Black Psychologist Who Came of Age in the Jim Crow Era Shares What Black Children Today Need to Thrive

A young Black girl runs through the grass
A racist and colorist society can damage the innocence of Black children. (Getty)

Long before she became a doctor, BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya was a little girl curious about the world and innocent of the labels put on her and those who look like her. 

"Oh mom, can I go to the colored bathroom? Can I please go,” BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya pleaded with her mother in 1963. 

"Yeah, go ahead and go,” her mother told her. 

It was the Jim Crow era, racial segregation was enforced by law primarily in the Southern United States. But at 6 years old, Garrett-Akinsanya was filled with excitement to go into this “colored” bathroom, imagining pink, green, yellow and purple interiors. She ran in only to see that everything in the bathroom was white. 

She walked out, disappointed and went to her mother, "Mama, those people lied. That bathroom was not colored. It was white just like at home,” she said. 

She recalled her mother replying, "Bravada, they're not talking about the bathroom. They're talking about you." With the innocence that only a child possesses Garrett-Akinsanya told Inside Edition Digital, she couldn't quite conceptualize what that meant.

That same day, she approached two water fountains. One that had a “white” sign by it and another that said “colored.” To her, “white” easily translated to clear and “colored water” to something akin to Kool-Aid. Just as she walked towards the colored water fountain, a white girl around her age was just about to turn the sprocket when the girl’s mother grabbed her by the arm and told her she could not drink from the colored water fountain. 

The white girl threw a fit as she was being carried away begging for “colored water,” Garrett-Akinsanya said.

But as Garrett-Akinsanya watched this all happen, she said she instinctively knew the water was going to be good because parents never wanted little kids to have sweets. She ran to the fountain, turned the sprocket herself and saw that the water was clear. “I think a lot about that day,” Garrett-Akinsanya said. “About how my innocence was lost when I started noticing that I was being treated differently in society.”

Garrett-Akinsanya is a therapist based in the Minnesota metropolitan area. She currently works with the American Psychological Association to develop a public education campaign to address racism, hate and discrimination. Though the Jim Crow era is thought of by many as a period in history long ago, she says Black children continue to experience a loss of innocence to this day. 

Social and systemic factors play a large role in child identity development, down to the words we use, according to Garrett-Akinsanya. “Devil's food cake is dark, but angel's food cake is white. Magic's okay unless it's black magic. Mail is even okay to get unless it's blackmail. And in our country even a lie becomes okay if it's a white lie,” she explained. Language such as these, which may seem minute, contribute to the cycle of logical interject of dark being bad, white being good, she said. 

“I've been on that battlefield my whole life and it's not changed, not enough,” Garrett-Akinsanya said when comparing her own experience of growing up as a Black child in America to the experience of the Black youth she works with today. She shared a sense of disappointment that in 2020, society is still announcing accomplishments achieved by a Black person for the first time. “Long as we keep having people be the first, then we know we haven't made it,” she said.

When do children start noticing differences in race?

Black people in America go through a procress of “becoming,” that starts the very day they are born, Black Garrett-Akinsanya said. In 2009, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania released “Racial identity development during childhood.” This study features a section centering the developmental progression of racial identity in African American children.

Children before the age of 3 see colors and see difference; the concept of ethnicity has not yet reached their minds, Garrett-Akinsanya said. “Everybody's treated the same,” she said. “They feel good about everybody else. The world is great.” 

But by three, children are able to categorize people by race, the study said. “They may actually just say, ‘Oh, is your face chocolate?’ Or another will say, ‘And your face is vanilla.’ They don't see anything negative about any of it,” Garrett-Akinsanya added.

Children as young as 3 can also internalize colorism, showing a preference for light because they may see other people prefer or prioitize people with lighter skin.   

Children as young as 5 to 7 begin to have a social awakening, the study said. Children around that age become capable of accurately identifying racial labels based on socially constructed skin color identifiers. Garrett-Akinsanya said children at this age think that they can be any color they want, any day they want. 

By the age of 8, Black children begin to internalize white is good and black is bad, according to Garrett-Akinsanya, especially if they haven’t deliberately and intentionally been taught that nobody is “better” than them and that they are not “better” than others. By the age of 11, kids start to claim who they are and get a sense of identity.

Garrett-Akinsanya explained a damage to white kids has been simultaneous to the damage of Black kids, but in a different way. The damage to white children is their lie that white is superior, that they are better than, smarter than, more beautiful than and superior to every other person who is dark. At the same time they see themselves as superior, their frame pushes Black kids down as being inferior. “So it's not just, ‘I'm better than you.’ ‘You're less than me,’” she said.

What are some social and systemic factors that force a Black child to grow up?

Garrett-Akinsanya said school is one of the first places where Black children face discrimination and experience that the way they are being treated differs from their white peers and peers of color. She explained society communicated using call and response, “I say hey, you say yo. Hey, yo. Hey, yo." But in school when teachers are teaching and a Black child says something in response, they're considered to be speaking out of turn and thus get reprimanded.

Teachers can sometimes contribute to the loss of innocence of Black students, Garrett-Akinsanya said.

“So at school let's say there's a young Black boy named Jamal and it's going to be Monday Night Football and Ms. Jones, his white teacher, puts on the board that her class is going to have to do 20 problems of math and turn it in tomorrow. Well then Jamal's going this is Monday Night Football and he said, ‘Oh, Ms. Jones. Why are you putting that up? We've got Monday Night Football. The Vikings have been winning.’ And Ms. Jones will say, ‘Be quiet, Jamal.’ ‘I'm just saying.’ And she'll say, ‘Hush Jamal.’ And Jamal of course would turn to his neighbor and say, ‘Danny, don't you understand? Tell her Danny.’ So then he's defied her three times. She gets closer to him because she doesn't understand the construct of the concept of call and response. She gets closer to him and he said, ‘I'm just saying.’ She says, ‘Okay. Go to the principal's office.’ He's going to get up. He's going to be mad. He's going to kick the chair and there he is suspended just because she didn't understand call and response.”

But a Black teacher, Garrett-Akinsanya said, would say, "Yeah Jamal, it is Monday Night Football and you of all people better have my homework ready. You are one of the smartest kids in the class. You can do it." The teacher would have agreed that it's Monday night, lifted him up, and put him on display for being a genius, she said. This would cause the student to be proud of himself and comply. “Those are things that are integrated in the system because white people are used to being in charge of everything and not having to learn about other cultures,” Garrett-Akinsanya said. “That is their privilege because they set the rules.”

As a psychologist, Garrett-Akinsanya visits schools frequently and notices special education classrooms primarily hosting Black kids and gifted and talented programs primarily hosting white kids. She explains the decisions in which certain students go into either programs are impaired, based on the constructs of understanding the culture and understanding what is genius and functional in various cultures.

Black students also notice different treatment of students in the classroom, including when they raise their hands and the teacher calls on the white children and not Black children. “The kids experience that, they know that, they feel that, they see that,” Garrett-Akinsanya said.

Black American children also see disparities in healthcare Garrett-Akinsanya said. They see it when access to medication or access to healthcare is either denied or poor decisions are made. A 2001 United States Surgeon General David Satcher report titled Race, Culture, and Ethnicity revealed African Americans are more likely to be incorrectly diagnosed than white Americans. 

Black people often wait longer before going to the doctor, in part because Black people do not feel they have ownership of their own bodies, that they don't have a right to wellness yet, Garrett-Akinsanya said.

“We're still discovering our rights,” Garrett-Akinsanya said. “We're still, my goodness, saying ‘Black Lives Matter.’ We're not saying that just to white people, we're saying it to ourselves. So kids see that.”

How do Black children react to racism? How does this affect how Black people grow up?

What are the ways in which Black children in America react to racism? Garrett-Akinsanya said they internalize the situation and feel helpless. 

“They feel shame, lonely, isolated, afraid, but just a whole lot of hurt,” she said. “They do things in their behavior externally that let us know that they're not all right. A child who was formerly quiet, talks back and gets loud. A child that was formerly loud, suddenly gets quiet. A child that's very peaceful and never hits anything or anybody, kicks the dog. A child who has a decent sleep schedule, can't sleep anymore. Their eating changes. Their habits change. Their attitudes change. And they do things that get them in trouble when they used to not do them.”

Many Black children look to outlets of creativity not just to survive, but to thrive, according to Garrett-Akinsanya. They think outside of the box because the box is not often designed for them. At a young age, many Black children are tought they have to work twice as hard to get half as much, but this idea “breeds this notion of having to be a superwoman or superman before you get equal,” Garrett-Akinsanya  said. “So, if you want to get ahead and you got to work twice as much just to get equal, does that mean you have to work four times as much to get ahead? And then we become workaholics and we become driven in a way that's not healthy for our bodies, or our minds or our spirits.”

Creativity can be seen through the way kids dress, their singing, dance, the way they tell stories. “The sixties was nothing compared to this group because y'all have social networks, Facebook, Instagram,” Garrett-Akinsanya said. “I mean, stories get told all over the place. And so, the creativity in the way Black youth, from children on up to adulthood, the way you harness your energy and your spirits, that is something to deal with in the world.”

Talking to Black children about violence against Black people

Many parents attempt to shelter their children from harm ever-present in society, but that may not be the best technique to keep children holistically safe, she said. “Kids are not dumb.” Garrett-Akinsanya said. She explained the job of the parent to give the child context in a way the child can understand it. Children see and know more about violence in our society than their parents think. “Some of us sit there and look at the news for hours and we expect our kids not to be traumatized,” she said.

It is important to give children context because they make their own translations to what they see when something is not explained to them. Garrett-Akinsanya remembers growing up in Texas during the Vietnam War. One of her brothers was in the Navy and the other in the Air Force. She heard on the news that soldiers were engaging in guerrilla warfare, hand-to-hand combat. “I thought it was gorillas, G-O-R-I-L-L-A, the apes,” Garrett-Akinsanya said. “I thought my brothers were fighting gorillas. I would go to the zoo, I'd be so afraid of the gorillas.” 

Having been exposed to something without an explanation, Garrett-Akinsanya jumped to her own conclusions. 

Garrett-Akinsanya has been working with families after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis. The video of a white police officer kneeling on Floyd’s until he stopped breathing has been displayed on television and all over social media. 

She tells parents not to show children the video because it’s traumatizing. Instead, parents should tell the truth in a different way. 

“You can certainly expose children to the fact that somebody got hurt and they got killed because they didn't like that they were Black,” she said of violence against Black people in general. “The people who did it, they didn't like them because they were Black because sometimes people don't like folks because they're Black. And that's not a bad thing for a parent to say, because guess what? It's the truth.”

Parents need to teach children to not hate people. That can look like communicating to children “in our family, we don't hate people who are not Black. We don't hate people who are Black. We don't hate people at all. Everybody has a right to be here.” Garrett-Akinsanya believes there is no problem with bringing children to protests, as long as they are safe. By doing this, Black children become surrounded by people who support their right to live and a variety of different communities.

Parents also need to reiterate to their children that keeping them safe is their priority. 

“[Kids] internalize a sense of safety that their parents will protect them, and that protection expands beyond that march, beyond the violence in the community, to being at school,” Garrett-Akinsanya said. “That's all of our jobs to create safety for those kids, emotional safety, physical safety. And if we do that, they will fly, because all they need to know is they got a nest to fly back to if things get scary.”

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