by Jean Rhodes and Cherrelle Jones (clinical psychology doctoral student, UMass Boston)
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and thousands of protestors gather in the streets day after day, we are viscerally witnessing the many ways that racism, and other systems of oppression, negatively impact the lives, the health, and the mental health of racial and ethnic minorities. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black and Latinx communities which have experienced death rates that are nearly double those of White communities. And in the midst of this ongoing global pandemic, Black people have continued to be the victims of racist attacks and killings at the hands of White supremacists and police.
Young people of color are grieving the losses of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and so many more. They are missing their friends, worried about loved ones, reeling from violent footage, and struggling to hold it together, often with far too little support from caring adults. Although COVID-19 appears to spare young people from the most serious health problems, many, and in particular Black youth, will bear the heaviest burdens of trauma and economic fallout.
And just when emotional support is most needed, school closings have cut off an essential lifeline for mental health care. A recent ACLU report highlighted the vital role of teachers, counselors, nurses, and social workers and other school staff as mentors to marginalized students. Indeed, such adults are typically the first line of defense for children who are struggling emotionally. Closures and social distancing have also isolated youth from the coaches, extended family members, youth program staff, volunteers, and other mentors who could help them reckon with the recent racially charged news and events.
Now is the time for caring adults to reach out and compensate for this lost support–and to actively connect.
Send messages of solidarity that acknowledge the injustices they are experiencing and, importantly, offer contexts to process the difficult times we are living through. Some youth may not want to or be ready to talk about these broader social justice issues; and White mentors, in particular, should avoid perfunctory one-way communications that may serve only to assuage their own guilt or anxiety. But when mentors approach youth with humility, openness, understanding, vulnerability, and validation, and youth are so inclined, well-timed conversations can provide a valuable context to process concerns. As one Georgia teacher advised, “I tell you this – the young faces I see on the news at night remind me of my students – I recognize those same questions and those same frustrations. But what is missing is a sense of refuge, of understanding and validation.”
Unfortunately, well-intentioned adults are often advised against (or have instinctively avoided) raising charged topics such as race and inequality with other people’s children. In many of the largest mentoring programs, where two-thirds of mentees are non-white (most of whom are Black) and the majority of volunteers are white, volunteers may struggle to broach issues of injustice.
Yet avoiding these conversations right now may actually signal tacit acceptance of social injustice and inadvertently communicate that this is “just the way things are.” When racial and economic inequality are givens, marginalized youth may internalize the norms and standards of those who hold power and blame themselves or their communities for failing to succeed.
One 2017 study found that racially and economically marginalized 6th graders who endorsed the myth of meritocracy – that hard work and perseverance naturally lead to success – became more deviant, had lower self-esteem and behavioral problems by the time they were 8th graders. The negative effects of holding beliefs that justify the status quo continue through late adolescence and into early adulthood. If children in minority groups believe that the systems in which they exist are fair, they may come to believe that they deserve their disadvantaged place and are to blame for their obstacles and setbacks.
By avoiding painful or difficult topics, caring adults may actually be reinforcing these system justifying ideologies. What’s more, considerations of social and economic systems of inequality are often reduced to conversations about developing the necessary strengths, competencies, and “grit” to overcome challenges. This inadvertently blames young people who struggle to cope with or overcome their circumstances–or even imply that such struggles are good for them.
UCLA Education Professor Mike Rose put it well when he wrote: “Can you imagine the outcry if, let’s say, an old toxic dump was discovered near Scarsdale or Beverly Hills and the National Institutes of Health undertook a program to teach kids strategies to lessen the effects of the toxins but didn’t do anything to address the toxic dump itself?”
Teaching strategies to lessen the effects of toxins without addressing and removing the toxic dump is like teaching strategies to lessen the effects of poverty and racism without addressing and removing the conditions that give rise to them. Although caring adults may not be able to redress the conditions, they can certainly acknowledge and consider historical and political background of systemic injustices that gave rise to them.
In some cases, and where appropriate, conversations can lead caring adults to engage in activism and take action either on behalf of or with youth of color. This builds critical consciousness and helps to nurture new leaders. Conversations, understanding, and activism will enable caring adults and youth to grow together, to challenge dominant narratives and tacit acceptance, and to fuel a collective passion for racial justice.