He’s wearing a “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt with the painted faces of Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and many more Black victims of police brutality that he’s spent this summer protesting for.J.J. is 13. He’s already tired.
J.J. has learned that even children like him are no exception to police brutality, and the stories of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice serve as a scary reality for him. He knows he cannot play with toy guns, or wear a hoodie. The story of Breonna Taylor’s death here in Louisville makes him worry that his sister could get shot in the privacy of their own home.
“Someone in my family could be that person, or I could be that person,” J.J. said.
Earlier this summer, J.J. hosted his own children’s march in response to seeing his mother and other adults having their own protests. He told his mom that children his age were upset too, and have their own fears.
“I’m scared to walk home,” he said. “It’s a good thing that my bus stop isn’t too far from my house.”
Like many children in Louisville this summer, J.J. has seen his hometown on the national news and the National Guard patrolling the streets. He’s also grieving the recent loss of his father and dealing with the effects of COVID-19. But the racial injustices exposed this summer alone would have been traumatizing enough.
He’s experiencing what Dr. Steven Kniffley calls racial, or race-based, trauma: the direct, perceived, or exposure to a threat of danger that is solely tied to a person’s racial background and their experiences with discrimination and microaggressions.
It’s a term that’s getting more attention after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; Kniffley, an associate director for Spalding University’s Center for Behavioral Health, hosted a town hall along with Mayor Greg Fischer to discuss it earlier this month. He says that racial trauma is a public health issue throughout the nation, and should be treated that way.
“The ways in which racial trauma manifests in terms of your psychological, physical [and] emotional symptoms is no different than how traditional PTSD shows up,” said Kniffley. “One can experience trauma for a variety of different reasons, but only persons of color can experience trauma based on their racial background.”
The state’s minority health status report in 2017 found that, when Kentuckians were asked to self-report the number of days in the past month in which their mental health was not good, Hispanic and Black residents reported the highest rates, respectively.
The effects start early: Kniffley says that as early as age 3, children of color begin to understand they’re different. A year or two later, they begin to assign value to their race. And soon after that, Kniffley says, children of color have already started to internalize racism. By school age, children of color likely have mostly white teachers — and more opportunities for race-based trauma emerge.
“There’s a box that we have to fit into, and if you don’t fit into that box then there is something wrong with you and you are policed based on that,” said Kniffley. “If we think about Black males, we are taught that we must be dumb, deviant and dangerous individuals. So if I’m in the classroom and I happen to excel academically, I have to hide that from my peers, because being seen as smart is something that’s considered white people do.”
Kniffley says that these conflicting images often lead children to question if their Blackness is “all good or all bad.”
“There’s this thread of internalized racism where they have to think about, are these [victims of police violence] really that bad? Do they deserve to be killed? And if so, what does that mean for me? Does that mean that I’m also a bad person?”
J.J.’s mother, Katrice Gills, would have liked to shield her son from the video of George Floyd pinned under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
Gills was unaware that his friends already shared it with him.
“I would never ever have allowed him to watch that if I had known because that is traumatizing,” said Gills.
But as a 13-year-old who is active on social media apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, it is hard to constantly monitor what J.J. sees.
And Gills knows the media he consumes can be very harmful for children’s understanding.
“When I was coming up, we thought of the police and firefighters as heroes,” Gills said. “They were supposed to protect us, and for my son to be 13 and that’s his biggest fear, that’s a problem to me.”
Gills has also brought J.J.’s younger brother to the caravan protests. J.J. says that he knows his 3-year-old brother is starting to understand his Blackness despite his young age, and he’s picking up more than they thought.
“I’m pretty sure he knows about police brutality. One time we were actually at the protests and he said, ‘I can’t breathe’ once… my mind is just like, oh my god, you know? …he knows what that means. Even though he’s 3, he’s very much awake.”
A Generational Conversation
The current events have forced Michelle Randolph, a Louisville mother to 5 and 6 year-old Black daughters, to figure out a way to tell them a version of the truth they can understand.
“The biggest thing is not doing harm, right?” she said. “Not doing harm to yourself and not doing harm to your kids. But how do you do that? I think you have to be honest, and so that’s what we did.”
She told the girls about Breonna Taylor, and that she was killed by the police.
Needing to have these conversations is very disheartening, she said.
“You’re having to have this conversation generation after generation, after generation. And I think that’s when the hopelessness starts to creep in,” said Randolph. “I’ve heard it in the voice of my parents and now here I am having this with my children. When do I get to stop having these conversations?”
Randolph, a performing arts teacher at Mill Creek Leadership Academy, says that while these times have been overwhelming, she is trying to practice having patience for herself and her children. Like Gills, she says that she tried to take breaks when she recognizes that she needs them.
By having more patience within herself and her kids, Randolph said she has learned one simple thing.
“I think the biggest thing is still just letting them be kids.”
University of Massachusetts Medical School psychologist and executive director of the Child Trauma Training Center, Dr. Jessica Griffin, says that while children may not fully comprehend events like Taylor’s death, they understand right versus wrong and fairness.
“We teach our kids to use your words when you’re upset about something or use your words to express when things aren’t fair. That’s kind of like what we’re doing with protest,” Griffin said. “But sometimes people aren’t listening… and kids are aware of that.”
Kids learn from watching adults, Griffin said. One way to help them is to help yourself.
“You’ll hear a lot now, about the importance of self-care, for parents, for teachers, for all of us. And we don’t mean that to sound cliche but it is really important that we’re putting our own oxygen mask on first, as parents, before assisting our children,” said Griffin.
Griffin says that children can experience direct and second-hand trauma from their caregivers — as early as in the womb.
“If their primary attachment figure, a person that they rely on to meet their needs, is impaired with in some way or is being mistreated themselves, that also affects that child,” said Griffin.
Unavoidable, But Treatable
Kniffley says that for people of color, racial trauma is unavoidable. Racial trauma is “the water that we are all swimming in,” said Kniffley.
”Because we are not the perpetrators, nor the builders, of systems of racism, it requires a collaborative effort to dismantle these systems,” he said. “It’s hard to tear down a house that you haven’t built in a neighborhood that you are forced to live in.”
But Kniffley recommends three things that can help alleviate that burden: children need performative spaces to express their Blackness, safe places to have conversations about their emotions, and to be taught how to navigate experiences of racism and discrimination.
J.J.’s mother is already using some of these strategies; J.J. says he’s grateful that mental health care and conversations are welcomed in his house.
“My mom, she talks about everything.. We have the longest conversations… most of them end with us in tears. Our conversations really bring us together more than anything.”
But for many Black families, resources such as therapy or counseling may not be accessible nor culturally acceptable. Kniffley says that throughout American history, medical professionals — including psychologists — have exploited communities of color and added to this distrust. Because of this, skepticism about mental health care in communities of color continues.
Within his own neighborhood, J.J. says he knows that some families don’t practice mental health care like his does.
“I wish I could have conversations with kids who are not as ‘woke,’” he said. “As soon as the pandemic is over, I would love to talk to kids who don’t really know about it; I would love to become a mentor.”
Even though J.J.’s mom sometimes worries how her children will digest the events of the world, she believes that honesty is the best way to address things.
“I know that we want to shield them and withhold information for their good. But you’re not,” said Gills. “We have got to get to that place where we can be communicative with our kids because the kids they’re paying attention, they’re listening, and they’re taking it in.”