Not everything passed down needs a permanent place in the culture.
I spend a lot of time thinking. One topic my mind keeps coming back to is how a lot of black people my age seem to have very similar childhood experiences, from the snacks we ate to the bedding to, mostly importantly, how our parents and communities disciplined us. It’s almost scary how some things are shared in our community, but what’s even scarier is that black millennials are just now realizing that a lot of the stuff we tolerated and were made to normalize about our childhood is deeply problematic and toxic. I know this from conversations with my friends, both in person and on social media, as well as conversing with fellow black millennials on Twitter. I know this from personal experience, as well. There are so many deeply engrained issues that I sat at my computer for a good twenty minutes not even knowing where to begin with this article. Enough with the pleasantries, though; let’s dive in.
At some point, we all become immune to yelling.
My more prominent memories of teachers from elementary and middle school are of my teachers yelling at us. I went to a predominantly black school, where the teachers were also predominantly black. And because of this, they took on the role as third, fourth, fifth, and sixth parents. When a student did something wrong or made a mistake, the teacher’s first instinct was to raise their voice or yell at them. I can’t even see the other side of this method because there simply isn’t one. At some point, I’m pretty sure we all became immune to yelling, and this is true for at home, as well. Constantly yelling at students or children just cuts off any form of productive conversation. From this, I was taught that the only way to deal with a conflict or an issue was to attack it with anger.
Now that I’m older, I was able to unlearn that and realize that solving problems takes actual communication skills. Black children aren’t taught this. We’re taught that when we do something wrong, we’ll be yelled at, punished accordingly, and that’s it. There’s no conversation, no “why did you do that?” or “do you understand why what you did was wrong?” None of that. I think parents begin to look at their children the same way white society looks at us: as adults from a very young age. Either that or not as full human beings. For the most part, children can’t understand things on their own. If you see a baby about to touch a hot stove and all you do is yell at them not to do it, don’t be surprised when they still touch the hot stove. What did you really expect? You didn’t calmly say to them, “hey, you shouldn’t touch that because it’s really hot and you’ll be hurt, and I’ll be scared for you.” As someone who was a child very recently (in the grand scheme of life and in comparison to older black folk), I can attest to the fact that we didn’t know why you were yelling. We just knew that you were yelling at us. Children may not be capable of understanding the consequences on their own, but they are capable of having a conversation and having you talk to them, instead of berate them like dogs.
“This’ll hurt me more than it hurts you.”
There’s this weird consensus in our community that all (or at least most) children got beat (or whupped or spanked, depending on who you’re talking to). I remember being on a college tour the summer before junior year of high school with the Oliver Scholars Program. We were driving, on our way to either the next college or our hotel for the night, and there was a group of us huddled at the front of the bus with one of the advisors. I remember sitting as stories were passed around about insane times people were spanked by their parents. These stories were shared like war stories, as if the worst beating you ever got was a badge of honor for you to show all your friends, a sort of “listen to the craziness I lived through!”
If you love us, why hurt us?
Think about how sick that is, that children were describing in detail the stings of belts (and other instruments) against their skin and the lengths their parents went to discipline them. Black children are taught to view physical punishment as a marker of how much their parents loved them. If you put this logic in any other situation where physical “discipline” is used against another human being, we wouldn’t be saying this is love. We don’t tell abuse victims/survivors that their abusers hit them when they did something “wrong” because their abusers love them, do we? We don’t frame their physical discipline as normal, right? No, because we’re smart enough to know that an fully functioning adult should be capable of expressing their grievances and their emotions without picking up a weapon and using it against another person, especially a physically, mentally, and emotionally weaker person? Then why don’t we use this same logic when regarding black children, who, by nature of being children, are physically, mentally, and emotionally weaker than the average adult? When you beat children under the disguise of loving them, you teach them that being hit is a product of love, and that’s not healthy. Plus, it can lead to situations where they find themselves being abused and not leaving (and possibly ending up dead) because their entire childhood they were taught that being hit by someone who claims to love you is okay.
In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, he describes a moment in his life where his father beats him ferociously, his reasoning to the mother being: “Either I can beat him, or the police.” His father was scared for his son, scared that if he didn’t punish him severely his child would misbehave and end up dead. The thing is, though, the cops are gonna target us whether black parents beat their children or not. Cops don’t stop and ask, “Hey, did your parents beat you as a child?” before they unload a clip into our bodies. Beatings ain’t stopping killings. Instead, our community feeds into the idea that black parents beat their children because they love us. Think about what that teaches children: “Oh, it’s okay that someone hits you when they’re upset with you as long as they’ve said ‘I love you’ before.”
We’ll often hear parents who spanked their kids say that they don’t like beating their children but they find it necesary, hence the phrase “This’ll hurt me more than it hurts you.” To those parents I ask: SO WHY THE BLOODY HELL WERE YOU SPANKING US, THEN? What does hitting children really do for you? Actually, better question: what did hitting your child really do for us? And by telling a child that the physical punishment they are about to endure is somehow dwarfed and less than the feigned emotional greivance that their parents will somehow feel is ridiculous. At the end of the day, parents are the adults in the situation. Parents make the conscious decision to physically discipline their children. Black parents love throwing how many years of living they have over us, then shouldn’t they be adept at communicating and finding new ways to discipline children without inflicting severe physical punishment to get a message across? Shouldn’t their tough love be more reminiscient of tactical moves that instill discipline, respect, and boundaries through a series of positive and negative reinforcements that don’t involve physical pain on a child’s body? Tough love is taking away toys when children don’t behave, not watching TV during the school week so they don’t rush through their homework, and no dating until college — not a slap in the face, a leather belt against bare skin, and being told their feelings don’t matter because they made a mistake.
If you love us, why hurt us? I refuse to believe that pain and love are a packaged deal, that someone makes the conscious decision to hurt another person, their offspring, because they love us. That’s not love. Black parents might think it is, since this is a parenting style that’s been passed down from generation to generation. I have no doubt that most of the parents who use this technique do indeed love their children, but it’s a scary thing to think that love is guiding a person’s decision to hit another human being that relies on them for support, comfort, and safety. There must be other ways, considering the fact that there are indeed black parents who don’t hit their children and those kids still have the same chance of behaving or misbehaving as children who are beat.
It’s funny: it’s like as soon as the slave masters put down the whip, black parents ran and picked it right back up and turned it on their children. No one’s caught the irony of this situation yet? Slave masters used to whip us like animals in order to keep us in line and behave, and now we’ve made that same practice a staple in black parenting styles. Not only is the idea of corporal punishment something that was used on enslaved Africans, the idea that children must be beat is very much European, where the belief was that children are automatically born of sin and most have the devil beaten out of them.* The sad thing is, black people have clung so dearly to this way of punishment, while our white counterparts have not, hence why black children are still twice as likely to be disciplined physically than white or latinx children. Our community is preparing black children to be physically beat down because it starts in the home. We say it makes them tougher and prepares them, not realizing that we’re only helping our white supremacist society. We’re giving them more reasons to believe that our children are tougher than their white counterparts, that our children need more force (ususally lethal) to be apprehended, subdued, or even just talked to, because they can take a beating and are still alive. Serious question: is it really so hard to believe that non-black people find it so easy to physically harm (and kill) black children who don’t follow their instructions or do what they want when we as a community do the exact same thing in our own homes? Compounded with inherent racism and tragic history of seeing black people as either sub-human or super-humans able to take more pain than others, can we honestly say we’re surprised or that our hands are completely clean?
Am I parent? No. But I’m someone who lived through this parenting method, has friends who were disciplined this way, and cringes every time I think about it or see a video circling around where a black parent is “disciplining” their child by being physically and verbally abusive. A few years ago I would have scrolled by and said “oh, yeah, that’s just how black parents are, it’s probably for the best.” Now I look at those videos and see bullies. I see bullies who were bullied and told that bullying and abuse was the only way to raise a kid. Who needs talking when you can jump straight to threats and physical beatings, right?
“I was beat, and I turned out just fine,” some might say, “and also, this how you get children to respect their parents.” Nah. I don’t buy it. First of all, just because something continues to happen or has been happening for a long time doesn’t mean that it’s correct or healthy. Also, are you really okay if you thinking beating a smaller person who can’t fight you back and isn’t as emotionally or mentally mature as you should be is an appropriate means of discipline? Secondly, this is how you get children to fear their parents, and fear and respect are not the same. I can fear the police because they can take my life, but that doesn’t mean I respect them. I could have feared my grade school teachers because they had the power to fail me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I respected them. Respect is built on trust and understanding, not threats and trauma.
“I’ll give you something to cry about.”
I’ve also noticed that emotions, or rather the expression of emotions, is not tolerated in the black community. Another phrase that’s heard too damn often usually comes after a child’s been beat. “I’ll give you something to cry about“ — what’s said after a child’s beat and is crying, but yet the parents don’t want to hear them crying. Otherwise known as a dismissal. Crying is a natural phenomena. We cry when we’re sad, angry, grieving, in pain, happy, etc. This expression, especially when said to young black children, hurts them. Not physically, like the belt just did, but it hurts in terms of their emotional intelligence.
Take me for example. I’m 21 years old, and I have a serious dislike for and fear of crying. I know in my soul that it doesn’t make me weak and that when I cry, I definitely have valid reasons to, but I still feel weak when I do cry or even think about times when I’ve cried in the past. My mother didn’t like when we cried after we were spanked and the teachers in school didn’t like when we cried after being bullied or reprimanded. So, I learned to bottle it up, resulting in my emotional intelligence being a bit stagnant until I got to college. There’s this aversion to showing emotion in the black community. I get it: we have to be strong in order to fight white supremacy or whatever, but that tired-ass excuse gets old after a while. In order to be strong, we must also allow ourselves to be vulnerable, allow our children to be vulnerable. We have to teach them that it is okay to cry when they are emotionally or physically hurt, sad, or grieving.
This mindset is also harmful in other ways, as well. It’s an invalidation of a child’s feelings, as if you whipping us with a belt wasn’t a valid reason for us to be sobbing. Black children are allowed to cry and be upset after another person has physically hurt their bodies. And they are also allowed to cry and be upset after another person has hurt them in any other way, whether that be emotionally or verbally. Our community teaches children that their feelings and responses are invalid, not realizing that this has consequences down the line and mirrors the very thing white America does to us when one of us wrongfully dies or we as individuals experience racism. I know firsthand that I was taught, through this phrase and other times where my feelings were invalidated by older black people, that what I had to say about my feelings was irrelevant. And from that lesson, I adjusted. It wasn’t a productive adjustment, but I, along with other little black children, adjusted so I was ridiculed again. This is how you get young and grown adults like myself who have problems communicating their emotions to other people or even processing their emotions on their own. This is how you get young and grown adults who don’t want to be seen as “weak” in front of ANYONE (including parents, best friends, and partners) so they keep on moving like nothing affects them. THIS ISN’T HEALTHY! I’m still unpacking this damage, and I know a lot of other people are, as well.
I had to take a sharp look in the mirror and realize that just because I had been taught something was okay and normal my entire life doesn’t mean that it necessarily is. It also took me reading articles and looking at statistics, which is sad because it shouldn’t take articles and statistics to realize that beating a child is wrong, but that was part of my process, and I’m not ashamed to say that. I also had to look internally at why I was (and slightly still am) the way I am. Why do I and so many of my peers have trouble communicating our emotions effectively? What does it say that we have made black parenting synonymous with yelling and reaching for a belt?
It’s a lot to process, and I’m still unlearning. This isn’t the end, however, and I will be back with a Part 2 to this article, so stay tuned!
Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below! How were you raised? Did you find it effective? If you’re not a parent and plan on having children, do you plan on raising your children differently than how you were raised – why or why not? And if you are a parent, are you raising your child the same way your parents raised you?
Check back in 2 weeks for another article!
*If you want to read more about physical disciplining of black children and its effect and history, I’ve linked another article here.