We’ve Got Your Back!

I want to share with you a note that was sent to the Social Therapy Group after our “Play Pride” event, Sexuality, Gender and Development. As a contribution to our dialogue, Yemayah raises a profound issue concerning the development of African American youth: I wanted to say that I enjoyed yesterday's discussion — it was interesting, provocative and funny. Later, I had some thoughts about race and how it pertains to the development of young people of color that I’d like to bring into the conversation.

During the conversation we talked about allowing people to grow and develop without oppressing them with our individual and/or collective conservatism. Each story — the one about Mark's son and Tinker Bell, and about Christine's young patient who dressed up in his sister's clothing was touching and very human. I began to think about those examples and how they would play out if those boys were African American. Now, I admit that I don't know the racial makeup of the young boy in Christine's example, but I assume he wasn't African American.

African American boy
African American boy

We understand that the world we live in is very oppressive in many aspects. I believe that progressive growth and development is severely lacking in the African American community and I have a theory on why I think this is true. African American children (especially males) do not have the same "wiggle room" that other children have. By "wiggle room" I mean there is not the same space for self-expression and trial and error. This is evident in how the school system treats young African American boys. African American boys are often feared and judged by their size, the way they move and the way they play and express themselves. African American mothers have to teach their young sons to negate their natural, authentic selves in order to fit into the paradigm that is acceptable to the people who are in positions to alter their lives. Many mothers in my community are extremely fearful and will not tolerate their children behaving in any way that might be perceived as queer, criminal or intimidating. This is the beginning point of oppression. It starts in the family and then continues to play out in the larger society; the world. 

I say all this to point out that African American children often do not have the luxury of stepping outside of societal expectations because then they risk negatively altering their lives in a permanent and irreversible way. Using Mark's example of Tinker Bell, an African American child's parent probably would not allow a male child to even entertain the thought of dressing up like a female. I do not believe that conservatism is the sole rationale for this reaction. African American parents know that their children have to be extraordinary just to be able to compete in the world. Our children cannot afford to screw up because they may not get a second chance. I understand that there are other issues that perpetuate this idea of having to be exemplary, such as limited resources, lack of quality education and plain poverty. If a young African American child makes "poor choices" his family may not have the resources to get him back on track; or may not have the power or know the right people to help them. So believing they are protecting their children, these parents are very reluctant to allow behaviors they feel will undermine their child's success in life.

Does this mean that the African American community cannot afford the luxuryof growth and development? Are we destined to be oppressed and stuck in the quest to fulfill societal expectations? If this is true, how does this oppression play out in our families, relationships and community?

I am interested in hearing your perspective regarding my theory.  

— Yemayah


Dear Yemayah,

Thank you for writing — the questions you raise are profoundly important. Here’s what I’m thinking: conservatism, oppression and lack of opportunity (for all people) and the limited choices that follow from them are deeply upsetting. The institutions of education, psychology, healthcare and the justice system are in sharp decline. Racism and poverty are most certainly alive and well in our country. And as you point out, the profound scarcity of environments for African American youth to grow is a stark reality.

To me, the question is what we can do about it. Must we accept the profound limitations of an oppressive culture and adapt our children to the material and emotional poverty that exists? Limit childrens’ capacity to play and perform and inhibit who they can become as adults? Are these our only choices? Is development, as you ask, an unaffordable luxury for the African American community?

girl gender
girl gender

I say no. Development is part of what it means to be a human being. Do white youths have greater access to environments to play and perform? Sadly, yes. But it’s important to know that playing with gender and sexuality has consequences, no matter who you are. The question is always: how do we work together to create environments that support all people?

You describe the particular constraints and pressures on African American youth — their limited resources, the very real fear that making a “wrong” choice can affect their future. Not knowing the right people who can help them if they get into trouble can destroy their lives. These are the profound consequences of underdevelopment, and I see what you’re describing as a profound need — the need we all have to break out of the isolation of racial identity and work together, to learn from each other and to be there for one anothers’ children.

Lenora Fulani
Lenora Fulani

Addressing this need — creating institutions and practices that are environments for growth and development for all people — has been central to the last forty years of building our community. It’s a development community whose work was begun by Fred Newman, the founder of social therapy, a working class Jew from the Bronx; and is carried on by Lenora Fulani, who grew up poor in Chester, Pennsylvania and was the first African American woman to run for the U.S. presidency in all fifty states; along with thousands and thousands of progressives nationally and internationally who are working to support the growth and development of young people in the context of an explicitly multi-racial movement that has development as its centerpiece. [You can read more about Dr. Fulani’s work on the subjective and psychological consequences of growing up Black and poor in America in this white paper.]

As a social therapist who grew up in the racially polarized neighborhood of East New York in the 1950s, I strongly believe that it is our responsibility to build community together. We need to build with everything we’ve got — our underdevelopment, our passions, our love of humanity, and our fears of a rapidly destabilizing world.And to build together, we all have to grow emotionally. It is the play and performance of white, Black, gay and straight America saying to one another — we’ve got your back!

— Christine LaCerva

I invite all of our readers to continue this important conversation. We want to hear from you!