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Black Families Are Combating the Effects of Discrimination on Their Children Through Talks

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Black father (left) seated and speaking with Black son.

AUSTIN, Texas — Black parents in the U.S. who see others experience racial discrimination, such as news coverage involving violence against Black people, are more likely to talk with their children about race and discrimination, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have found. Such conversations between parents and their children have been shown to improve young people’s behavior and school outcomes.

Vicarious racial discrimination that leads to these conversations can be experienced in many different ways. Examples include watching news coverage of high-profile killings by police, such as those of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor; watching a video posted on social media of a Black person being mistreated; or seeing a friend, family member or stranger being called slurs in public.

“Approximately 70% of Black people in the U.S. report experiencing vicarious discrimination online,” said Fatima Varner, an assistant professor of human development and family sciences at UT Austin and an author of the paper. “It impacts the way mothers and fathers parent differently. We learned that the way mothers and fathers perceive their own racial identity – and the way they think the public regards them – also has an impact on how they parent their children.”

The study, led by Kate Holloway, a graduate student at UT Austin, appears this week in the journal Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. It surveyed 567 African American parents ages 26-78 who were parenting children ages 11-18. The majority of the parents were married.

Researchers call the process by which parents communicate to their children about race and racism racial socialization. Often it is linked to improved outcomes in school and behavior for children, as well as better psychological functioning in young people, for example, when parents talk to their children about positive aspects of their own ethnic group or read books about their culture and community together.

Typically, mothers had higher rates of racial socialization than fathers across the board, the new study found. But when fathers who indicated their racial identity was less central to who they are as a person experienced discrimination firsthand, their levels of racial socialization matched that of mothers.

“This tells us that some fathers may not attribute others’ discrimination experiences to their race and need that personal experience in order to step up efforts to counteract the effects of discrimination their children may face,” said Varner. “Meanwhile, mothers need only to see it happening around them.”

But among fathers who hold their race as a central part of their identity, as vicarious discrimination increased, so did their efforts around racial socialization. Mothers who hold their racial group in high personal regard also increased racial socialization when they experienced vicarious discrimination.

“We are learning that parents don’t have to be personally affected by something for it to have an impact on their children,” Varner said. “And in some cases, we can counteract those impacts with the right messaging. Talking with our children about the positive aspects of our racial identity is now more critical than ever.”

The research was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.