Through the Eyes of a Child

Harvard Medicine, the magazine of Harvard Medical School, recently published this piece by Elizabeth Gehrman — as part of its special issue on racism in medicine — on the impact of “strife, unrest, and outrage over the deaths of Black people” on Black children especially: 

Maybe it hasn’t actually been the worst year ever, as internet memes are calling it, but for most of us, 2020 really has been “extra.” Against the backdrop of a pandemic that has created economic havoc and kept people from loved ones and purpose-defining work, the country has endured its greatest social unrest in decades, largely driven by a relentless daily barrage of horrifying racial incidents delivered up close and in real time. And, in the ultimate betrayal, these incidents—from the killings of Black men at the hands of police to countless “Karen” encounters on public and private property—have often been encouraged by the very government meant to protect us.

If you, as an adult, have been feeling anxious and distressed, imagine what all this is doing to children.

‘This year has been exceptionally challenging for Black youth,’ says James Huguley, interim director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center on Race and Social Problems. ‘Because of the racial disparities in our broken system, they’re more likely to know someone affected by COVID-19. The social isolation makes everything worse, and most kids who receive mental health support get it at school, where most of them have not been since February. And at the same time all these racial atrocities in policing are happening.’

Racial trauma operates on many levels, Huguley notes, from microaggressions to personal experiences with discrimination to longstanding, intentionally instituted structural disadvantages that over hundreds of years have led to ingrained economic hardship, housing insecurity, carceral system injustice, unsettling family dynamics, and other adverse consequences. ‘We do surveys with Black youth here in Pittsburgh, and kids ages 10 to 15 are reporting that people have been racist toward them,’ he says. ‘By tenth grade about fifty percent of them have encountered racial discrimination.’ . . . 

According to a 2018 paper in Social Science & Medicine, children are especially vulnerable to indirectly experienced racism because ‘children’s lives are inevitably linked to the experiences of other individuals, and they are in critical phases of development.’ The researchers’ review of the literature on vicarious racism and child health found thirty-eight statistically significant childhood outcomes—including ‘general illness,’ weight issues, depression, anxiety, socioemotional difficulties, delayed cognitive development, and externalized behavior problems—that can be associated with a child’s indirect exposure to the prejudice and discrimination that friends, family, and strangers may experience and to experiences that ‘threaten a child’s sense of the world as just, fair, and safe.’”

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