Innocence, African Americans, and Couples Therapy (part 2 of 3)


As we discussed in the latest post, Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff of UCLA led four different studies that evaluate how race affects the way we ascribe traits of innocence to people, particularly children. (The Wire provides an excellent summary of Goff’s research procedure and results.) In one of the projects, Goff tested two pools of people: mostly-white university students and police officers. The research team discovered that both test groups perceived Black children as approximately four and a half years older than their actual age. It’s one thing for idealistic university students to create this perception about people only a few years younger. The stakes increase when authority-wielding police officers carry the same perception.

Let’s say a 15-year-old African-American boy is caught shoplifting, and the store owner decides to get the police involved. If this study is true (Goff evaluated over 100 police officers, a moderate pool sample, and remember, 4.5 years is an average overestimate, which means it’s possible that some police officers may have assumed Black children were six or seven years older), the police officer assumes that the Black teenager is no longer a minor. The teenager lacks protection that minors receive. Perhaps the police officer addresses the teenager with more assertive, aggressive non-verbals that he/she would use with actual adult offenders, rather than a parental tone of voice. Perhaps the police officer is more prone to using physical force or stricter punishments; after all, we’ve learned that approximately 60% of children sentenced to adult facilities are African American.

The Department of Education reached similar conclusions about teachers in a 2012 quantitative study involving data from 72,000 schools: 46% of students who have been suspended more than once and 39% of students who were expelled were Black children. (Black children made up 18% of all children in this study.)

One could make the argument that Black children are more likely to come from families in which chaotic, abusive interactions reign, developing a more intense anger which transfers into relationships with peers and authorities, resulting in harsher forms of punishment.

Regardless of the reason, Black children appear to lose the perception of themselves as innocent through familial and larger systemic interactions. Anxiety seems to coincide with the recognition of lost innocence, including increases of anger, defensiveness, and “defiant” behaviors throughout adolescence and adulthood. This creates a significant challenge for Black couples.

Most relationships begin with a clean slate–partners connect with greater ease during the initial relationship stages due to an increased sense of innocence and security in the other. Attachment theory suggests that couples develop problematic interaction cycles as they learn/perceive/fear that their partners are untrustworthy. Partners are viewed as no longer innocent, but as guilty of numerous transgressions, and partners will either distance themselves (i.e. shutting down, limiting communication) or overpursue their partners (i.e. criticism, nagging) as a way of rectifying this internal conflict. Couples therapy involves re-engaging the distancing partner and softening the stance of the pursuing partner through the process of witnessing emotionally vulnerable moments and reestablishing a sense of understanding and innocence in the other.

What if you enter a relationship lacking that initial sense of innocence? How many Black people enter romantic relationships with the notion that others perceive them to be guilty of something? (If we follow the conclusions of Goff’s study, we can logically assume that a significant number do.) If larger systems (schools, law enforcement, etc.) perceive that I’m inherently guilty of something, how long is it going to take before I believe that my romantic partner will perceive the same?

I explain to my couples, “Some of the issues have everything to do with your relationship and some of the issues have nothing to do with your relationship, they just get superimposed onto your relationship because of proximity.” Black couples have chapters in their stories that white people seldom confront: the legacy of racism.

Many Black individuals seem to survive this legacy with language of strength–I’m going to fight through these injustices, or develop a thick, impenetrable wall around myself that lets you know I won’t be bothered by racist rhetoric. I’m wondering if couples therapy can do the opposite: if it can provide a safe place to explore and share narratives of systemic injustices with the goal of identifying the other as vulnerable, emotionally weary from the experience as “Other”, and ultimately, innocent. In the next blog, we’ll explore some ways this can happen.

Innocence, African Americans, and Couples Therapy (part 1 of 3)


Perhaps you saw the youtube clip where Dani Alves, a Brazilian footballer for FC Barcelona, ate a banana thrown from a fan of the opposing team while taking a corner kick.

On the one hand, FIFA, the European football governing body, has a slogan and icon for its strenuous efforts to eradicate racism from the sport.

On the other hand, we recognize that racial inequalities continue to exist in disturbing ways, from the murders of Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin and ensuing conversations about “Stand Your Ground” to the comments made by former LA Clipper owner Donald Sterling.

Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff, a professor of psychology at UCLA, collaborated with other social justice advocates to explore the process of racial dehumanization. In their article “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children”, published in April’s edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Goff and company distinguish between “prejudice”, a broad bias against an outgroup, and “dehumanization”, the rejection of a group’s basic human needs and protections. Dehumanization often receives fuel form social propaganda—language that describes a group as sub-human. Hutus referring to Tutsis as “cockroaches”. The Holocaust regime labeling Jews as “vermin”. African-originated individuals as “apes”. This language leads to the moral exclusion of minority groups. If I view an African-American as an ape, I remove the ability to connect on an emotional, vulnerable, human level, and increase the likelihood of justifying violent thoughts/actions toward that individual out of fear that he/she has the capacity to behave impulsively and violently, as an ape would.

(There is the potentially faulty assumption that an ape that I came into contact with would inherently be violent with me, but that’s another conversation.)

Goff explains that minority groups experience dehumanization as children. The researchers assert that society protects children by identifying them as “innocent”—we recognize that while most adolescents have the ability to make intentional, rational decisions, most also lack the appropriate coping skills needed to control impulsivity. As a result, an appropriate punishment for, say, a misdemeanor created by a teenager should have less longevity and intensity than a punishment for an adult.

Goff claims that dehumanization of African American children strongly exists in our criminal justice system. In Missouri, for example, 64% of juveniles prosecuted as adults in 2009 were African American; black children are approximately 18 times more likely than White children to be sentenced for felonies/misdemeanors as adults.

Goff created a questionnaire for university students in which participants were asked to look at a diversity of Caucasian and African American children (aged 0-18) and answer an array of questions that attempt to define innocence, including “How well can this child take care of him/herself?”, “How cute are they?”, and “How much of a danger are they to themselves?” Participants perceived children as “equally innocent” regardless of skin color from ages 0-9. However, once children turned 10, the university students began to identify Black children as significantly less innocent than other children at every age bracket (10-13, 14-17, and 18-21). Interestingly, Goff and fellow researchers found that the perceived innocence of Black children in one age group (i.e. age 10-13) was equivalent to the perceived innocence of all other children in the next highest age group (i.e. age 14-17).

As a family therapist, many of the children we work with end up with parentified roles, where they take on adult responsibilities in a family system with inconsistent adult leadership. Unfortunately, numerous Black children (and, for that matter, White children) reside in these challenging familial situations. We want to encourage these children to be children and to explore appropriate developmental forms of communication, especially through play, creativity, and imagination.

Goff and his research team ask an important question: “What happens when society essentially parentifies a group of children?” However, in this parentification, many Black children are placed in a unique double bind. On the one hand, they are perceived as older, and potentially more culpable than Caucasian children. On the other hand, they seem to be entrusted with fewer freedoms and liberties, including fewer opportunities for quality education, not to mention potential racial profiling practices. Developmental psychologists hope children receive more liberties the older and more responsible they get; black children seem more likely to experience an inverse relationship.

Goff’s study deals with the perception of an outgroup, as most of the participants were Caucasian students evaluating African American children. Identity develops partially through encountering the perceptions of others. Though Goff’s study doesn’t address this issue directly, one can conclude that Black children, at some point, may lose the ability to perceive themselves as innocent at quicker rates than White children. In the next blog entry, we’ll ponder on the implications of loss of childhood innocence on Black adults, particularly in regards to healthy relationship creation and maintenance.