Never fade away: The childhood scars of racism
Text: Tory N. Parrish
Aliyah Scott had had enough — and so had her parents.
For an entire school year, 2016-2017, Aliyah was the target of bullies’ racist slurs and taunting at her middle school, said the girl, who was in an overwhelmingly white school district — where 61 black students comprised 1.6 percent of the entire student population — in a Pittsburgh suburb.
“Every time I went to school, I would be called a slave and the N-word,” said Aliyah, 13, whose mother is white and father is black.
Her grades slipped, she began seeing a therapist outside of school and she became withdrawn, said her mother, Jessica Scott, 35, a married mother of two daughters.
“At home she was sad, quiet, kind of almost in a shell. … She’s usually loud and laughing and doing something goofy and that was all gone,” Scott said.
Almost all black Americans, 98 percent, have experienced racial discrimination, which includes slurs, structural barriers and hostile social environments, according to a 2009 study in Pediatrics, the official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
But adverse childhood experiences, which are defined as potential traumatic experiences or events, including abuse, neglect or racism, can have long-lasting effects on children’s health and wellbeing — and the impacts can continue into adulthood, according to a 2018 report by Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization based in Bethesda, Md.
In fact, adverse childhood experiences are a critical public health issue, the report said.
And for black children, racism can take the form of identity threats, which are particularly detrimental in undermining the ability to feel safe in an environment, said Dr. Nzinga Harrison, a psychiatrist in the Atlanta area.
“Because you carry your blackness with you everywhere you go, when children are exposed to racism, it’s like a constant emotional safety assault,” said Harrison, who is also a clinical adjunct faculty member at the Morehouse College School of Medicine.
The current political environment is spurring more public acts of hate by emboldening racists to act on behavior that they might have kept behind closed doors before the 2016 presidential election, say many, including Harrison, who say the climate has been fueled by President Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric.
They cite the following examples:
Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015 by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” who were bringing crime and drugs to the U.S.
He campaigned on a promise to make Mexico pay for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to keep illegal immigrants out, and led rousing chants of “build that wall” among angry supporters at his campaign stops.
He signed an executive order banning citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. in 2017.
The president repeatedly criticized black NFL players, including by using the term “son of a bitch,” for the athletes kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and racial discrimination from 2016 to 2018.
Trump also has been criticized for being slow in denouncing white supremacists who support him, and saying that there were “fine people on both sides” after counter-protesters clashed with white nationalists and neo-Nazis in a deadly protest in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017.
So, children are seeing more scenes of racism now than youngsters in recent generations saw — the images are hit with sunlight from social media and viral videos taken on cell phones.
Racism “is not brand new. It’s just been made acceptable for it to be expressed,” Harrison said.
And children are bombarded with viral videos of white people calling police on black people for everyday activities, such as barbecuing in a park or golfing-- but allegedly too slowly, or confronting Latino people for speaking Spanish in public.
“So, our kids are steeped in media just like we are. You can see those behaviors carrying over into … elementary school. You see videos of young kids traumatizing Hispanic-looking kids chanting ‘Build the wall.’ You see Muslim kids getting denigrated at school,” Harrison said.
Furthermore, a recent study found a link between voter preference for Trump and bullying in Virginia middle schools in spring 2017.
Student reports of their peers being teased or insulted because of their race were 9 percent higher in localities favoring the Republican over Democrat Hillary Clinton, according to the study, which was published in January in the Educational Researcher, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.
The political climate was a factor in the bullying in Aliyah’s former school, her mother said.
“The kids would come to school and talk about Trump and how much they loved him. I think there was fuel to the fire, absolutely,” Scott said.
Several factors play into how well children cope with and address their experiences with racism, experts said.
One of those is whether children have a strong sense of ethnic-racial identity, which is a significant buffer against the negative effects of discrimination, according to a 2018 study from the University of California, Riverside.
Children’s experiences of discrimination are more likely to lead to internalized and externalized behavioral problems, such as anxiety, depression and defiance, when they have below average ethnic-racial identities.
Jessica Scott spent a year going to and calling officials in Aliyah’s former school, but the child’s problems continued, she said.
Not only did she not get help, but her daughter was accused of being a bully, Scott said. Out of a group of about 10 girls who formed a club against another girl who was bullying them, Aliyah was the only one who was suspended – and she was the only black girl in the club, Scott said.
She and her husband sold their house and moved to a different county in the Pittsburgh metro area — with a different school district — in the summer of 2017 because of the problems at the middle school, Jessica Scott said.
Things are better now.
Aliyah, now an eighth-grader, has friends, plays basketball and is making the honor roll, her mother said.
One reason is that the teen’s current school district, Canon-McMillan in Washington County, about 25 miles south of Pittsburgh, has a student body that is a little more diverse than her previous district, Aliyah and her mother said.
The Canon-McMillan School District’s 222 black students made up 4.2 percent of the district’s total student population in the 2017-18 school year, according to the most recent enrollment data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
The Scotts hired an attorney and filed an education discrimination complaint against Aliyah’s former school district with the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission in 2017.
Ourselves Black granted the request of the Scotts’ Murrysville, Pa.-based attorney, Jennifer Price, not to disclose the name of Aliyah’s former school district in this story because the case is still pending with the commission.
Unless there is a public hearing, the case will remain confidential, so the commission cannot confirm or deny the existence of the Scotts’ complaint against the school district, agency spokeswoman Renee Martin said.
The school district did not respond to Ourselves Black’s request for comment.
Read this blog entry to learn tips on helping children deal with racism.