- Corporal punishment in black communities: Not an intrinsic cultural tradition but racial trauma
- Adverse impact
- Historical roots of corporal punishment in black communities
- Implications for professionals
- Author bio
- The unbearable grief of Black mothers
- The emotional and physical burden of trauma on Black mothers’ bodies
- In order to heal, we must process
Corporal punishment in black communities: Not an intrinsic cultural tradition but racial trauma
A 2015 Pew Research survey found that black parents are more than twice as ly as white and Latino parents to use corporal punishment on a regular basis, and they are far less ly to never spank their children. But while hitting children is prevalent in black communities, contrary to popular belief, it is not an intrinsic cultural tradition.
Black parents have legitimate fears about the safety of their children, and the overwhelming majority believe physical discipline is necessary to keep black children the streets, prison or police officers’ sight. And far too many parents argue that “whupping” children is a distinctly black tradition. This belief, however heartfelt, is wrong.
Black children are more ly to be assaulted, seriously injured or killed by a family member than by the police or a neighborhood watchman.
Yearly statistics consistently show that black children are mistreated and killed at significantly higher rates than white and Latino children (e.g., DHHS, 2016).
Ample scientific evidence demonstrates the long-term damage resulting from physical punishment (e.g., Coley, Kull & Carrano, 2014), even without marks or other serious physical injuries.
Black parents who hit their children not only risk drawing the attention of child protective services, who are overrepresented in communities of color, but also having their children placed in foster care, which is a pipeline to the juvenile justice system and similar adverse paths that disproportionately impact black youth. Indeed, black children stay in foster care longer and often don't receive adequate therapeutic services (Fluke et al., 2011).
The goal for black parents to protect, care for and love black children should not inadvertently facilitate the flow of our young people through racist systems, but rather support healthy development and success later in life.
Experts in child development and parenting practices affirm no solid science suggests that hitting children, to any extent and regardless of race or ethnic background, is beneficial for them or society.
While many black parents hit to keep their kids from “turning out bad,” it is clearly not working because black children disproportionately suffer negative outcomes in educational achievement, juvenile arrests and foster care placements.
This type of family violence might actually be contributing to the negative outcomes that parents and caretakers were seeking to avoid.
Historical roots of corporal punishment in black communities
Psychologists could lead in educating communities of color about the connection between corporal punishment and the racial disparities connected to the practice. But first the profession can benefit from a better understanding of the historical roots of corporal punishment in black communities.
African-Americans adopted the practice of beating children from white slave masters (Patton, 2017). Europeans brutalized their own children for thousands of years prior to crossing the Atlantic to the New World and colonizing Africa.
Historians and anthropologists have found no evidence that ritualistic forms of physical discipline of children existed in precolonial West African societies prior to the Atlantic slave trade. West African societies held children in a much higher regard than slave societies in the Atlantic world, which placed emphasis on black bodies as property, not as human beings.
West Africans believed that children came from the afterlife, that they were gods or reincarnated ancestors who led profoundly spiritual lives and held extraordinary mystical powers that could be harnessed through ritual practice for the good of the community. In fact, it was believed that coercion and hitting a child could scare off their soul.
Indigenous people of North America held similar beliefs. As colonization, slavery and genocidal violence made life harsher for these groups, parenting practices also grew harsher.
“Whupping” children is not a cultural practice that Africans brought with them to this continent. Historians estimate that about 12.
5 million Africans were shipped to the New World before 1865, and about one-quarter of the captives who crossed the Atlantic were children, defined as anyone shorter than four feet four inches.
The average age of captives was between 15 and 20 years at the beginning of the 19th century, but dropped to between nine and twelve when abolition of the slave trade was imminent (see Diptee, 2006; Lovejoy, 2006; Vasconcellos, 2016 for historical discussion).
The fact that the majority of captives were young is significant for our understanding of the evolution of African-American childrearing practices.
Bringing over mostly youth — coupled with the violent suppression of West African cultural practices — meant that traditional African child-rearing practices faded the same way African languages and religious practices ultimately did.
Had the slaves who crossed the Atlantic been mostly adults from the same tribes and nationalities, spoken the same languages, shared the same blueprint for child-rearing that was practiced in the societies where they were enslaved, and been given freedom to rear their children without interference from whites, then maybe traditional African child-rearing practices could have been preserved. But none of those conditions prevailed. Consequently, to argue that “whupping” children was a tradition brought over from Africa, or that it is a culturally consistent practice today, is simply false.
Once in America, slaves as parents were under tremendous pressure to shape their children into docile field workers and to teach them proper deference and demeanor in front of whites. Child deaths, brutal whippings and torture, sexual abuse and being sold away from their relative for the rest of their lives were constant features of plantation life.
After slaves were emancipated in 1865, yet still not free, the rules of racial etiquette and the ritualistic beatings continued as a new kind of coercive southern labor system emerged that depended on black child workers. Once again, whites co-opted black parenting to make sure it performed the same kind of function in freedom that it had during slavery.
With sanctioning from the black church, black parents enacted the master's lash to instill obedience. Their reasoning was simple: Prepare black children to deal with the chronic stresses they would face to keep them alive.
If black people had the luxury of 20 or 30 years after slavery — able to parent without fear of lynch mobs, indiscriminate police violence and unyielding racist discrimination — then perhaps the practice of “whupping” might have become less widespread.
But when you belong to a group of people who are in constant fear of their lives and those of their children, then it is understandable how that trauma can cause parents to interpret cruelty as love, protection and responsible parenting even when proven counterintuitive.
So the use of corporal punishment in black communities today is a byproduct of centuries of slavery, the racial terrorism of the Jim Crow era, and exposure to racism that continues to chip away at the vitality of black life. Black parents have been encouraged to be part of the dehumanization process of their black children since before America’s founding.
Therapists should become conversant on how racial trauma, poverty, chronic stress and internalized racism have left children of color vulnerable to family violence. We cannot have discussions about corporal punishment in black communities without talking about history.
Implications for professionals
Cultural competency means that professionals develop the ability to translate and communicate the intersections between historical trauma and the research on child development, the effects of physical discipline on the developing brain, and the connections between family violence and racial disparities in education, foster care and juvenile justice — all while offering healthier parenting practice alternatives to diverse families. Cultural competency should not be interpreted to mean colluding with families to rely on tactics that decades of research have proven harmful. Professionals should not presume that families of color are so invested in corporal punishment that they are incapable of learning and integrating healthier alternatives into their parenting toolkit. Cultural competency demands advancing the field and informing practitioners about the historical and contemporary racial realities of this country.
Psychologists can shift the public discourse around corporal punishment to set a standard of care solid evidence that gets translated and communicated effectively to the diverse communities in dire need of healthier parenting practices. The risk to children is far greater and more important than the fear of alienating parents who often use cultural tradition to defend hitting.
Instead of blaming and stigmatizing black parents, professionals can offer information about why the practice is harmful but have been told it is necessary, and offer healthier alternatives that produce better outcomes for children, families and communities. Such an approach will support black parents’ own parenting goals as they strive for the security and welfare of their children.
Coley, R.L., Kull, M.A., & Carrano, J. (2014). Parental endorsement of spanking and children’s internalizing and externalizing problems in African-American and Hispanic families. Journal of Family Psychology©, 28, 22-31.
Diptee, A.A., (2006). African Children in the British Slave Trade During the Late Eighteenth Century. Slavery & Abolition, 27,183–96.
Fluke, J., Harden, B.J., Jenkins, M., & Ruehrdanz, A. (2011). Research Synthesis on Child Welfare Disportionality and Disparities. Retrieved from http://www.cssp.org/publications/child-welfare/alliance/Disparities-and-Disproportionality-in-Child-Welfare_An-Analysis-of-the-Research-December-2011.pdf (PDF, 3.88MB).
Lovejoy, P.E. (2006). The Children of Slavery — The Trans-Atlantic Phase. Slavery & Abolition, 27, 197–217.
Patton, S. (2017). Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America, chapter 3. Boston: Beacon Press.
Pew Research Center (2015). Use of spanking differs across racial and education groups. Retrieved from http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/12/17/parenting-in-america/st_2015-12-17_parenting-09/.
United States Department of Health and Human Services. (2016). Child Maltreatment 2014. Retrieved from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/research-data-technology/statistics-research/child-maltreatment.
Vasconcellos, C.A. “Children in the Slave Trade,” Children & Youth in History, item 141, Retrieved from http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/case-studies/141 (retrieved 7/17/16).
Stacey Patton, PhD, is an award-winning child advocate, journalist, assistant professor of multimedia journalism at Morgan State University and author of «Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America.» She completed her doctoral training in African-American history at Rutgers University.
The unbearable grief of Black mothers
When one of us loses a child, all of us feel that hurt; vicarious trauma is an integral aspect of Black motherhood.
My grandmother raised children in the legacy of Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was kidnapped, beaten, mutilated, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River in 1955.
My mother grew up in the shadow of Till and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombings, where four Black young girls were killed and many others injured in what was the third bombing in 11 days in 1963.
And in a sick twist of fate, I’ve had to carry them all — including the fears of my children becoming the next Trayvon, Tamir, or Aiyana.
Mamie Till-Mobley cries as she recounts her son’s death on October 22, 1955. Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images
These days I turn on the news and I am faced with the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor — young unarmed Black people at the hands of armed, white men, both in uniform and plainclothes.
Then there is the death of George Floyd, who died after several minutes of saying, “I can’t breathe,” pleading for a police officer to stop pressing a knee into the back of his neck during an arrest.
I carry these children, too.
On top of that, I worry about the coronavirus. Black Americans are dying of Covid-19 at a rate nearly three times higher than white people. I also think about masks. When unmasked, we Black mothers fear our loved ones will suffer from the risks associated with complications from the disease. When masked, we fear the risks associated with complications of bias and racism.
As Black mothers, we are living in an especially troublesome time — sandwiched between the current public health threat of Covid-19 and the longtime reality of police brutality. We are trapped in a double-bind of racism.
While there’s an influx of “pandemic grief guides,” none are useful in teaching Black children that the virus is terrifying, but that racism is the public health crisis more ly to kill you. There are no instructions about where Black mothers are supposed to place their fears and sorrow.
As Black mothers, grief is embedded in our being. It accumulates and manifests as body aches and pains. But many of us have never been taught how to deal with it so it doesn’t become yet another risk to our health.
The emotional and physical burden of trauma on Black mothers’ bodies
Growing up, when my family experienced anti-Black racism from the outside world, or disrespect from men within our orbit, I used to be upset that no woman in my family had modeled authentic hurt.
But now that I have two children of my own, I understand. Unattended grief is heavy and slows one down. Black mothers don’t have time to spare. My mother chose to teach me what I needed to survive.
“I almost resented the way that white parents spoke of self-isolation with such grief”
What I did learn from my mother about grief was to cloak it in irritation. I can disassociate so skillfully that the untrained eye has no idea that my stoic expressions and firm tone stand in for the overwhelming fears I have.
I fear the day my 4-year-old son will stop being “so cute” and become “so scary.” I’m terrified that my daughter or I will be the next Black woman or girl killed in what should be the safety of our home.
And so I pretend that everything is fine and deal with my stressed-induced muscle spasms silently.
Kelly Glass, a mother of two Black boys, was initially relieved to have her sons home during the pandemic. It meant she didn’t have to worry about them being criminalized at school or some other public place.
“I almost resented the way that white parents spoke of self-isolation with such grief,” she said, referring to the stay-at-home orders. “It reminded me that as a Black mother, I’ve always been acutely aware of the dangers in this world that are out there for my children just for existing.”
I’m personally acquainted with this state of hyperawareness, she described — a persistent fear that the smallest interaction can trigger a sequence of events leaving them unsafe.
This fear is another stress added to the generation of stresses that many Black bodies feel.
“Weathering is the term that was coined to describe how racism causes our health to worsen. It leads to higher rates of diabetes and high blood pressure,” Dr. Joia Adele Crear-Perry, president of the National Birth Equity Collaborative, told Vox.
Black Americans between ages 35 and 64 are 50 percent more ly to have high blood pressure, three times more ly to have kidney failure, and 60 percent more ly to have diabetes than their white peers. These are all conditions that leave us more vulnerable to Covid-19, too.
“The collective PTSD we will all have when this pandemic is over has only heightened the stressors Black women faced pre-pandemic,” Crear-Perry says.
Then compound those stressors with being a mother.
Early this year, Cynthia G.
Colen, associate professor at the Department of Sociology Ohio State University, published perhaps the first study to suggest that children’s exposure to discrimination can harm their mothers’ health.
The research, which examined 40 years of self-reported data from mother-child pairs — 3,004 mothers and 6,562 children — illustrated the intergenerational nature of adverse health effects.
Researchers noted that Black and Hispanic mothers exist in a state of “high alert to the possibility that their child will encounter unfair treatment” and the potential consequences of this stress are factors slower blood pressure recovery, increases in inflammatory markers, and worse sleep patterns.
Colen and the team found that “by age 50, 31 percent of blacks reported having fair or poor health, compared to 17 percent of whites and 26 percent of Hispanics, and that mothers of children reporting moderate or high levels of acute discrimination were up to 22 percent more ly to face a decline in their health between age 40 and 50 than mothers whose children did not.”
When asked about the importance of her research in today’s context, Colen highlighted the role images of Black death have in accelerating Black mothers’ aging and health deterioration.
She notes that racism and racial inequality have substantial consequences on the health of Black women and mothers — with the clearest manifestation being the “never-ending hypervigilance” that we need to survive in a society that was founded on our subjugation.
“The recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor are a brutal reminder that no matter how vigilantly Black mothers try to protect their children, or other family members, it might not be enough to ensure their safety,” Colen said.
In order to heal, we must process
Expressing grief is one of the few coping tools that Black mothers can call upon to help navigate the stressors of the world. But when we miss out on the opportunity to do so — an understandable decision considering the constant flow of traumatic stories that we’re exposed to — our health suffers.
Amber Hewitt, a counseling psychologist with expertise in racial identity and coping, says it’s necessary to “get real with” our emotions for the healing process to begin.
“The trauma narrative, as we call in it psychology, is a powerful technique designed to help survivors of trauma to make sense of their experiences. Sharing your trauma story helps you to organize the memories related to the trauma, and it even helps lessen the painful emotions that go along with it,” she says.
We saw the trauma narrative in action in Till-Mobley’s willingness to grieve publicly and have an open casket funeral for her son Emmitt, which kickstarted a movement that allowed 50,000 people to visualize the impact of white violence on Black families.
Friends restrain grief-stricken Mamie Till-Mobelyas as her son’s body is lowered into the grave after a four-day, open casket funeral. Bettmann Archive via Getty Images
Just as Till-Mobley used her grief as a tool of system change, Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, has channeled the legacy of community and grief as a resource for support. Her organization, Circle of Mothers, provides an opportunity for mothers who have lost loved ones to gun violence to find empowerment and healing through community.
Today, there are others creating safe practices and spaces for Black mothers to let go of their grief and share their experiences.
Alexis Flanagan, co-director of Resonance Network, says that connection and community are necessary tools to dismantle oppressive structures and create the violence-free world where all — particularly groups who have disproportionately suffered, Black and Indigenous womxn and girls — finally have equal opportunity to thrive.
Recently, Resonance Network organized an online grief circle that used the knowledge of ancestral practices and wisdom as a blueprint for healing. “Wailing circles are ancestral practices that provide critical care, especially in moments these …
spaces to express our grief and loss as we call the names of those who are sick, those who have died, and those who have been killed,” explained ML Daniel of Spiritual Alchemy and Rebeka Ndosi of Healing Illuminated, who helped facilitate Resonance Network’s 90-minute virtual offering.
Trina Greene Brown started Parenting for Liberation as a space where Black parents could shift harmful narratives through community, dialogue, and reflection. She is concerned about the impact trauma and suffering is having on the wellness of Black families, especially during Covid-19.
“Black mothers require these healing resources because of the pre-existing disparities in access to both physical and mental health resources, coupled with the added pressures of round-the-clock caregiving, financial uncertainty, school closures, and social isolation that is uniquely impacting Black mothers,” Greene Brown says.
In response, she developed “Care for the Caregivers,” a wellness fund, in partnership with The Well, that makes individual and couples coaches available to Black parents and caregivers virtually and free of charge.
The spots filled swiftly – every applicant was a Black mother – making it clear that Black women are interested in doing the work of resolving trauma.
But when it comes to everyday and widespread access, systemic and financial barriers lack of insurance, limited availability of mental health providers of color, and the demands of daily caretaking complicate the process of Black mothers receiving help.
For me, it took six counselors and paying for teletherapy pocket to locate a mental health professional — another Black mother — who I could trust and afford.
Between sessions, my Black momma friends and I share our fears of raising Black boys and girls in a racist, sexist world.
I’m also working to grow a social movement called #FreeBlackmotherhood to encourage Black mothers to emphasize authentic emotions, both negative and positive.
And while I’ve accepted that my mother rarely verbalized grief, she did show me rituals to help – hot baths to soothe muscles that ached from stress, encouragement to play as hard as I work, and a suggestion to pray over the things I can’t control.
Hewitt says these rituals have a long history as coping tools in Black families. But Black mothers must learn to care for themselves the way they care for others.
“Black mothers should turn those same techniques on to themselves,” she says. “It should not be considered an act of self-indulgence, but part of a practice to show self-love.”
A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is an award-winning writer, speaker, and activist working to amplify Black women’s voices in the mainstream dialogue, especially within conversations on health and parenting. She is also the founder of the #FreeBlackmotherhood movement.
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