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Is Your Teen Racially And Culturally Comfortable At School?

September 17, 2019

September 17, 2019

This is a first in “Raising Resilient Kids” series – a partnership with the RESilience Initiative of the American Psychological Association. Each article features science-informed tips and resources for African American parents on how to build resilience in our kids.

Empirical studies and popular media show clear evidence for the presence of racial bias and discrimination in schools. As a psychologist and researcher who studies how to help youth manage and cope with racial discrimination, this trend is disheartening. Unfortunately, it is not surprising given the racial history in America along with the ongoing policies, hate crimes, racial mistreatment, and verbal statements made by American politicians and fellow civilians alike.

Many researchers agree that students, parents, and teachers comprise “the magic triangle of relationships” that determine a student’s trajectory to school success2. We often discuss school success in terms of your teenager’s ability to navigate academic milestones or extracurriculars. However, chances are high that there is little to no discussion in schools about how your teens are adjusting racially or whether they are having any problems related to race or culture. These problems include feeling isolated based on race or culture, racial teasing or bullying, or racial disparities in discipline.

“Many researchers agree that students, parents, and teachers comprise “the magic triangle of relationships” that determine a student’s trajectory to school success.”

Adolescence, the transition between childhood and adulthood, includes many changes. Universal changes include physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development. Along with these is a heightened sensitively to social differences and a desire for acceptance. Black youth also begin to show increased awareness and understanding of race and bias at this stage1. Together, these things influence the way Black teenagers relate to the world and how your teens develop their racial identity, which is salient during the developmental period of adolescence.

Your teenagers growing desire for independence and unique identity may make them hesitant to share racial concerns with you. This can be a large barrier to your awareness of how your teen is adjusting racially or culturally within their school. This also means that your teen may resist your involvement in school. These desires are normal, especially in late adolescence. However, you can support your teen’s racial adjustment in school by applying a “magic triangle” approach.

Talk to your teen and provide guidance on how they can respond to racial bias in school

Some teens may be reluctant to start conversations about race and bias in their school with their parents, so you may have to bring it up.

  • Ask your teens directly if they or their friends have had a bad or upsetting experience at school because of their race, skin color, hair texture, or culture.
  • Inquire about how comfortable they are at school racially and culturally.
  • Equip your teen with the ability to anticipate, process, and respond to racially stressful encounters3 inside and outside of school. You can talk to your child about different forms of bias that could occur, help them to reframe the experience as external to them and provide reassurance that what was said or what happened does not define them.
  • Give examples of how they could respond within the school context.
  • Racial comebacks to peers. For example, if someone is making fun of their Black characteristics (e.g., hair, skin), your teen can be prepared to dismiss that person’s comment by mentioning a leader, activist, or entertainers that your teen admires who share those characteristics with them.
  • Wait and talk to you for support if they feel disempowered.
  • Discuss with a safe and pre-identified staff member or the school counselor.

Help your teen build independent racial problem-solving skills

As teens seek independence it is important to provide your support and suggestions while also listening to your teen’s ideas about how to address racial bias and create a healthy racial climate at school. It is good for them to have friends and safe adults in the school that they can confide in about racial issues. However, you should also build trust with your teen and encourage them to talk to you about their concerns.

Brainstorm the best way to collaboratively address the issue from both of your perspectives. For example, although you may want to hold a meeting between you (parent), your teen, and a teacher who seems to be racially biased, your teen may suggest “getting the teacher in trouble” or being removed from the teacher’s classroom. These are all viable solutions but brainstorming and discussing the pros and cons of alternatives can help your teen to problem-solve racially biased and stressful situations. You can also teach them to be a change agent – suggest that they develop a student organization focused on addressing bias and discrimination or identify ways to celebrate racial and cultural diversity at their school.

Partner with the school to offer support in addressing racial problems and promoting a healthy racial climate 

Often teachers report that they want to talk about race with students but don’t know how to do so constructively. They also don’t know if parents would support such discussions. You can offer to lead a parent group to exchange ideas between parents and teachers about how to promote a healthy school racial climate. This can include parents sharing their ideas and perspectives about what the school and teachers do well to address racial issues in school and to promote positive racial socialization and racial identity.

Parents and teachers should also discuss specific improvements that the school can make. For example:

  • Tailor course material and readings to reflect and include racially diverse students and celebrate diverse races and cultures
  • Identify spaces (e.g., classes) and people (e.g., counselors) that students can safely go to have conversations about racially charged incidents that directly or indirectly impact them.

The triangle between you, your teen, and teachers can help to begin addressing racial bias at your teen’s school and help your teen to handle racially stressful encounters with your support (as needed). Finally, as you talk to your teen about racial bias at school, remember to provide positive messages in tandem about their culture and history to promote their pride, which can offset negative consequences of discrimination. Be creative in promoting racial pride and remind your teen that experiences with racial discrimination do not define them! Use songs, books, media, and stories that demonstrate the strength and resilience of Black folks in overcoming discrimination. One of my favorites to get the dialog started is Black is Beautiful (by Chronixx). He acknowledges that “Black is beautiful” is not the persistent narrative that youth always hear or feel, yet it is very important that they recognize and “hear about beautiful black things…”

Farzana Saleem, PhD

Dr. Farzana Saleem is a University of California Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Los Angeles California. She completed her doctorate in the Clinical-Community Psychology program at the George Washington University and completed a Child/ Adolescent Clinical Internship, with a specialization in trauma, at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles / University of Southern California.

Farzana’s research examines the impact of racial stress and trauma on the mental health of Black and Brown children and adolescents. She uses a strengths-based lens to understand protective factors against racial discrimination at the family and community levels. In particular, Farzana is interested in the benefits of parents’ and teachers’ ethnic-racial socialization. She also investigates how community and school processes, such as neighborhood cohesion and school racial climate, impact the effects of racial discrimination. Farzana is dedicated to eradicating racial disparities in mental health and promoting the health and well-being of marginalized and racially diverse youth, families, and communities.


Check out the APA Resilience Parent Resource Page


1Brown, C. S., & Bigler, R. S. (2005). Children’s perceptions of discrimination: A developmental model. Child Development, 76(3), 533-553. doi:10.1111/j.1467- 8624.2005.00862.x

2Redding, S. (2008). How parents and teachers view their school communities. Marriage & Family Review, 43(3/4), 269–288.

3Stevenson, H. C. (2014). Promoting racial literacy in schools: Differences that make a difference. New York: Teachers College Press.


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