Insider Insight: Emotional Strength & Social Savvy
Janie Victoria Ward’s research highlights the importance of resisting stereotypes, bias and peer pressure for African-American families. It also sheds light on effective strategies these families have used to do that. Ward suggests that these techniques are equally relevant for all families, whether it’s in recognizing and resisting the clique mentality that comes with middle school, peer pressure to take dangerous risks, or the myriad stereotypes that pervade our culture.

By Betsy Weaver, Ed.D.

What All Kids Can Learn from African-American Youths About Resisting Stereotypes and Peer Pressure

Peer pressure is a powerful force on children in our society. Conforming to the expectations of friends and classmates can be paramount, including specific ideals of how one should act based on gender, ethnicity and race. As parents, we know that our kids need to be taught from an early age how to resist stereotypes when defining themselves and others. But how do we do this?

Recent research has revealed a strong model of this kind of positive resistance: African-American families. In studying how African-Americans help their children thrive in our society, author, researcher and educator Janie Victoria Ward, Ed.D., learned about resistance and how we can all help our children defy cultural stereotypes, prejudice, gender bias and peer pressure. 

Lessons Learned from African-American Youth

Sometimes children who are achievers in math or science don’t want to be placed in the top academic group or honors class. This is particularly true for children of color, says Ward, the author of The Skin We’re In: Teaching Our Teens to Be Emotionally Strong, Socially Smart and Spiritually Connected.

Why would these kids pass up a chance to excel? Often it’s because they don’t want to be singled out, and in classrooms where they are one of a few or the only person of color, they are more likely to be noticed, she says. They reason: “If I go into that math class, I’ll be the only black kid and I don’t want to be isolated. Someone – a teacher or student – will bug me about being there.” So some stay away, and others are able to stand alone and bear what these experiences can bring.

“The parents of these children know they need to inspire a sense of resistance,” Ward explains. “Reading and reacting to these situations from a different perspective and having the courage to stick with something, even in the face of being the only one, ultimately brings kids joy.”

For the past decade, Ward has looked at the complex and often contradictory roles that race and gender play in the development of African-American adolescents. She is currently serving as the director of the Alliance on Gender, Culture and School Practice at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. In this capacity, she has been exploring how children of color learn to resist the harmful effects of racism and identifying specific skills that promote positive social development and   psychological health.

“It is vitally important for all of our kids, black and white, male and female, to learn to resist cultural stereotypes and the pressure to conform,” Ward says. “Every family has the necessary tools, they just need a bit of sharpening.”

These tools include social awareness and the ability to think critically about observations and ‘read’ a situation from different perspectives in order to react in ways that are thoughtful, creative and socially smart, Ward explains. “These – along with self-love, pride and respect for one’s culture and traditions, knowledge of the past and a strong faith in the future – are essential elements in raising resisters,” she says.

A good example of how children of color have learned to resist in a positive way is evident in their attitudes about body image, she says. In general, African-American girls don’t tend to be as hung up on body image as their white peers. Ward notes that black girls read the American fashion landscape with a keen eye and realize that they are not going to be white, skinny and blond – the norm of the beauty industry. So they   learn to reject these images and the narrow definitions of beauty that exclude them. This helps to explain why there’s a lower incidence of anorexia among African-American girls, she says.

Ward began her research by talking with adolescent girls and boys and their parents. While she was not looking for resistance skills and strategies in particular, it became clear to her that the ability to resist was a key   factor in raising black children to be psychologically strong and socially smart.

“I noticed with the African-American kids that they were well-anchored in the notion of resistances,” Ward says. “Despite the social advances made since the Civil Rights era, black kids today must not forget that they are   growing up in a culture that continues to diminish and devalue who they are. African-Americans are bombarded with negative images in the media, with black- and brown-skinned people too often portrayed in   a negative light.   Part of the parenting agenda for parents of color is teaching their children how to read and interpret these questionable images so they can resist internalizing the messages they convey.   

What Is Resistance?

Resistance, or reading the social world, brings a critical analysis to what you see and hear, Ward explains. Sometimes this requires disbelieving the dominant perspective of peers and media, and instead creating your own experience.

“In order to effectively resist,” she says, “kids have to adopt and apply a social critique. We’d like to think schools are teaching these critical thinking skills,   but often they are not. An important element of resistance is being able to think outside the social box.

Learning to Resist

The stories Ward heard from the African-American families she talked with taught her how to use resistance to bolster children’s self-esteem and   help them stand up to the forces of racism, gender bias and peer pressure. There are four parts to effective resistance, she says:

• Read it. For example, we can teach our children to consume mainstream fashion magazines and other media with a critical eye. Engage them in conversation about what they see by asking, “What body types are represented? What types are missing? Why do you think they all look the same? If you don’t look like these people, what might the marketers and the media be trying to make you think about who you are and what you look like?”

• Name it. Sometimes when children read a situation, they decide there is something fundamentally wrong and unfair. Determining what is and what isn’t racial or gender bias, for example, and calling it what it is, is the next important step. Parents can help kids develop criteria that, when applied appropriately, allows them to “name it” accurately.

Ward has found that children who explain away these destructive forces end up particularly vulnerable to them. On the other hand, children who go to the other extreme, naming everything as “racism” or “sexism,” are equally vulnerable to pent-up anger and despair.

• Oppose it. There are many strategies children can develop to circumvent and overcome those negative forces. For example, “self-talk,” an internal conversation, can be used to challenge the negative ideas you hear and replace them with more positive, self-affirming ones. On another level, children can take personal action by confronting a situation directly (speaking up) or more indirectly (writing a letter expressing their discontent). A third example involves collective, social action – such as organizing a campaign or joining a group designed to address the issue or concern.

There are multiple ways to oppose bias and stereotypes that are appropriate across age levels. “I’ve seen great success when older kids mentor younger ones,” Ward says.

The bottom line is to talk to kids about who they are, what they see and what the possibilities are, she adds. “This gets them started and gives them alternative models – arming them to see things clearly and ask themselves, ‘How important is this battle? Can I let this one go?’”

This is a valuable learning tool, which young teens will need to   handle the next situation, Ward says. Knowing that they can – and should – resist negative attacks on their race and gender, and knowing that they have the power to fight back in healthy, thoughtful and effective ways helps them feel strong and empowered.

• Replace it. Consciously opposing negative peer pressure, racism and sexism requires energy. And energy gets depleted, so both parents and children need a means of refueling – a way to replenish that “warrior spirit,” Ward says. Parents can help their children do this by creating a safe environment and finding places that support the family’s values and strengthen this type of resistance.

Knowing your cultural history of resistance can help, too. Sharing information about cultural heritage develops a sense of family and personal pride.

“In my work with African-American youth,” Ward says, “the role of spirituality can be an important element in refueling. Feeling connected to a greater power is helpful for these youths. At church, kids hear strong lessons of right, wrong and resistance. In African-American religious traditions, the act of praying means being able to sit still and listen to your own voice, as well as other voices and other stories.”

Many black parents say they introduced their children to the messages of the church to replace damaging messages with positive, spiritual ideas.

Music can also be a refueling station, Ward adds. “African-American spirituals are infused   with messages of overcoming obstacles. Learning to love oneself: ‘keep up the good fight, you will prevail.’”

People raised in this tradition have learned   the skill of filtering the unrelenting, noxious stimuli that surround parents and children alike.

This work is for all of us, regardless of race, gender or religion, Ward says. “We all need to develop the skill to recognize the ‘-isms,’ the undue pressure and stereotypes. Deconstruct these negative ideas. Know that it’s OK to name them in order to oppose them. All children need to know how far they have come and that they should feel empowered to pave the way to the future, particularly in a society that doesn’t always offer this support.”