Ask Lisa Advice: Living While Black Makes an Anxious Kid

In this month’s column, I advise a White mother whose Black/White/Biracial son is struggling with anxiety linked to Whites calling the police on people who are simply “Living While Black.”

Dear Lisa

My ten-year-old son seems to be suffering a lot since the recent calls to the police that White Americans are making about Black Americans who are doing nothing out of the ordinary besides LIVING WHILE BLACK. It even happened to a boy his own age. A White woman in her fifties called the cops claiming a boy had sexually assaulted her! My son is now afraid to go anywhere without me, and when we do go anywhere together, he constantly looks around him and APOLOGIZES if he so much as stands near a White person. It is heartbreaking.

What I should mention is that I—unfortunately—am White. A White woman like all the White women who keep calling the police unnecessarily on innocent Black people. My ex is Black and our son looks more like him than me, so people often do not think I am his mom. Instead, people often think he is alone until I take his hand.

Every time one of these incidents happens, I wind up writing letters to the editor of our local paper, going to protests, writing to elected officials and generally making a stink about these horrible entitled people. I tell my son to hold his head high and be proud of who he is, but my ex tells him the opposite! My ex says, keep your head down and don’t make a wave and stay out of trouble. I am afraid my ex is giving our son the message that he is the problem and that his Blackness is something to be censored.

My ex tells me I don’t understand because of my White privilege. I get that. I can’t fully understand and I maybe I am overcompensating for the fact that I LOOK LIKE THOSE WOMEN. Still, why am I the one telling our boy to be proud?

And, how do I build confidence in our son when the world keeps shaming people who look like him?


Disgusted with people who look like me.

Dear Disgusted:

As a fellow mom of a brown son, I know that you must be livid on your boy’s behalf, especially in light of the incident in Brooklyn, where a nine-year-old boy was accused of sexual assault when his backpack grazed a White woman’s hip.

I am hearing loudly and clearly your rage at these women, along with your shame and frustration that you might be categorized with them. Since you can’t erase your own Whiteness, since you can’t wear a big T-shirt with the words “I’m Not Like Those Other White Women,” I recommend that you keep doing what you’re doing: standing up and speaking out against these assaults on the dignity of people of color.

Next, I want to address your beef with your ex. I can completely understand your frustration with him as well. It sounds as if you are looking to him—as the parent who isn’t White—to take the lead and teach your son to be a strong Black man in this world. However, while this is your ex’s job, it is also his job to teach your son how to survive—that is, literally, stay alive—in this world as a Black-presenting male. And he is right: this is something you, as a White woman, have never had to face.

Though I don’t know your ex, I do know Black men who are inclined more than ever to “keep their heads down,” to avoid “making waves” and to steer clear of any kind of confrontation with White people (which could lead to a confrontation with the police). It is a choice that people of color must make every day: to take a risk and speak out against racism or swallow one’s pride and explain away these injustices.

Your ex, for whatever reason, seems to be advising your son to do the latter. Unfortunately, it sounds as if you have a sweet, sensitive child who would rather absorb hostility than fight against it. I have never met your son either, but I wonder if he is a people pleaser, a favorite of parents and teachers alike. It is not uncommon for Biracial preteens to believe that they can escape racism by being perfect, model citizens—never getting angry, never offending anyone. If this describes your son, it’s important to provide an alternative message to the one offered by your ex.

Reinforce daily: “You have nothing to apologize for. You have every right to be in the world wherever you are and wherever you need to be. You have as much value as anyone else.” Surround your son with strong Black role models, family members who are proud of who they are and who he is. Watch “Black Panther” with him, and read books where Black protagonists take on challenges and stand up for themselves without apology. Explain that only racists are to blame for racism. Of course, he is Biracial, Black and White, but in my response, I am addressing the challenges of Living While Black since that is what you have raised.

That said, being Biracial may complicate your son’s ability to make sense of all this. I would limit the lashing out at White people right now. I understand where you are coming from, but it may be confusing to him since you are White, and as far as he is concerned, he has half your White heritage. On the other hand, it is okay to let him know how much it hurts you to see these things happen.

I wonder if he is voicing all his fears to you, or whether he is censoring his feelings to protect you. As hard as this may be to hear (read), if your boy is apologizing for himself around other White adults, he may become cautious around you as well. Ironically, you are angry on his behalf, but he may worry about upsetting you and hesitate to share his feelings. The best thing to do is to keep talking, keep listening and let him know that he can tell you anything, even if he’s afraid of hurting you.

Connect with other parents of Black and Biracial boys—parents of color as well as White parents. Compare notes. Seek one another’s advice and support. Reach out to your son’s school as well. Find out from the guidance counselor how and if these “Living While Black” scenarios are being addressed. It is my guess that anxiety among young children of color is on the rise right now as a result of these incidents. Guidance counselors and school social workers must be aware and prepared to address the spike.

Lastly, if you are concerned about his level of anxiety and shame, I would look for a therapist in your area who is experienced with children of color and anxiety and, who is willing to discuss the current Living While Black events, and the cultural environment that has given rise to them.

Best Wishes

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Published on: November 13, 2018

Filed Under: Advice

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