What Is RES?

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Defining Racial and Ethnic Socialization (RES)

RES is the process through which children learn about race.

RES specifically includes the direct, explicit messages children receive about the existence of racism and the meaning of race, as well as related indirect or implicit messages. Especially for young children, parents and family members are the primary source of RES.

Sometimes, RES is intentional, such as a mom buying her daughter books with black main characters. Other times, RES is happenstance, such as a son observing his father looking disturbed when he is watching a news broadcast about an unarmed black boy being shot by police. Some parents may not realize that RES occurs whether they talk about race or not. Even choosing not to explicitly discuss race, race-related values or current events, communicates values and beliefs about race.

Parents may tailor the types or amounts of messages they give to their children based on their children's characteristics (such as gender, age, skin tone, sexual orientation, etc.) in order to better prepare them for experiences they anticipate for their child. For example, research has shown that black parents may give more messages warning about mistrust of other racial groups to their darker-skinned sons compared to both daughters and lighter-skinned sons, and this may be because darker-skinned boys are more likely to be viewed as criminals. Also, parents may give more messages about being proud to be black to their very young children, but may later give messages that warn of discrimination to their adolescents because such messages may be more relevant as adolescents develop the cognitive abilities to understand the meaning of racial discrimination, and as they gain independence and begin to have their own experiences of discrimination.

Why Is RES Important?

Parents of black children in the United States, like all parents, are faced with the responsibility of raising their children with culturally-appropriate values and principals that prepare them to one day take on adult roles in society. However, parents of black children, along with parents of other ethnically underrepresented youth, are also tasked with teaching their children how to navigate, and sometimes even survive, a society that may give messages that undermine parents' efforts. Parents often must counteract messages their youth receive from broader society including the media, and the judicial, educational and health systems, to name a few.

What the Research Says

Research shows that RES helps to reduce the effects of racial stress and improve coping related to racially charged experiences. RES helps to shape racial identity and self-concept. Positive racial identity contributes to resilience in several ways. A positive sense of self provides a buffer from racism and discrimination. A healthy sense of their racial and ethnic group membership can help prevent the internalization of negative stereotypes and perceptions. Internal beliefs and perspectives on race are related to psychological difficulties, including depression and anxiety. Maintaining positive beliefs and perspectives may help prevent such difficulties.

Negative Perspectives of People of Color

Black children and adolescents who come to understand that others may have negative perspectives of people of color, but who have these messages mediated by parents and other important adults are less likely to have negative outcomes and are more likely to be resilient despite adversity. They are also more likely to learn the skills to manage stressful experiences successfully in order to remain safe and to minimize the negative impact of such experiences.

It's Good to Communicate About Race

Some parents of children of color have concerns that talking with their children about race and ethnicity may cause their children to see themselves as victims or to be hypersensitive; however, research actually shows the opposite — youth who rarely receive messages about race and ethnicity have poorer psychological well-being. Additionally, research shows that children as young as 3–5 years old are aware of racial features. Thus, not talking about race may communicate that race is a taboo topic that should not be acknowledged. An expert on racial socialization, Howard Stevenson at University of Pennsylvania, said that “[Not giving messages about race] is fine until it's not.” Said another way, youth who do not receive many messages about race may be fine until they encounter racial injustice; but they are unprepared for such experiences and may suffer harm and negative outcomes as a result.

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