Coming to terms with race

I recently wrote about the need to engage youth more deeply in matters of race/ethnicity and gender identity. The importance of these sorts of conversations—especially in the context of youth in foster care—is treated with a lot of thought and wisdom in Casey Family Program’s Knowing Who You Are curriculum. In an educational video, foster youth and foster youth alumni, along with birth parents, foster parents, and child welfare professionals, discuss the challenge of developing a strong racial or ethnic identity within the foster care system. When young people are separated from their families of origin and might get shuffled from home to home, they don’t always get the chance to connect in a deep and meaningful way to their heritage. It was very interesting to hear adults and young people alike recount how they came to realize that they had to deal with the uncomfortable topic of race/ethnicity/cultural background. Well meaning adults might want to gloss over any talk of otherness,  and youth in foster care often struggle to “fit in” and be accepted for who they are “on the inside,” but  ignoring the issue does not help young people build a solid and positive sense of self. As one social worker puts it, dealing with racial identity is not an ancillary activity: “This is the work.”

What was especially fascinating about the video was how it put on display all the highly individual struggles of each young person to get in touch with his or her racial or ethnic identity. A couple people of color said they’d been called “white” for the company they kept or the music they listened to. One young person lamented the fact that he felt entirely disconnected from his heritage because whenever he lived with a new foster family—black, white, Hispanic, or Asian—no one tried to get to know his background, and he found themselves adapting to their ways. There was also a mother who so shielded her kids from any negative stereotypes about Native Americans that she was at a loss when her son asked her why someone called him a “lazy Indian.” Everyone in the room agreed that in order to help youth connect more deeply with their racial/ethnic identities, the adults themselves had to wrestle mightily with their own identity issues.

What emerges from the conversation is not an essentialist definition of What It Means to Be Black/Hispanic/Indian, etc., but rather a recognition of race/ethnicity as a potential source of pride, strength, and self-knowledge. The social worker I quote above said that in her work with one of her clients, her goal was to help build a sense of community around her client’s identity as a young black woman.

This video resonated with an enterprise that was brought to my attention by one of this blog’s readers (Hi, Steph!): The Black Girl Project. The BGP is the brain child of Aiesha Turman, who provokes and facilitates discussions around the intersection of race and gender through history, and in the context of individual lives, in order to empower young black women. This is great work! Do click on the links to the Knowing Who You Are video and the trailer to the Black Girl Project.

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