Through the Lens of Race: Racism as an Adverse Childhood Experience.
Written by Ahmad Jenkins
As a parent the way my children perceive and interpret the world around them is almost at the fore front of my mind. Everything from the media they take in, how they feel and approach their schoolwork as well as the pressures they face during their development within the home and society. This quarter I had the opportunity to explore a little deeper into Adverse Childhood Experiences. If you remember this from any of your PSYCH classes, we may commonly associate these with the worst-case scenario experiences children potentially face and the negative outcomes that come with them later in life.
Each stage of our lives is critical for us in our preparation for moving into the next stage. From infancy to maturity there are stages of life in which there are conflicts to be resolved to gain positive results. Where these crises aren’t resolved there are maladaptation or issues of malignancy that take form in the place of the positive. Not all children are affected by similar forms of adverse experiences in childhood, these types of experiences vary from child to child, and along a spectrum of varied socio-economic and cultural sources.
As a Black father, I began to reflect on what adverse experiences my children have endured or could possibly endure in a society that still sees them as threatening, even though they are very much, still children. Living in a child’s world of Roblox, Saturday Morning Cartoons (yes, we keep the myth alive in our home) and playing outdoors whenever the Pacific Northwest weather permits it.You wouldn't expect such an ominous thing as racism to affect their lives.
How and where do these negative experiences spring up despite any parent or caregiver’s best efforts to keep them at bay? Most fathers feel their number one responsibility (as a parent) to their children is to ensure they are safe and secure, have the majority of their needs met, leaving them to simply be children.
One question asked by the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) to parents’ springs to mind: To the best of your knowledge, has your child ever been treated or judged unfairly because of his or her race or ethnic group? For my younger children I can affirm as far as I know they haven’t. Yet, according to the NSCH 10% of Black, non-Hispanic children in the United States have experienced individual/interpersonal racism. We may be wondering, what does this form in Individual/interpersonal racism in the perspective of a child look like. It’s easy to define it as an adult. Discrimination at work and in society by both civil and law enforcement, systemic poverty and housing instability these and many other examples affect adults as well as the children in their families.
In Fear of Black Consciousness, Afro-Jewish philosopher and political thinker Lewis Gordon (2023) highlights the forms of invisibility that seeks to erase the humanity of marginalized people. He states, " Erasing the humanity of racialized peoples involves the production of invisibility. Although there are many kinds in the Euromodern world, five are particularly pertinent to our reflections: racial, indigenous, gendered, exoticized and epistemic" (Gordon, 2023). To be made invisible of your humanity has the purpose of rendering a person powerless, powerless to excel in school or the workplace, powerless to make an impact for social change, powerless to avoid physical harm or unjust incarceration. Within the same chapter Gordon also recounts his experience as an assistant professor at a large Midwestern university where he was one of 14 black faculty members out of 3,500. While most of the other black faculty parked close to where they taught and departed soon after they were off, Gordon actually took the time to walk around campus, greeting students and other staff. It wasn't long until complaints popped up in the student newspaper (no, not this one 😂) of 'objections to affirmative action, whether the white applicants could still find secure employment at the university and concerns over the deluge of recently hired black staff, which made some feel unsafe'.
Gordon's experiences may ring a sense of truth with Black and BIPOC adults who have had similar experiences, but it brings us back to my earlier reflection of what children may feel faced with their own experiences of discrimination, and subtle racism that they may or may not immediately recognize depending on their age. I was 11 or 12 when caring for my younger brother in our family car while my mother ran in to a shop to drop off an errand. As most babies do, my brother sensing mom wasn't there began to cry. It wasn't long, and almost seemed out of nowhere that a white man came close to the window and yelled at me to 'Shut that f****** baby up'. Some things you tend to forget from your childhood, especially once you cross the threshold of 40, but others are so impactful that it sits with you for years. While to others it may seem small and easily forgetful, something about that experience still sits with me. Would that man have still yelled and cursed at me where I a different color or ethnicity? Would he have made a funny face to make my brother smile and attempt to ease the crying? Perhaps not, but compassion for the young, we would like to think can have the power to move sane, and sober minded people to do such things. All I know is I've felt anger towards that nameless face yelling and cursing at me from the other side of a car window to this day. What of children that face micro aggressions at school, either from a class mate or teacher? Told they aren't good enough for no other reason than the color of their skin, the way they dress or style/texture of their hair? What anxiety, anger, frustration and confusion lies underneath the surface.
Gordon, L. R. (2023). Fear of Black Consciousness. Penguin Books Ltd.