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

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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.

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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.

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