Understanding How Cultural Messages are Passed Down in Black Families

Role of the Black Family 

· Develop and affirm Black identity

· Explore and practice social roles

· Prepare and develop coping skills for racism and discrimination

· Provide foundational expectations concerning emotional, relational, and psychological expression and well-being

Challenges faced by the Black Family  

· Constant invalidation

· Cultural scrutiny

· Historical trauma 

Strengths of the Black Family

· Kinship ties

· Spiritual rootedness

· Adaptability of family roles

· High achievement orientation

· Strong work orientation

Cultural messages and coping with racial trauma

Racial socialization

Black families and racial communication about racialized experiences

·          Cultural Pride (Be proud to be Black in the face of racism)

·          Preparation for bias (Society will treat you differently because your Black)

·          Promotion of mistrust (Institutions intentionally hurt Black people)

·          Egalitarianism-silence about race (We should or shouldn’t talk about race)

Two types of Racial socialization

Legacy Approach

· Describes the state of racial relations and offers “sayings” as advice for coping with racism (e.g., You have to work twice as hard to get half as much)

· Aspirational/informational

· Emphasize the importance of racial dynamics knowledge (e.g., racism exists but doesn’t offer skills to address the experience of racism)

Literacy Approach

· Ability to accurately read, rewrite, and resolve racially stressful encounters

· Emphasizes skill and practice before a racial event has occurred

Composed of three parts:

· Racial Stress Appraisal (What racist thing is happening?)

· Racial Coping Efficacy (Can I handle it?)

· Racial Coping Reappraisal (Did I resolve the racist situation?)

Top ten affirmations Black males need to hear daily

You matter

Truly know yourself and no enemy within or without can conquer you

You are enough

You are here for a purpose and your purpose is for your people

Society doesn’t define you, you define your Blackness

Your history started before slavery

It’s ok to not be ok

Black males cry too

You have been given the resiliency of your ancestors in your DNA

You are a Black male, you have the focus of Malcolm, the vision of Martin, the self-determination of Garvey, the intellect of Du Bois, and the perseverance of Lewis in your spirit

Five challenges facing Black males going back to school

Lack of representation. This year, many Black males will be attending schools where there are no faces that look like their own in regard to teachers, administrators, or staff members.  According to the US Department of Education, Black males account for just 2% of US educators. The literature has indicated significant consequences for the lack of Black male representation in school systems related to poorer academic performance, behavioral issues, and socioemotional challenges.  However, in schools where Black male teachers are present, Black male students are reported as having fewer behavioral issues, score better on standardized tests, and experience a greater flexibility in the expression and performance of their Black masculinity. “What they see is what they will be,” and for Black males to imagine academic success as a possibility they need to see Black male educators who embody and promote education excellence.

Cultural competency of teachers, administrators, and staff. According to the US Department of Education, close to 80% of the teacher workforce is White and female. However, nearly half the student population in public schools are persons of color and the literature suggests that this number is growing every year. The potential cross-cultural disconnect, limited meaningful exposure to culturally different individuals, and inadequate access to diversity training can contribute to significant cultural conflicts between teachers and students of color. The literature has indicated that these cultural conflicts and challenges in cultural communication negatively influence academic and behavioral outcomes for students of color. To effectively reach and transform the lives of these students academically, teachers must be able to maximize the cultural strengths of each student. However, given the increasingly disproportionate racial makeup of public school teachers vs students, general discomfort reported by teachers in regards to teaching cultural different students, and the overall lack of preparation teachers have for managing the challenges of these students, many public school teachers struggle to engage in culturally responsive teaching practices

Lower expectations of academic performance.  Several studies have found that a teachers beliefs about how students from different racial backgrounds learn and their subsequent expectations for academic achievement can influence how they conduct their lessons. Students of color whose teachers had lower expectations for their academic achievement experienced more academic failure as well as behavioral issues. Researchers have noted that a significant contributor to the lowered expectations held by the teachers is an ignorance or outright rejection of different cultural expressions of development among the students that could be used to build knowledge and skills. Students of color will only go as far as we perceive their potential and provide encouragement. We can not limit their opportunities before they have even imagined the possibilities for success.

Higher expectations for behavioral issues. Black males have been branded as dumb, deviant, and dangerous in US culture. This narrative concerning the Black male experience has influenced the way they are perceived in the school system as well. The physical space occupied, the use of tone, inflection, cadence, and volume, and the “cool pose” portrayed Black males are consistently perceived as threatening in the school environment. The literature has suggested that this perception of threat contributes significantly to the disproportionate number of Black males who receive disciplinary action in the form of detentions, suspensions, and arrests. This phenomenon has effectively created a situation where the school environment has become a significant referral source for the criminal justice system via the school to prison pipeline.    

Community and systemic trauma. The rates of suicide and depression are rising rapidly for Black males under the age of 18. The systemic challenges faced by Black males in the form of differing trauma experiences (e.g., racial, vicarious, and physical) and underdiagnosed depression and anxiety have created a chronic space for school aged Black males where they feel hopeless, helpless, and alone. These challenges are further compounded by the cultural misperceptions that translate the experience of a sad or anxious Black male into an angry or dangerous Black male within the school setting.  Society has not given permission to Black males to experience sadness or to respond to trauma exposure in ways that allow for meaningful process and healing. Instead, their coping behaviors are seen as confirmation of the dumb, deviant, and dangerous Black male narrative.  

Four questions to ask a potential therapist

What is your therapy orientation? If you experience a cold, there are many medication options or holistic treatments that you can take to relieve your symptoms. Depending on your body and personal preference, the methods you take to address your cold will be different. Similarly, when you experience mental health related issues, there are many options of treatments and therapy styles that can be used to provide healing. The amount of healing you experience from these treatments or styles will depend on several factors such as: personality, the relationship you build with your therapist, the activities or conversations had in therapy, and your expectations about getting better. The way these factors work together to contribute to your healing in therapy will be influenced by the therapists’ approach.

Depending on the therapists’ approach, they will emphasize different aspects of your experience as human beings such as how we relate to others, how we think, how we feel, and how we behave as part of the healing process. When you have a cold, you investigate what combination of treatments will be most helpful to you based on what you have to do, how the treatment makes you feel, and how long the treatment takes to work. By asking about the therapists’ orientation you will get similar answers concerning their approach and if it will be most helpful to you.

How do I get help outside of therapy? Therapy is usually once a week for one hour and sometimes you might need additional support between sessions. Talk with your therapist about potential opportunities for additional support in times of need or crisis outside of therapy. These supports could include hotline numbers, group therapy, or the number to the hospital nearest to your location. Similar to our need to supplement our regular cold medication with cough drops, having these additional supports can help with the healing process between your “doses” of therapy.   

Do you have a sliding scale fee? Costs is one of the most significant barriers for individuals seeking much needed therapy. Additionally, depending on experience and expertise, the costs of therapy can range from $50-$250 or more. Many therapists see access to therapy as a social justice issue and work to create an affordable range of prices for services. If you are experiencing financial difficulties or face hardship during the therapy process, talk with your therapist about potential payment options such as a reduced fee or payment plan. Do not let costs be prohibitive to you getting the help that you need, work with your therapist to find the best solution for your economic circumstances.

Have you worked with someone like me? A recent American Psychological Association (APA) Workforce study found that the average psychologist works mainly with White middle-income heterosexual women. These results unfortunately support the stereotype that therapy is inaccessible for individuals with various minority identities. Additionally, these results suggest that many therapists may have limited exposure to working with various identities in their private practices. Most training programs are teaching clinicians about the concept of cultural humility which means that despite limited exposure, your therapist could be self-aware of their cultural identity and open to exploring your identity with you and incorporating it into the therapy process. However, this exploration will need to be a collaborative process with reciprocal learning between you and the therapist. Don’t be afraid to share the salient parts of your cultural identity and discuss with your therapist about how these variables can influence the therapy process.     

Raising Black Sons

Goals for raising Black Sons

  • Promoting Self determination
  • Encouraging Self Affirmation
  • Fostering collective responsibility
  • Discovering purpose
  • Exploring Black identity 

The Challenges

  • Fear
  • Negative media representation
  • Low expectations
  • Negative peer groups/limited positive role models
  • Generational trauma
  • Inflexible Blackness or masculinity
  • Poor coping strategies
  • Increased experience of mental health issues  

The Opportunities

  • The resilience in Blackness
  • The power of relationships
  • The misguidedness of numbers
  • The worth of example
  • The value of history
  • The strength of faith
  • The influence of family

The Focus

  • Black identity development
  • Relationship building skills
  • Emotional processing and expression skills
  • Flexibility in masculinity performance
  • Social adaptation skills

The Tools


  • Black and African culture
  • Different forms of Blackness and masculinity

Assertiveness training

Identity development

  • “Who am I?, Am I who I say I am?, Am I all I ought to be?”

Coping strategies for racism and discrimination

  • Bridging
  • Code switching
  • Buffering
  • Attachment-bonding

The top four challenges facing Black males in the criminal justice system

Distance – Black males in jails and prisons are more than just individuals who have been accused or convicted of a crime. They are husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, uncles, cousins, and friends. For example, over 92% of incarcerated parents are fathers.  However, the geographical distance created by being in prison or jail creates a significant barrier for Black males to adequately fulfill these relational roles. For example, according to the criminal justice literature, the average distance a Black male is incarcerated from his family is 100 miles. Having to navigate such distance puts significant strain on the incarcerated Black male and his family which makes maintaining close relationships challenging. Additionally, this distance adds stress to the process of re-entry as the Black male attempts to reintegrate himself back into his family and peer circles.

Mental health– Prisons have become America’s largest community mental health centers. The criminal justice literature indicates that 20% of individuals in jails and 15% of individuals in state prisons have been diagnosed with a severe mental illness. Additionally, according to the National Alliance for Mental Illness, 2 million individuals with mental illness are booked into jails every year. Furthermore, the Treatment Advocacy Center has indicated that in 44 US states, a jail or prison incarcerates more mentally ill individuals than the state’s largest psychiatric hospital. With Black males comprising nearly 40% of the prison population, it is safe to assume that many of these individuals have experienced mental illness that they have sought to cope with through drugs, aggression, and socially isolative behaviors.  

Finances– The social class a Black male is born into can substantially influence his interactions with the criminal justice system. Several studies in the criminal justice literature have highlighted a significant correlation between poverty and incarceration. For example, a study by the Brooking Institution found that individuals in the bottom 10% of earners were 20% more likely to be in prison on a given day in their 30’s compared to the top 10% of earners. There are several factors that influence this phenomenon such as access to quality education, geographical segregation that contributes to over policing, and worthwhile legal employment opportunities. In addition, criminal justice policies related to legal fees, fees to participate in mandatory treatment or classes, and cash bail further the financial struggles experienced by incarcerated Black males.     

The intersecting experience of poverty and involvement with the criminal justice system continues even after the Black male is released from prison or jail. Black males with a record are less likely to be called back for job interviews, more likely to work minimum wage jobs, and more likely to be unemployed or underemployed. Black males are caught in a seemingly never-ending cycle where the factors that influenced their incarceration (e.g., poverty, access to stable employment) will subsequently contribute to their reincarceration.

Access to justice– Black males are disproportionally represented at every phase of the criminal justice system (e.g., arrest, initial charging, sentencing). This over representation increases the Black male’s vulnerability to harsher charges and lengthier sentences. The criminal justice literature has indicated that the experience of racial bias throughout the legal proceedings contributes significantly to Black male’s incarceration rates. For example, a recent study found that when engaging in the plea-bargaining process (a staple of the criminal justice system designed to make the process more efficient), White defendants were 25% more likely to have their most serious initial charges dropped or reduced to a less severe charge. Because of the reduced charges, White defendants with initial felony charges were 15% more likely to be charged with a misdemeanor compared to similar Black male defendants. These findings highlight the challenges Black males face accessing equal justice in the court system. Instead of experiencing the “blind eye” of the law, the criminal justice system has been influenced by societal expectations of Black males and criminal behavior which contributes to higher arrest rates and harsher sentences.

The top four challenges facing Black males

Misinformation– There is a war for the control of the narrative concerning the Black male experience. For centuries a narrative has been created that betrays the authentic experience of Black male identity expression and performance. For example, for several years there has been a false narrative about the number of Black males in prison compared to the number of Black males in college. This narrative reinforces negative stereotypes associated with the Black male experience (e.g., Black males are inherently criminal). Additionally, the narrative serves as an intentional form of social control that presents an illusory forced choice for Black males. The Black male is forced into thinking that his only two options in regard to Black masculinity expression and performance are to adhere to society’s  standard for masculinity (rooted in White norms) and betray his community or adhere to standards set within his community and risk alienation, fear, and cultural retaliation. The perpetuation of misinformation (e.g., biased research, narrow media representation, liberal paternalism) concerning the Black males experience reduces his ability to engage in the flexible self-determined performance of his masculinity.

Misrepresentation– From minstrel shows, to Blaxploitation films, to modern media, there has been an intentional effort to portray Black males as dumb, deviant, and dangerous. This has contributed to a perception held by society (and often by other Black males) that there is only one way to perform Black masculinity. This phenomenon creates significant conflict for Black males who experience competing images of Black masculinity both in the media and in their communities. Additionally, these limited portrayals of Black males give the dominant culture the false belief that they can manipulate Black males into adhering to these roles through financial, legal, and social coercion. Black males are negatively impacted by these coercive efforts by either the withholding of perceived social power by the dominant culture or by the confusing experience of being rewarded and feared for an adherence to stereotypical hypermasculine norms (e.g., hyperaggression, emotional restriction).

Hypervisibility/Hyperinvisbility– From a cultural understanding standpoint, Black males are one of the most known unknown social groups in America.  Everyday we are given a front row seat to bear witness to the violence, underperformance, relational challenges, and criminality that society (via the mechanism of the media) has used to define the Black male experience. This hypervisibility constantly shapes the negative perception that society has of Black males as well as the potential negative perception Black males have of themselves and those that look like them. Additionally, the negative media overexposure renders the positive aspects of the Black male identity (e.g., community focused, emotional/relational connection, culturally influenced) invisible. Instead of considering the research that says that Black males are the most nurturing and involved fathers of any race, we are bombarded with the narrative of Black father absenteeism. Instead of talking about the small but increasing number of Black males matriculating through the various levels of education, we are constantly told about the number of Black males languishing in our criminal justice system. We must look around the narrow scope used by society to define the Black male experience and engage a more complete picture of what it means to be a Black male and peform and express Black masculinity.   

Generational trauma– For generations Black males have been carrying a narrative of violence, pain, and suffering due to the intersection of their race and gender. From the first time the Black male experience was reduced to being a sexualized beast of labor or having his identity and named erased during slavery to having to fight and potentially die to be recognized as a human being, Black males have endured significant trauma that has impacted their bodies, minds, relationships and spirits. To cope with this trauma narrative, many Black males have simply turned the page on these traumatic events without stopping to process and understand their meaning. However, the words heard, and the actions experienced do not go away and instead are passed down to the next generation for them to process with little framework, examples, or skills. Not processing generational trauma can have a deleterious impact on the lived experience of today’s Black men in regard to their physical (e.g., high blood pressure, diabetes), mental (e.g., depression, suicide), and relational (e.g., emotional restriction) health.