want to make sure that it’s just normal talk and not have her think, “Oh, why are you asking me all those questions? Do you think my friends don’t like me?” I don’t want to make her concerned or hyper-vigilant when we speak about the topic of race and us being minorities but I do want to make sure that we can talk openly about race in case an incident does come up of concern regarding any type of racism towards her.
Dr. Partap: We have two girls, and their dad is White and I am Indian American. I routinely ask them questions related to their experience with being blended heritage. A common question I ask is similar to, “Anything confusing happen at school you want to talk about?” That kind of broad question opens the door to a lot of topics including race-related events involving any student. Sometimes I’m more direct if, for example, the subject at school is about culture. It’s not been an easy road even in a diverse, accepting town. My older daughter looks like her dad – light skin and hair, blue eyes. She has actually heard a lot of negative comments about Indians, and we have to talk those through. It may be that kids let their guard down because she “looks white.” At the same time, my younger daughter, who looks more “Indian” with darker skin, hair, and brown eyes, has rarely heard negative comments about Indians. Like Dr. Carter said, I don’t want to plant seeds of doubt, but I also want to be realistic – the negative attitudes may be there. It really goes back to how important it is for all parents to check in not just with our children’s experiences but also with our children’s attitudes towards other races and ethnicities.
As a community, how we can all play a role in supporting children, particularly children of color, to avoid racial trauma?
Dr. Carter: I think it’s important to prepare our schools, by teaching teachers more about being comfortable with talking about race, because that’s where most of our kids spend 80% of their time. Those topics need to start being addressed so that kids know it’s safe, and kids feel more comfortable talking about it. Then we need our pediatricians to be engaged, fostering the idea with kids that it’s normal to talk about your experiences and feelings, and that we can help you and support you only if we know something is making you uncomfortable.
Dr. Partap: There’s also this idea of implicit bias, and during Minority Health Month, maybe one neat thing would be for everyone to just pause and take an implicit bias self-assessment. We all have them. It’s hard to change our approach until we recognize our own biases. I think at a community level, it would be great if you are a parent who is a minority, to model how proud you are of who you are and how much you embrace your heritage. It’s very hard for children to feel great about their identity if they don’t see that in their parents. Then we have the dual role of shaping how our children view other races and ethnicities as well.
Dr. Carter: Mental health is scary for a lot of people, to get help and talk about. I think making sure organizations are aware that how you approach mental health and how they should make the environment as non-judgmental as possible for people seeking help will make a difference on how far they will go in receiving that help.
Dr. Partap: At some level, we have to accept that people have had experiences based on how they look that are negative. Sometimes those experiences leave a mark. Those scars are real and can affect how we engage and how we feel about ourselves and others. When we accept that racial trauma is a real experience, that’s when communities can be serious about healing together, with all parties doing their own part and looking at what we can do through our systems of care. Working side-by-side with the families that we want to better serve is key. Look around the table if you’re wanting to do something better and ask yourself if you have folks you need at the table.
Dr. Carter: Intentionality, I think, is the common theme here. Maybe what every parent needs to do – what we all need to do – is intentionally address the issues around racism and diversity, so that kids are ready to be proud of their own identities.