Despite our Fear: How We Can Raise Confident, Brilliant Black Children in America

by Akilah S. Richards All parents need to be visionaries when it comes to our children’s futures. Parenting carries no illusion of certa...

by Akilah S. Richards


All parents need to be visionaries when it comes to our children’s futures. Parenting carries no illusion of certainty, so we all get the same mini “playbook” with instructions to pay attention, prioritize love, set a good example, be compassionate, and hope this shit works out.

Parenting has little to do with precise details, and everything to do with a commitment to “The Big Picture,” the visionary goal of raising healthy, happy, emotionally well adults. That is a complex path to walk for anyone raising people today. But for parents of Black children living in America, that visionary path is riddled with potholes from a history of social, governmental, and institutionalized racism against people with our babies’ complexions.

Like all parents, Black parents hope the universal wish for any child they love: confidence, comfort, and the freedom to succeed in whatever brings them joy. And we don’t just hope this for our children, we attempt—like all parents—to ensure it happens. We do this by providing them with the leadership, guidance, and resources we believe will help them to thrive in life, and to ultimately be comfortable walking around as themselves in the world.

But Black parents know the confidence and strong sense of autonomy that we work toward as we raise our children can be difficult to impart when our race puts our children at risk. Rebecca John perfectly captures the sentiment on the importance of race as part of an identity lens in her must-read article on Everyday Feminism:
Race matters not only because it is important to us on a personal level, but because it is still unabatedly justification for injustice and the dominant structure that shapes our racist society.

The Need for Autonomy vs. The Real Fear for Safety

This article, in many ways, is a response piece to my article about respecting children’s autonomy while still giving them the guidance they need. In that piece, my assertion was that a strong sense of confidence and comfort in making choices in accordance with their own desires—also called autonomy—is a critical life skill for our children to begin to understand and embody.

I addressed three ways parents could stop stifling their children’s self-expression and instead allow them to practice experiencing and working through their emotional spectrum within the safety of their home. I addressed the importance of helping our children see the effects of their own behaviors, and exploring the world through their own lens, instead of holding on to rigid ideas of what children should and should not be.

I was floored by the number of adults who felt the way I felt, and who were raising children who had the privilege of expressing themselves and experiencing respect at the hands of the adults in their homes. As I read through the dozens of comments on the Facebook post about the article, I came across the comments of two women who expressed concern for an important lens through which nothing in my article seemed to have been viewed.

The two comments where from mothers raising Black children, just like me. They raised the perspective that autonomy for children had to be managed differently for parents of Black children because of how our children are viewed and treated outside our homes. These mothers were speaking to the facts that Black girls in school are punished at exponentially greater and harsher rates than their white peers, and black boys are more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime. Essentially, their assertion was that Black children have to be made aware that they are not afforded the same luxuries of overt dissent or the expectation of equal treatment (both aspects of autonomy) as their white peers.

This is the belly of the challenge we face as parents of black children: How to help our children manage the reality of racism without compromising the important goal of confidence in autonomy.

So many questions, such multi-layered answers. This warrants ongoing dialogue and a willingness to push against the dominant structure. And as we undertake that task with confidence, courage, and healthy doses of fear, I offer these three suggestions on how to manage this visionary path for Black children.

The Potential Caveat of Autonomy for Black Children

Autonomy, again, is about the strong sense of confidence and comfort in making choices in accordance with their own desires. Opportunities to learn and practice autonomy are plentiful when children are among their peers, on playgrounds, in classrooms, and in other group settings. This is where children socialize and become more consciously aware of their environment and of themselves within it.

They witness reactions and interact with varying personalities. They see how other children are like and unlike them. They establish preferences and display tendencies. Our children begin to discover the world around them, and we in turn, discover our children as they unfold. Being able to communicate their needs becomes more important because their needs are shifting as their perspectives expand. How they see the world and how the world treats them are part of what shapes children. Certainly, their self-expression and sense of identity are influenced by their experiences.

But parents of black children do not have the luxury of a margin for error and the freedom to self-express. As parents, having a broader view of the institutionalized aspect of racism warrants concern for the safety of our children. This is because our children must exist and express themselves inside a culture that consistently exhibits a lack of regard for, and an ignorance-based fear of, Black people.

This begs the question of whether it is safe to raise our children to be confident and self-aware, or will that invite more chances for them to be unfairly targeted and harmed by the social or legal arms of a racist dominant structure?

Confident Autonomy Is Not The Issue

Confidence does not invite conflict any more than race causes racism. To fear our children’s safety within a racist dominant structure is natural, and also wise. But that fear cannot cause us to lose sight of the reality that how things have been is not automatically how they will always be. And if our children are not willing to affect change by speaking up on their own behalf and refusing to fall in line and live with the priority of avoiding conflict, then nothing will change. And they will not evolve into a place of better understanding and the necessary building of new structures that operate independently of the long-standing racist ones on which we rely.

Harsher punishments for minor misconduct, a significantly higher percentage of in-school arrests, and all the other factors that comprise the school-to-prison pipeline among other significant proof of structural inequality make it critical that parents of Black children in America prepare their children for that reality.

What We Can Do For Our Children Today + What they Can Do For Themselves

For starters…
  1. We make sure they know their rights and how to deal with specific legal situations.
  2. We give our girls examples of how to rise up against toxic messages. 
  3. We brace ourselves and tell them the reality that killing black children is an American tradition.
  4. We remind our girls that their hair is a source of pride, not shame.
  5. We support our sons’ rights to define and embrace their sexuality.
  6. We discuss the implications of black women being the fastest growing group of people being incarcerated in America.
  7. We educate them about the common, racially driven microagressions against black women in the workplace.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor is it intended to summarize the experiences of Black children and their parents in America. It’s a starting point, though, and it offers plenty of room for exploration within each of these items, all of which segue into the myriad other issues black people must deal with in America.

Trusting a Future We Cannot Visualize

Perhaps our foremothers and forefathers of the 1700s and 1800s could not have fathomed the Civil Rights Movement. Can we fathom what the world will be like 50 years from now? Our children deserve to experience confident self-direction, a sense of community, and a willingness to risk expression. That can guide change in ways we as adults—with both the benefit and baggage of our past—may not be able to see.
We cannot protect them by cautioning them against fully shining. We must strategize, and we must organize, and we must communicate our needs and prioritize our communities. We must not try to stay under the radar because it might be safer. History itself shows us that black children are targeted in America not because of what they say or do, but because of the fact that they are black. Give them the full story, show them examples of the reality in which we live. Help them develop into people who will be themselves with an understanding of what it might take to safely navigate this terrain while it is still so adamantly against the progress and power of black people.

Photo: Shutterstock

Akilah S. Richards writes passionately about self-expression, womanhood, modern feminism, location independence and the unschooling lifestyle. She is a storyteller who believes in the power of expressed personal narrative and deep self-acceptance as tools for authentic self-expression and community enrichment. Visit her website at www.akilahsrichards.com

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