“There must exist a paradigm, a practical model for social change that includes an understanding of ways to transform consciousness that are linked to efforts to transform structures.”
― bell hooks, Killing Rage: Ending Racism
Whether exposed through direct lived experiences or vicariously through media, Black teens are attuned to the unjust structural forces operating in society, in their schools, and communities. Critical consciousness is recognizing and analyzing (or “reading”) systems of inequality and committing to take action to change social conditions. Brazilian educator and revolutionary, Paulo Freire, originally conceptualized the term when working with poor laborers. Freire believed that in order to change unjust systems, the people most affected by inequality must: 1) gain knowledge about social systems that are unjust; 2) feel a sense of efficacy about how to navigate and challenge these structures, and 3) take action to address this oppression.1,2
Why is Critical Consciousness Important For Your Teen?
Critical consciousness can be a gateway to positive development outcomes for Black youth. It’s likely no surprise to read that our young people fare better in school and society if they know how to analyze, navigate, and challenge racism and inequality. Recent studies have shown that Black youth with a critically conscious mindset are more resilient, do better in school, and are more politically and socially engaged citizens.3.4 For instance, youth who become frequent participants in social action are expected to be more politically engaged in the future and have shown to be more politically engaged as adults. 5
It’s important for Black youth to have an awareness of societal forces, like racism, that might be impacting their outcomes. If they have the ability to critically analyze societal structures and recognize the long history of racial inequity embedded in various institutions, Black youth may be less likely to blame themselves and more likely to be resilient and see themselves as engaged in a collective struggle for equity and social justice.
How Can Parents Help?
While peers and school experiences become more influential as youth transition into adolescence, parents continue to play a critical role in the lives of their teen. So, like Migos, the popular rap group with a large teen fan base, highlights in their song title and chorus lyrics, we should embrace a “walk it like I talk it” attitude. In this regard, parents need to intentionally walk it and talk it if they desire to facilitate their teen’s critical consciousness development and change our own communities from within; their outcomes may depend on it.
“Recent studies have shown that Black youth with a critically conscious mindset are more resilient, do better in school, and are more politically and socially engaged citizens.”
Talk It: What Can Parents Say?
A key ingredient to raising a critically conscious teen is fostering anti-oppressive thinking and dialogue. This involves a deeper understanding of structural and internalized oppression.
- Create space for healthy dialogue about self-identity and group identity. These conversations can include educating your child on how some identities may create unearned access and opportunities for some (e.g., white, affluent, straight youth) and barriers for others (e.g., Black, low-income, LGBTQ youth).
- Make sure your teen possesses the background knowledge and vocabulary necessary to conceptualize and critique social norms they encounter as Black children living in America.
- Critical background knowledge includes an understanding of groups that have been historically minoritized (those that have less power or representation compared to dominant group members in society) within our nation and within your specific community. Necessary vocabulary includes:
- Institutionalized Racism: Existence of policies and practices across various systems (e.g., housing, banking, education, criminal justice, public health) that provide differential access to goods, services and opportunities by race
- Interpersonal Racism: Unconscious or conscious behavior resulting in maltreatment of an individual due to racial bias
- Cultural Racism: Representations and messages conveying that behaviors and values associated with whiteness are “better” or “normal” as compared to those associated with other racial groups
- Privilege: A benefit, favor, or advantage that is enjoyed by members of a social dominant group, who did not acquire it through their own actions, often at the expense of others belonging to a non-dominant social group
- Oppression: Combination of prejudice and institutional power that creates a system that discriminates against a non-dominant social group and benefits members of a dominant social group
- Intersectionality: The interconnectedness of social categories such as race, class, gender, and sexuality, and the ways in which they create overlapping and independent systems of disadvantage
- Allow your teen to reflect on the external forces, such as systemic racism, that can be obstacles to their success.
- Help your teen to form their own opinions regarding sociopolitical issues and encourage democratic dialogue that may facilitate their sociopolitical awareness and agency. Opportunities can include watching local and national news programming with your teen and asking about their perspective regarding hot topics (e.g., “What are your thoughts about the presidential impeachment proceedings?”; “How do you feel about ‘stop-and-frisk’ policing practices?”; “What is the impact of redlining and gentrification on communities?”).
Walk It: What can parents do?
As parents, we know that our impact is not limited to our words. What teens see their parents do is also significant. The development of critical consciousness happens through dialogue, but anti-oppressive action is the necessary second step. There are many opportunities for your teen to see you, and work alongside you, as you engage in sociopolitical action.
“To be Black and conscious in America, is to be in a constant stage of rage.” – James Baldwin
The racism our teens are exposed to often results in feelings of anger, sadness, and frustration. During critical-consciousness-raising, we must work to encourage teens to channel their feelings into action against oppression.
- You and your teen can identify and join community organizations that address issues that “speak to you.” Through direct involvement, you and your child can learn how to work collectively within the community to achieve an objective that improves yourselves and the world around you.
- Show teens how to exert their power. For example, you and your teen may decide to sign an email petition about a social issue, participate in a protest or demonstration, or initiate a letter writing or social media hashtag campaign to bring about change.
There is an African proverb noting that “the best way to eat an elephant is piece by piece.” As you attempt to facilitate your teen’s critical consciousness, you may feel as though you have taken on an insurmountable task – “an elephant.” Nevertheless, by using a combination of “talking” and “walking” strategies, be confident that you are building your teens’ critical consciousness “piece by piece.” So, like the Migos’ charge, start today or continue to “walk it, talk it.”
Dr. Charity Brown Griffin is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Winston-Salem State University. She earned a B.A. in Psychology from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a M.A. and Ph.D. in School Psychology from the University of South Carolina. After completing her graduate training, Dr. Griffin served children and families through her practice as a Nationally Certified School Psychologist, and she is also Licensed as a Psychologist by the North Carolina Psychology Board. Dr. Griffin’s research program examines cultural and contextual factors that contribute to Black youths’ development. Her work integrates principles from multiple disciplines (school psychology; developmental psychology; education) to elucidate how Black youths’ experiences with race-related processes in schools and communities, influence educational and psychological outcomes. Her research on topics, including racial identity, racial socialization, racial discrimination, school racial climate, school engagement and gender-related processes, has been published in peer-reviewed journals such as Psychology in the Schools, Journal of Black Psychology, Journal of Child and Family Studies, Journal of Applied School Psychology, Sex Roles and others. Furthermore, she has received numerous awards and honors for her work including the 2019 AERA-SRCD Fellowship in Middle Childhood Education and Development. Dr. Griffin is also committed to the translation of her research into practice, including pushing her work toward the development of culturally specific intervention and prevention programming for Black youth. You can find her lab website here: www.maadlabatwssu.com.
1Freire, P. (2018). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury publishing USA.
2Freire, P. (1973). Education for critical consciousness (Vol. 1). Bloomsbury Publishing.
3Carter, D.J. (2008). Cultivating a critical race consciousness for African-American school success. Educational Foundations, 22 (1-2), 11–28.
4Watts, R., Diemer, M., Voight, A. (2011). Critical consciousness: Current status and future directions. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 134, 43–57.
5Smith, E. S. (1999). Effects of investment in the social capital of youth on political and civic behavior in young adulthood: A longitudinal analysis. Political Psychology, 20, 553–580.
This article is re-posted with permission from the American Psychological Association’s RESilience Initiative, which provides resources to parents and caregivers for promoting the strength, health, and well-being of children and youth of color. Learn more at www.apa.org/res.