Understanding How Racism Impacts African American Families

There are many unanswered questions surrounding the impact of racism on African American families—from one family member’s experience to how that experience impacts the rest of the family.  Although there are thousands of research studies documenting the continuing impact of racism on African Americans, we have very little research on how racism affects African American families over time. In several studies, I have tried to explore the effects of racism on family dynamics.

What do I mean by that?  Let’s say the father of an African American family is denied a job due to racism. What feelings will he bring home (anger, depression, resentment, etc.) and how might they impact his wife and children? Or perhaps the whole family is forced to move. How will being forced from their home impact family relationships?  In either example, how might couple relationships and parenting be changed?  And if they are, how might that play out over the years, and even show up in the lives of generations yet to come?

In one study we asked African Americans to talk about the death of someone close to them. Racism was an issue in the grieving of most interviewees, and in many cases a central issue.  Quite a few talked about how racism impacted that person’s life. And roughly half said their death was partly caused by racism—most often medical racism (receiving less adequate care than someone white would have received, or being denied care).

This topic area is difficult to research.  It is challenging to gather information from multiple family members and even more challenging to gather information over a period of years. Plus many people are not nearly as good at tuning into their family dynamics as they are at turning in to their own experiences as individuals. It is for this reason I decided to explore the use of fiction to examine how racism might impact African American family relationships.

Understanding Social Issues with Reading

My book The Impact of Racism on African American Families: Literature As Social Science, published in February 2014, looks at what African American authors of 27 novels had to say about the impact of racism.  Those novels were not necessarily written with a focus on the impact of racism, but racism was part of the environment, sometimes a big part of the environment, the families in the novels dealt with.

For example, in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, a young woman realizes she has to flee to the north to avoid being used sexually by the white man for whom she had been working.  She had been caring for her own sick mother, and when she flees, the care responsibilities fall to her younger brother.  The young man’s caring for his mother changes his life profoundly. Years later, long after his mother had died, those experiences make him an angry, judgmental, demanding, and not-loving step-father.

The Power of Storytelling

Fiction is of course fiction.  But it often has grounding in real life experience. In fact, there is evidence that novelists frequently use their own experiences or the experiences of people they know in telling their stories.  That grounding in experience can make novels valuable in social science research where it is extremely difficult to carry out conventional research. Novels may be one of the best sources we have.

The novels I used in the study, by people like Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gloria Naylor, and Nobel-Prize winning author Toni Morrison, are wonderful reading.  Plus they get into the complexities of families over time, which is what I wanted to study.  And where they touch on racism, they are clearly talking about the same social system of racial differences in advantage, privilege, treatment by the government, and so on.

Tips For Exploring Social Issues Through Reading

I love reading, both fiction and nonfiction.  I read novels because they tell good stories, but I also read them because they depict cultures, personalities, situations, historical eras, places, etc. that are outside of my own experience.  My best advice to young readers is read what you want to read and to read it in the ways you want to. But if you want to explore social issues through reading fiction, here are some tips:

  1. Use reading to learn more about social issues in your world. Take what you read inside of you.  Remember what you read and make a point to reflect on it and to talk about it with others. Think critically about what you read and about what it says about the world you live in.
  2. Seek material that helps you to understand the world. Relate what you read to important issues in your own culture and life and to try to understand other cultures and other lives.
  3. Question, question, question.  Question whatever you read.  Fiction is fiction, but maybe nonfiction is fiction too.  So question what you read.  What might not be true here?  What might the author not know or distort?  How might other people see things differently?

Image Credit: By Zarateman (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Paul Rosenblatt

About the Author

Paul Rosenblatt, Ph.D.

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