By Audrey Murph-Brown, EdD, MSW, LCSW, and Kim Stevens, MEd
Audrey Murph-Brown intersects doctoral studies, clinical work, social justice, activism, and law enforcement along with experiences in elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education to power everything she does. Audrey holds a doctoral degree in education. Her dissertation chronicled the resilient processes of multiple-placed youth in foster care leading to emotional competency. A licensed clinical social worker, she also holds a master’s of social work and a bachelor of arts in sociology and criminology. She has leveraged her background to facilitate national workshops on a variety of topics for the National Educators Association and as a servant leader used her voice to address social justice issues. Contact Dr. Murph-Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kim is a program manager at NACAC, where she works on a number of projects that support children in foster, adoptive, guardianship, and kinship placements and their families. She and her husband Buddy have six children, four of whom were adopted from the public foster care system. Contact Kim at email@example.com.
Children of color are significantly over-represented in foster care and adoption. Those who are working with or parenting these children have an obligation to do all they can to address the racism that led to many children being in care and that will affect children all their lives. Transracial parents, service providers, educators, and others must lean into their personal discomfort and learn to have conversations about race and institutional racism, and work at becoming an anti-racist. Each of us must be committed to taking action on behalf of children of color to ensure not just their safety, but their well-being. For children in foster care and adoption, developing a strong and positive identity is an essential component of well-being.
Because we live in a racialized society where whiteness is the default setting, white experiences and values are often the lens through which white people view the world. Raising a child of color or working in an agency with children of color does not exempt white people from having implicit racist ideologies. This does not make you a bad person. But it does mean you must recognize this fact and be willing to shift that lens. It means you must be unflinching in your stance as an anti-racist.
When and How Do We Talk with Our Children About Race and Racism?
As caregiving adults, we are familiar with uncomfortable conversations with children. Who doesn’t have memories of the dreaded “talk” about sex? Not only was it awkward, but with all certainty it did not provide you with the knowledge, tools, and emotional maturity needed for your first intimate encounter. Our discussions with children about race, racism, and identity cannot mirror that talk. They must include strategies, tools, and historical context. They must be initiated by adults and be ongoing.
As an African American raised in my family of origin (Dr. Murph-Brown), the racial talk began from the cradle. Through verbal and non-verbal communication, I was prepared before I left the love and care of my home that I was a Black child living in a white world. Color was everywhere and nowhere. The reality that my color existed in my home and community, but was not reflected in the media or positively portrayed in the larger society was made clear every day. My family and village owned and was responsible for the conversation. Along the continuum of child development, conversations about race should be embedded in everyday discourse. (Beale Spencer, et al., 2006)
While white parents of Black and Brown children or workers supporting children of color must have these conversations, they can’t do the talks alone. You must invite and welcome Black and Brown teachers and mentors into your life—and your children’s lives—with intention and humility. Without the guidance of those who live it, you will not be able to do the job adequately.
White providers and parents must also understand and acknowledge white privilege and the manner in which whiteness affects their relationships and interactions with both their children and the world. Understand that children of color will not carry that privilege with them when they are away from the protection of the family. In many situations, their safety, and even their life, can be at stake without preparation and response strategies. Cultural mentors from your child’s community are in the best position to teach you and your child how your child can remain safe as a person of color in the world.
For families, include all family members—including white children—in these conversations to ensure that your child knows you are committed to anti-racism action and that this affects all of you. Ensure that all family members are also becoming educated and anti-racist, and minimize the potential for making your children of color feel even more different, more “othered” in their own family.
For staff working with children of color, be sure coworkers and others working with the child are engaged in the conversations too. It takes a village of committed, caring adults to help children embrace their identity and to fight racism.
Fight Your Own White Fragility
White providers and parents do not have the luxury of white fragility. Robin DiAngelo defines white fragility like this:
“White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as white fragility. White fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.” (DiAngelo, 2011)
One way that white people show their fragility is by denying that things are about race or by minimizing or making excuses for racist behavior or outcomes. This can be really harmful for children. When children come to you with reports of micro- and macro-aggressions, believe what they tell you and take action to correct the problem whenever you can.
The natural reaction of adults in the face of children’s hurt is to try to make it better. This is an approach that can actually hurt children more. You might be trying to help when you say, “You probably misread the situation—they are really good people.” or “I don’t think they meant it that way,” or “Maybe you didn’t hear it right,” or “Uncle Fred doesn’t really think that. It’s just a joke,” or “Shake it off. They aren’t worth the time to respond.” But you are giving children harmful messages:
- What you experience either isn’t real or doesn’t matter to me.
- You can’t trust your observations.
- You can’t trust your own feelings.
- You can’t trust me.
- You are alone in this.
- I don’t understand how you feel.
- I’m not standing with you and fighting racism.
Another way people protect their white fragility is by failing to engage in discussions about race, culture, and identity and by pretending that race doesn’t matter. The cost of protecting your white fragility through covert and overt activity is to lose an authentic connection with the child over their lifetime. And it can prevent your child from developing a healthy cultural identity. From birth to one’s last breath, race and ethnicity do not change; their identity will not change. You have to engage in learning and discussion and support who the child is. Having a healthy racial identity will propel your child into the world prepared to appropriately respond to racism. (Brown & Tylka, 2011)
Don’t Equate What You’ve Been Through with Your Child’s Experiences
We all have lived experiences that we have had to address and overcome. For example, providers and parents may have survived abuse, a history of family alcoholism, experienced poverty and want, struggled for acceptance, or moved through the world as differently abled. As impactful as these experiences are, they aren’t the same as racism. In addition, many of the above issues are not visibly manifested in most cases and so are not on display to the world for judgment. The color of one’s skin is.
If you equate your challenges with the child’s, you are again negating race and the destructive power of racism. And you can’t fight what you won’t acknowledge. In fact, children in foster care and adoption likely experienced some or all of the above challenges and, for them, adding the layer of racism will magnify every injustice.
Rather than assuming your experiences are the same as the children of color you are caring for (or comparing them), use them to build your compassion, understanding, and commitment to the hard work of being an anti-racist. Take what you have learned and how you wanted people to respond to you, to make you a more effective fighter against racism.
Leverage your strength, your resilience to create an environment, work ethic, and attitude that assures the children under your watch that you are battling racism and standing with them. They are watching and applying your lessons to themselves, and this will help them become strong capable adults.
The Assets Family Membership Affords Do Not Replace Other Needs
Have you ever heard, “We did not have much, but at least we had each other”? Family and a sense of belonging fortify our sense of worth, capability, and being part of something greater than ourselves. (Gary Hopps et al., 2002) Family is hugely important to a child, although for children in foster care and adoption it is of course complicated. The sense of belonging that supports those positive feelings has also been damaged by the child’s removal from their first family.
But family isn’t all that children need. In fact, there is a cost of providing a child a “better life,” if over time they lose their racial identity. (Gary Hopps, et al., 2002) Too often in child welfare when we make decisions about removing a child or placing a child in a particular family, we value material success over the sense of belonging to a family or community.
Federal child welfare policies mandate that we provide safety, permanency, and well-being for every child. Safety and permanency do not supersede well-being. Having a family—and all the tangible and intangible benefits that come with it—does not diminish the well-being that comes when we meet a child’s need for connection to and pride in their racial heritage. Parents and professionals have a moral and ethical responsibility to provide children with every opportunity to have a strong racial identity and connection to their roots.
Loving and being responsible for a child means we must be willing to move any and every obstacle that prevents their success. And racism is a huge barrier for Black and Brown children that parents and child welfare professionals must take on every day.
White parents and professionals must also learn to use white privilege as a tool—a tool to amplify the voice of Black and Brown children. We must give children the skills and environment that allow them to lead and succeed. We must teach them to have confidence and to trust in themselves. We must lean into difficult conversations and remain vigilantly anti-racist. Why? Because our children’s lives depend on it.
Beale Spencer, M., Harpalani, V., Cassidy, E., Jacobs, C. Y., Donde, S., Gross, T. Muñoz-Miller, M., Charles, N., & Wilson, S. (2006). Understanding vulnerability and resilience from a normative developmental perspective: Implications for racially and ethnically diverse youth. In D. Cicchetti & D. J. Cohen (Eds.), Developmental Psychopathology, Vol. 1: Theory and methods (2nd ed., pp. 627-672). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Brown, D., & Tylka, T. (2011). Racial discrimination and resilience in African American young adults: Examining racial socialization as a moderator. Journal of Black Psychology, Vol. 37 (3), 259-285. doi:10.1177/ 0095798410390689
DiAngelo, R. (2011). White fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol. 3 (3), 54–70.
Gary Hopps, J., Christler-Tourse, R.W., & Christian, O. (2002). From problems to personal resilience: Challenges and opportunities in practice with African American youth. Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work, Vol. 11, 55-77. doi:101300/J051v11n01_03