Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the 2023 National Black Child Development Institute’s annual conference in Charlotte, NC. We had rich and illuminating conversations with early learning researchers, policymakers, advocates and practitioners of all ages. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.
Dr. Raquel Martin, a licensed clinical psychologist, professor and scientist, describes how black mental wealth encompasses mental health and well-being “because mental health and physical health and the way individuals are treated in society are all linked.” And shares how we all can start to address the challenge by first seeing “children as children.”
Chris Riback: Dr. Martin, thanks for coming to the studio.
Dr. Raquel Martin: Thank you for having me.
Chris Riback: Now, I am not going to lie, and I understand you’re in the process of reworking your website, raquelmartinphd.com, but you only have to spend about three seconds on the site to know that any conversation with you is going to have a lot of energy and is going to be really informative. So no pressure, but-
Dr. Raquel Martin: No, no, none at all. I definitely don’t feel any pressure at all now since you led with it.
Chris Riback: Yes, put it out there upfront. Expectations upfront. So let’s start with, I think, one of the key things that you focus on. What is black mental wealth?
Dr. Raquel Martin: So I like to think of black mental wealth as encompassing mental health and wellbeing because mental health and physical health and the way individuals are treated in society are all linked, right? So I think when you state solely black mental health, sometimes people forget about physical wellbeing. Sometimes people forget about their community and that being linked in. So I like to think of it as an umbrella, and mental health is under that umbrella, but there’s so much more when it comes to contributing to the wealth of the community overall.
Chris Riback: Do you talk with parents, or do you talk with children, or do you talk with both? Do you-
Dr. Raquel Martin: Both. Yes. So currently I have a private practice where I’m doing individual therapy. I also am a full-time professor at Tennessee State University. I also do speaking engagements and research as well. So everyone from, I think, my… I don’t have too many younger patients at this point, but my youngest patient has been four, and my oldest patient has been 66 maybe.
Chris Riback: Wow. Let’s start with the parents. What are you hearing from them? What are the challenges? You’re out there talking to them every day regularly at least, and getting the real stuff, getting to hear really what is on their mind, what are they challenged with. What are you hearing?
Dr. Raquel Martin: Exhaustion. So one of the biggest things I think that contributes to the difficulty with black children and black youth and black individuals being in the society overall is dehumanization, adultification, depriving black people of human qualities, and then not seeing the children as children. So a lot of times parents are parenting out a racism-related fear, because they have a concern that they’re not going to be with them all the time. We understand the fact that you’re not going to be seen as the baby that I see in the house, having to prepare you for all of these difficult things. And in doing that, we’re not able to allow them to have the freedoms that European American counterparts are able to have. So it’s kind of feeling like you have to be tough in order to protect them, but they’re also kids. So trying to find the balance of I want my child to come home safely. I also want them to be a child, and trying to balance it. It’s like walking a tight rope and it can be incredibly exhausting.
Chris Riback: It sounds exhausting. And then for the children themselves, what’s the impact of that? Everything, you don’t need me to tell you, I need to hear from you, and you correct me if I’m wrong, professor, doctor. Everything we do as parents, the children see, they watch. And so parents who have to be behaving the way you just described, what effect does that have on the children?
Dr. Raquel Martin: It depends on how it’s done. So I always feel as though if we’re able to explain what’s going on, if we’re able to have the conversation about this is why I am trying to protect you, then that can be easier for the children to not feel as though they’re not being trusted. Because if you’re being more stringent on rules and things like that, they’re just like, “My parent doesn’t trust me. They’re being difficult.” Instead of just saying that the parents want you to be alive.
But a lot of times parents don’t have that ability to do that. There’s a significant wage gap when it comes to black families. We’re still paying the same amount of bills everyone else is paying, but we’re making significantly less. So most of the time we have to do more. So we don’t really always have the time to stop and have a conversation, and then it can have a disruption in your relationship with your child.
So I think it’s good to have events like this when you’re able to slow down and converse and work within community. But I think sometimes parents who are parents on racism-related fear, they have this thought process of the world is tough, so I’m going to be tougher because I don’t want my children to walk out and think that they’re going to be treated the same way. And they’re not, but that can be a disruption in the relationship with the parent, and it can just be difficult.
And it also, it places emphasis on the wrong things. A lot of times children will just feel like parents are being strict, and sometimes they will feel like the issue is their race, but race isn’t the issue. Racism is the issue. So if we don’t take the time to slow down, which is incredibly difficult, we can kind of disrupt the relationship that we have with our children, which it’s the most salient relationship you’re going to have. In their mind, their most salient relationship is their friends, but caregivers are the most salient relationship they’re going to have growing up. So it can be… Honestly, I’d always describe it as it’s a tightrope.
Chris Riback: And that’s a tightrope, but that’s also an incredibly tense way to live.
Dr. Raquel Martin: It is, and especially since when it comes to black children or black youth, it is life or death. There is the aspect of, honestly, parenting all the time with children, you don’t know what they’re going to do. So you already have the stress of what is that? Where’d you get that chainsaw? But it’s also thinking about them also being safe. And one of the things that becomes incredibly difficult is as black parents and individuals, a lot of us were reared the same way. So it’s hard to foster something in your children that has never been fostered in you, that you haven’t recognized in yourself. It’s hard to tell your children it’s okay to take a break when you never take a break.
So I feel like it’s also that exhaustion of you’re trying to rear your children in this one way, but you haven’t accepted the fact that you need to take a chill pill sometime and also show them your full realm of humanity. They have to see you making mistakes. I hope to make at least one or two mistakes in front of my children a day. So then I could say, “Oh, well that happened. Let’s figure out how we’re going to manage it.” Because imagine a world where children don’t feel so bogged down by the fact of making mistakes, anxiety and depression, and feelings of shame and guilt. A lot of that is based in what happens if I do something wrong? Oh, I do something wrong, I try to figure out how to do it right, or I get help. That’s the goal.
Chris Riback: Well, you’re making me feel terrific, because if making mistakes makes one a better parent, then I must be a fantastic parent.
Dr. Raquel Martin: It’s the goal, right? Because we’re going to become their inner dialogue. Bottom line. I hear my mom’s head voice in my head all the time. “Something isn’t steamed appropriately,” or, “Oh, well, that wasn’t a very good kind thought,” or, “Let them get in front of you, you’re not running late,” whatever, when I’m driving.
But you also want it to come into your mind when you’re thinking like, “Oh, I just did such a stupid job.” Well, everyone has difficulties. You want it to be normal, and you don’t want them to think the perfection is the goal. And the reason why it’s so specific within the black community is because it could have been life or death. Burning biscuits for goodness’ sake, or not listening to this exact aspect of direction. So when you’re reared in this aspect of obedience instead of respect, a lot of things become way more difficult. You feel like you have way more limitations. You were brought up that way, and we kind of are working now to figure out a way to rear our children in a way where they’re able to thrive.
But many generations, not even many generations ago, a generation or two, the goal was simply to survive. And when you’re dealing with survival, that’s obedience. But if we want our children to thrive, we have to work on building respect. And I feel like children are so amazing. The reason why I really enjoy working with child therapy is it’s before we get to the societal norms where… Kids say whatever they want, and they also have a lot of freedom. And they also, they could be like, I want to be a shark today, a doctor tomorrow, a firefighter the next day, because they have this realm of creativity. And I just feel like sometimes when it comes to society, a lot of times when it comes to society, the responsibilities take that away from us as adults. And I think that’s why a lot of us gravitate towards children is because we miss that. It’s like, I remember when I used to want to be a shark, and now I just want to see what my 401Ks look like.
Chris Riback: I just want to get to bed by 10:00 PM.
Dr. Raquel Martin: I want to get to bed by 10:00 PM or oh, that’s not a fiscally responsible decision. We want children to have that as long as possible, and black youth don’t get to have that. So we’re trying to prepare them in a way, we’re trying to combat the adultification, dehumanization that society has put on. But as a result, sometimes we fall into the same lane and you have to be twice as good. No, you can’t do that. Did you get an A or AAA on that paper? What is a AAA? Who knows? But you have to get it. It’s just trying to combat racism-related stress as a parent, while you’re also likely dealing with racism in your skin as a parent as well. It’s just a lot.
Chris Riback: It’s a lot. It’s a lot to keep in mind, and if you do have your mother’s voice in your mind right now, I bet she’s saying, “That was a great conversation.”
Dr. Raquel Martin: She was probably saying, “Talk slower,” to be honest.
Chris Riback: That’s not it! She said, “That was a great conversation.” Dr. Martin, thank you for coming by the studio.
Dr. Raquel Martin: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.