This is an excerpt from "Man-to-Boy Becoming Man-to-Man: A Son’s Perspective. Which was a chapter that I wrote in Black fathers: An invisible presence in America (2nd ed.).
In any beginning counseling course, one of the first things that a counselor in-training will learn is the importance of providing the clients that we work with an unconditional positive regard. Rogers (2007) explained that unconditional positive regard refers to the act of placing one’s personal feelings aside, and providing a non-judgmental environment for the client to grow within. This concept seems to provide a useful frame for understanding the environment that my father provided for me, as I developed and grew into a man. Over the course of my life, I cannot recall a time when my father made his love contingent upon any particular choice or achievement that I might make. Even when he was unhappy with a particular aspect of my behavior, or when we disagreed, or even when life events pushed us apart, my father never closed himself to me. There was, in fact, no time in my life that I believed that my dad did not care about me.
One major way that my father was able to provide this non-judgmental environment was in the way that he buffered me from the judgments of the outside world. Both he and my mother were zealous defenders of their children, in public. Parham et al. (1999) discussed the tendency for black children to find themselves in educational settings where they are expected to do poorly. Boyd-Franklin (2003) explained that black children who attend majority white schools can be exposed to educationally and socially challenging situations around being “the only one.” These descriptions ring true in terms of my personal experience of one of few black children who attended the predominately white schools that were available in my neighborhood. Though there was little that my parents could do about the social challenges presented by my white and Asian classmates, my parents were able to stand between me and the more institutional level threats.
While in elementary school, there were a number of times when my mother and father were forced to assert their selves in my defense. Earlier in this chapter I alluded to the need for a black boy to know how to defend himself, living in a predominately white neighborhood. Though I would not consider myself a person that is prone for physical altercations I found that, between grades three and seven, some of my peers refused me the choice. This became more problematic, in that the administrators at my elementary schools had a tendency punish the person that they see first, and not necessarily the one who started the fight. My parents took exception to this unofficial policy and on multiple occasions, my father visited the school in order to insist on a more fair approach. This is not to say that there were not consequences to be had at home; it was just that my parents refused to let me be mistreated by the school. Boyd-Franklin (2003) explained that black parents who make a habit of insisting things to school personnel could be labeled as trouble makers. From my teacher’s reactions, I believe that this label was given to my father. Lucky for me, he did not care.
Along similar lines to social institutions, my Father has also been protective of me in social situations. Though one might find dissenting opinions within my current group of friends and colleagues, I have always been a shy and thoughtful person. As a child, I was just as comfortable playing alone, if not more so, than I was interacting with groups. This was especially apparent when I was placed in new situations, and was particularly evident when in the presence of other black men. For me, the “black macho role” was just not immediately apparent. This is why, when my father took me to Harvey’s Barber Shop for the one time, when I was around age 10 years old, the guys around the shop focused on me as though I was the proverbial sore thumb.
I remember sitting in the barber chair, with Harvey, the shop’s owner, giving me the first professional hair cut that I remember. I have to admit that it was an intimidating environment, with the guys talking “smack” (i.e., trading personal insults in a way that challenged each other not to respond with a more clever retort, while giving the impression that you were not affected by the comments of others) at a level that was just beyond me. Yet however intimidating the barber shop might be, it was also a space where everyone was included. This meant that both I and my dad were open game, and Harvey started in on both of us. He talked about how I flinched when he tried to comb my hair, and compared me to my father, explaining that he was “tender headed” too when he was my age. Then he joked with my father about the trouble that he used to get into. I remember how my dad just laughed and talked about how old Harvey was, and I began to realize that though people there was a large amount of smack talk, that people were mostly getting along.
The moment that most stuck with me about this event, was when someone was speaking to my dad and said to him; “he’s a quiet kid, isn’t he” referring to me. This was not meant to be an insult, nor was it taken as such, yet it was a definitive moment for me personally, and in terms of my persona in that particular social setting. More than that, it was a rare moment when I would be able to hear what my father actually thought about me. His response was to tell the other man, “not really… he’s just not used to you guys, but he’ll talk your ear off when he gets to know you…” In that short statement, my father provided me with the room to grow into that particular social environment, without having to fight the expectations and assumptions that came with being a “quiet kid.” But more than that, my father showed me that he understood my way of being, and provided me with a template for how to acculturate myself into a community of black men.
Though, like at the barber shop, my father provided implicit guidance in terms of how I might grow into my own, I never felt that he pressured me to move in any direction other than forward. I have seen many of my friends spend a great deal of energy attempting to follow in one of their parent’s footsteps. For some it may be in terms of career, in others it might have to do with sports or some other parental expectation. In terms of my parents, the only real push was towards doing well in school, but even that was kept to a reasonable level. My father seemed to be more interested in providing me and my sisters with opportunities to try new things, than choosing what those things would be. Humorously enough, even without pressure from him, my path seemed to converge with his in many aspects of my life. An example that comes to mind is that of when I began to play football in the 9th grade.
I remember being afraid to ask my dad for the money to play Pop Warner football. I honestly, do not understand why I was worried, as he had agreed to pay for my earlier Kung Fu lesions, and before that the Boy Scouts, and before that for my saxophone, and so-on. At the time, it just seemed like it would be too expensive to do. Yet to my surprise, he not only let me sign up, helping me to convince my mother that I would not get hurt, but he became one of the main boosters for our team. He seemed to approach my football experience with the same level of enthusiasm that was usually reserved for the local professional football franchise. I remember having a conversation with him about how he felt about me playing football during my first season. We were driving somewhere, maybe to practice, and I asked him if he played football when he was a kid. To my surprise, he not only played football, but he was very good at it. He explained to me that he had always wanted get me into the sport, but that he did not want to be one of those parents that make their kids follow after them.
In that one statement, my father made it clear that I could do whatever I wanted with my life. I learned that he would cheer for me regardless of the activity, even if he would cheer somewhat louder for the ones that he particularly enjoyed. What continues to strike me is that this was an intentional style of interaction. My father was not just acting on instinct and personality traits; he intentionally checked his personal feelings and placed my goals before his. More than building a non-judgmental environment, I have come to realize that behind his non-pressuring stance laid an underlying level of trust. My father trusted me to make my own way, not in some aloof or ambivalent shirking of responsibility, but instead with a resolution to support me and provide guidance when the occasion presented itself.
Boyd-Franklin, N. (2003). Black families in therapy: Understanding the African American
experience (2nd ed.). New York, NY US: Guilford Press.
Palmer, B. E. F. (2011). Man-to-Boy Becoming Man-to-Man: A Son’s Perspective. In M. E. Connor, J. L. White (Eds.), Black fathers: An invisible presence in America (2nd ed.) (pp. 129-141). Routledge Academic.
Parham, T., White, J. & Ajamu, A. (1999). The Psychology of Blacks: An African Centered
Perspective (3rd ed.). New Jersey, Prentice Hall.
Rogers, C. (2007). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 44(3), 240-248.
By, Bedford Palmer II, Ph.D.
As I have been learning more about the story of Rachel Dolezal, I find myself oscillating between confusion, irritation, and plain old anger. I struggled with the intimacy of this person’s deception and ongoing appropriation of a voice that she has no right to. I found myself personalizing her actions in a way that was both uncomfortable and compelling. But then I remembered that I’ve seen this story before, and that this person is only special in that she actually did it.
If you have seen James Cameron’s Avatar, you will be familiar with one of the most recent dramatic portrayals of the White savior. The main character, a member of an occupying military force, inhabits an artificial body that was built in order to infiltrate the Na’vi society. As the story progresses this character becomes increasingly attached to the Na’vi way of life, and falls in love with the Na’vi princess (or at least the daughter of the two most important leaders of the main Na’vi community). Eventually, he forsakes his own species and not only join’s the Na’vi, but becomes their messiah. The story of Rachel Dolezal seems to follow an analogous, if less grandiose trajectory. However before we get into it lets talk about race and ethnicity.
Race refers to a system of classification, a taxonomy, which is defined by the phenotypical (outward physical) traits of the people being described (Parham, Ajamu, & Obasi, 1999). This means that race is all about how a person looks. Moreover, racial classification is defined by the power structures in society, so it is not an identity that can be accepted, rejected, or transferred. In essence society designates one’s race based on one’s appearance, and there is not much that can be done to change this, short of a fundamental transformation of societal norms.
Based on this definition of race, Rachel Dolezal seems to be a White woman who has been masquerading as a Black woman. However as I watch this story unfold, the issue that folks seem to be missing in their analysis is that Rachel Dolezal is reported to have studied concepts of race, ethnicity and culture. This would imply that she understands the definitions and would seem to have been careful in her words. In an interview she explained that she does not like the term African American, which is an interesting distinction to make, as the designation of Black refers to race, while African American is an ethnic category.
To explain, the concept of ethnicity can be understood as a descriptive understanding of people’s backgrounds, based on geographical and genetic origins. Unlike race, the grouping of people into a particular ethnicity tends to be based on mutual agreement. This means that people have more freedom to accept or reject their own ethnic background (i.e., I can choose whether I identify with my African American heritage). However like race, ethnicity is not something that can be transferred to those who do not spring from a particular ethnic group (i.e., I can not choose to have a Czech heritage if my people are from Ghana). This would preclude Rachel Dolezal from being able to make any claim of being African American, as she is unable to simulate the historical connection that is implied in the ethnic classification of African American.
Here’s the thing. As it is clear that Rachel Dolezal seems to know the distinction between race and ethnicity, I find it funny that she said that she does not like the term African American, instead of saying that she considers herself Black, and not African American. Moreover, if Dolezal possesses such a high level of sophistication in terms of her understanding sociological terminology, I find it unsettling that so many are making excuses for her behavior. As a scholar in ethnic studies and social justice leader, it would seem that Dolezal should be held to a higher standard that the general public. Yet, the reality is that even staunch civil rights scholars and activists seem to have been bending over backwards in order to give her a pass. In fact, it is as if she is special for some reason, and that she gets to be taken care of in a way that most actual Black women would not.
Rachel’s expression of dislike for the term African American, in the context of asking about her identity, positions her in a space of attempting to be seen as authentically Black, as opposed to being seen as a person who is simulating (read appropriating) Blackness.
This positioning is important in understanding that Dolezal seems to be shielding herself behind the scholarly meaning of race while using the colloquial meaning of the term Black. This common meaning of Black tends to refer specifically to Black Americans, as opposed to other members of the African diaspora. This seems to imply that Dolezal actually does want to be considered African American, and to be seen as a holder of African American culture.
Culture refers to the system of traditions, customs, and beliefs that shape the way that people understand and interact with each other and the world (Sue & Sue, 2008). Though culture is definitely learned, and of course can be taught, it is developed early. Therefore it is likely that though culture can be transferred, a person’s original culture remains but is augmented by the new information. By definition, Culture is fluid and difficult to pin down.
Here is why all of this is a problem. Whether Rachel Dolezal wants to masquerade as a Black woman or not actually does not matter. What does matter is that some members of the media have decided to rebrand this White privilege laden, cultural appropriative action as some sort of legitimate expression of an acquired Black racial identity.
This stance flies in the face of a social scientific understanding of what it means to be a member of a specific race or ethnic group. Black identity is not just a social construct; it is also a political identity. One cannot gain membership to a politicize group based only on their personal identification with that group. One might be able to support Black communities, or ally with Black social movements, but mimicry does not denote group membership.
One needs to look no further than the long history of Black people attempting to pass for White. Regardless of whether that Black person was able to live their life as a White person, I challenge anyone to provide a case where that passing Black person was actually able to be understood as authentically White. In fact, as with racism, this type of racial relationship moves in only one direction. Those with White privilege can apparently claim whatever identity they like, and those without it are limited to appropriation of identities that are more distant to Whiteness than their own ethnic reality. In essence the story of Rachel Dolezal, in so far as it relates to race, is a story of White privilege. Like the main character in Avatar, she may have the ability to mimic Blackness, but she also has the option to discard her pseudo-Blackness like the artificial identity it is.
Similarly, based on this individual case of Black mimicry, many have begun to misuse the word “transracial,” in an attempt to equate cultural appropriation with the experiences of transgender and transsexual individuals. This use of the term “transracial” has been repudiated by Assistant Director & Advisory Council Member of the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network, Dr. Kimberly McKee and her colleuges as “erroneous, ahistorical, and dangerous.” They explained that the actual meaning associated with transracial is “the adoption of a child that is of a different race than the adoptive parents.”
In regard to the association of the term “transracial” with trans communities, recent comparisons to Caitlyn Jenner’s process of coming out as trans, and her subsequent transition from male to female are off base for two reasons. First, Caitlyn has publicly acknowledged her membership in a marginalized community as a trans woman. She has made no claim of being born biologically female. Second, the transitional process of moving from one sex to another is more invasive and irreversible than tanning and curling one’s hair. Caitlyn had to subject herself to hormone therapy, psychotherapy, and major surgery in order to make her transition.
Beyond the technical differences between changing one’s appearance in order to look racially Black, and being a member of trans communities, there is also the statistical reality that Rachel Dolezal represents a singular case. Though there is a social movement in Japan known as “Black Lifestyle” or “B-Style” that involves young Japanese women tanning and curling their hair in order to resemble their vision of Black Americans, as of yet there is no group of people who has been identified as White people who attempt to change their appearance in order to be perceived as actually being racially Black. Therefore if there were a simple term for what Dolezal has been doing, the closest might be “B-Styling.” As such, redefining “transracial” seems to be both incorrect and an affront to the struggles of both trans and Black communities.
This is where the outrage comes in. To compare a White woman’s experience mimicking Blackness, to the actual experience of being a Black person in the US is deeply insulting. Her participant observation of the oppression that I and other Black people have had to endure throughout our lives does not afford her an emic (insider) view, but instead allows her access to areas of Black experience that she has no right to. When your family burns down my family’s home, you don’t get to put on a t-shirt and come to my family reunion. You can ally with us, you can support us, but once you try to be us, then you are just another oppressor consuming our bodies. You essentialize and objectify our experience, and erode our collective identity. You are allowed this privilege… But I do not have to like it.
Parham, T., White, J. & Ajamu, A. (1999). The Psychology of Blacks: An African-centered Perspective (3rd ed.). New Jersey, Prentice Hall.
Sue, D. W., & Sue, D. (2008). Counseling the culturally diverse (5th ed.). New York: John
Wiley & Sons.
6/7/2015 1 Comment
By, Bedford Palmer II, Ph.D.
If you’ve followed this page for a while, or you know me through other media, you know that I feel a particular sort of way about abusing children in the name of discipline. More specifically I just cannot stand the idea that emotional abuse is the only way to make children and teens understand boundaries and responsibility. This sentiment comes from the simple knowledge that just because one has the power to enforce their will on a child, it does not justify abuse of that power. Moreover, solutions that seem easy tend to not be solutions at all. In fact, the act of humiliating a child is only an act of retribution, which might make the parent feel better, but does nothing to curb a problematic behavior, or encourage a valued behavior.
In the United States we have a long and varied history of using humiliation and torture in order to exact revenge on individuals that do not conform to authoritarian rule. The Puritans believed that the father was the master of his home, and his wife and his children were absolutely subject to his rule. Beatings, humiliation, and other punishments were common and encouraged. During the enslavement of people of African descent, this tradition of authoritarian rule was manifested in terms of flogging, rapes, mutilation, and lynching. This continued during American Jim Crow and is still present in the brutality of policing where challenging authority, especially while being a Black person, can cost you your life.
I give you this historical context in order to help make clear that this idea of valuing punishment and humiliation springs from our shared cultural history. From a cultural perspective, it makes sense that people who developed in this context would continue to value this type of practice. However, the fact that one grew up in a context does not justify the continuance of said context (i.e., just because your parents did it to you, does not justify you doing it to your kids).
Now if understanding the problematic history of authoritarian interactions does not move one to modify their parenting methodology, then I would ask that you think about the fact that punishment does not change behavior outside the influence of the punishment situation (i.e., if you are not with your children at all times, your punishments will not stop them from acting out). Moreover problematic behaviors do not materialize from nowhere. If children act out, it is for a reason. Which are for the most part environmental and either spring from dynamics at home, or from interactions at school.
A child who is performing poorly in school might be having difficulty with motivation due to experiencing high levels of anxiety or from feeling depressed. Among other reasons this might be due to interactions with bullies, family conflicts, mistreatment by teachers, or difficulties adjusting to their environment. A child might also be dealing with undiagnosed learning differences, ADHD, or other psychological disorders. Keeping these possibilities in mind, one might ask one’s self: “how does making a child’s life unnecessarily more humiliating equate to better behavior?” The answer is that it does not. In fact, you would likely cause worse behavior. Moreover, you would likely miss the actual cause of your child distress.
There are those who would make the argument that, particularly for children of African descent, it is of paramount importance that they are prepared for a hard world. The assumption is that one must attempt to ensure their child’s survival “by any means necessary,” as much worse awaits Black children in a world governed by White supremacy. This might be the case, however I question the utility of teaching our children to be quiet victims of abuse, or worse future perpetrators of abuse.
Instead of focusing on authoritarian control, I contend that we should spend our time building our children’s ability to understand and predict the natural consequences of their actions. The understanding of natural consequences, and subsequently being able to read situations and adjust to circumstances accordingly is a skill set that can be built through a more authoritative process of learning (Palmer, 2011). An authoritative parenting style is focused on providing a predictable structure that is focused on reasonable expectations (McAdoo, 1988). From this perspective consequences of poor behavior spring from the reality of the behavior (i.e., TV is available only after homework is complete), as opposed the authoritarian retribution focused style of consequences (i.e., because you did not do your homework, I am angry at you and I am restricting your access to TV for the week). Within an authoritative framework, the child dictates their access to privilege based on their own actions, leaving parents to maintain the structure as apposed to impose their authority.
The current trend of using the internet in order to shame one’s child is only a recent iteration of the authoritarian humiliation that was discussed above. The use of video in order to document emotionally abusive behavior is a particularly abhorrent practice in that it has absolutely no purpose other than the glorification of the abuser who is depicted in the video. This seems to lead to an amplification of the behavior as these abusive individuals try to out do each other, competing for the approval of online viewers who are detached from the human consequences of the abuse depicted in these videos. In effect, abusive authoritarian parenting has become a popularized trend at the expense of the dignity of everyone involved.
The New York Daily News reported that a 13-year-old girl jumped from a bridge, and that she was the subject of a video depicting her being chastised while her father cuts off her hair as a punishment. It is unlikely that the death of the young girl in this article was due to her father’s shaming video and the cutting of her hair. It was most likely a horrible experience for her, but suicide is more complicated than one bad experience. The reason that I linked this article is to show what can happen if the real problems that our children face are not addressed by the adults who are responsible for them.
In discussions of child abuse, emotional abuse is generally spoken of in terms of the dyad of “Emotional Abuse & Neglect.” Neglect refers to inaction in terms of addressing the needs of one’s child. Within an authoritarian context, the needs of children are not actually important. In terms of the use of humiliation, parents are opting to punish rather than take the time to address the needs of their child. Frequently when addressing punishment, whether corporal or psychological, I have confronted parents with alternatives such as observing a child’s class, and accounting for behavior through direct observation. The usual response is that this is time consuming and difficult, which implies that a one-time punishment is easier. When I am exposed to this type of argument I think of some friends and cousins who would talk about “taking the whoopin,” as a way to get punishment over with, as well as how they never actually changed their behaviors.
As in most things, the short cut or the easy way tends to lead to a much more difficult path. Conversely taking an authoritative stance means that parenting becomes a proactive process. One does not wait for problematic behaviors to occur, and then act in order to correct them. Instead an involved parent pays attention to their child’s daily experience and attempts to anticipate the difficulties that they might have (i.e., a child comes home seeming sad and their parent talks to them about how their day, attempting to figure out what happened). In order to effectively take an authoritative stance, one must make a commitment being an active participant in all aspects of their child’s life.
This is not to say that one must be a perfect parent. That one must never become angry, or that one should become hover over their child like a helicopter. In fact, the key to authoritative parenting is to create an illusion of independence, which becomes more of a reality as your child matures. Parenting is the process of guiding a human being through their early, most vulnerable period of development. Our actions directly impact what type of human emerges into adulthood. Conversely your approach to parenting also speaks the kind of person that you are. It speaks to your personal character. When thinking about your approach to parenting, I would ask that you not focus on what you, or your parents have done in the past, but to instead focus on what kind of person/parent you aspire to be.
McAdoo, J. L., (1988). Changing perspectives on the role of the Black father. In P. Bronstein & C. Cowan (Ed.), Fatherhood today: Men’s changing role in the family (pp. 79-92). Oxford, England: John Wiley & Sons.
Palmer, B. E. F. (2011). Man-to-Boy Becoming Man-to-Man: A Son’s Perspective. In M. E. Connor, J. L. White (Eds.), Black fathers: An invisible presence in America (2nd ed.) (pp. 129-141). Routledge Academic.
About the Author...
I'm an African American man with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology. I'm married. I am a professor, a clinician, a social justice advocate, a multicultural competence trainer, a dog owner, an ex-professional photographer (i.e., people paid me, lol), and a self proclaimed nerd, who loves Sci-Fi, Anime, Zombie fiction, cooking shows, character studies, anti-heroes, and telling people about things that I like...
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