Race socialization refers to the parenting and community child-rearing practices of a racialized community that implicitly or explicitly teach children of a racial group about their identity, place in society, and expectations of race relations.
The topic is most extensively examined by African-American scholars who have studied how African-American parents and communities communicate with their children about their racial identity and how it structures their lives within the United States.
For example, parents might engage in race socialization when talking with their children about what it means to be a Black American in the 21st Century, what they might expect during encounters with police or other authority figures in the United States as a result of their visible racial identity, and how to conceptualize their identity as a racialized minority.
Race Socialization Definition and Origins
A simple introductory definition of Race Socialization comes from Sanders (2016), who defines it as follows:
“Race socialization is defined as the verbal and nonverbal messages parents provide children about their race in relation to other racial groups within society.”
While the term may be applied across a range of contexts and cultures, it is predominantly used to explore how racialized minorities communicate with their children about race. African-American parenting practice has been the core of race socialization analysis.
As Smith, Jacobson and Juarez (2011) highlight, the origins of this scholarship is distinctly about Black parenting practices:
“Race-socialization processes are parenting practices distinctly identified with the Black community that were developed in response to the historical circumstances of White racism in the United States. Through race-socialization processes, many Black parents over generations have taught their children how to deal with issues of race and racism by implicitly and explicitly communicating with their children about what it means to be black in America, what they may expect from black and white persons, how to cope with it, and whether or not the disparaging messages of the broader cultural are true.”
Race socialization is studied by a range of sociological and cultural scholars from a range of academic traditions. One such tradition is known as the Cultural Ecological Model which was created by Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu (1986).
The Cultural Ecological Model highlights that race socialization is not just explicit but also implicit. Children both hear and observe messages that their parents send through their words and actions.
Elements of Race Socialization
Scholarship has attempted to explore the practices and strategies of racial minority parents when teaching their children about race. From the research, four key elements have emerged.
1. Learning about personal and group identity
One way in which parents socialize their children is through attempting to pass on culture, especially in the face of encroaching dominant cultures that may work to dilute or marginalize the cultures of minority groups.
Woods & Kurtz-Costes (2013) note that this task falls on both the parents as well as extended family and community members. In face, some studies have find that:
“…race socialization messages from non-parental family members had a stronger impact on race identity attitudes than did parental socialization” (Woods & Kurtz-Costes, 2013).
2. Pride in Racialized Identities
Building on the above point, Black pride is often an important element of race socialization for Black families. This is designed to reclaim identity in the face of negative media and cultural representation.
Pride in racialized identity helps to act as a buffer against negative messages and therefore acts as a message about self-confidence and self-affirmation that marginalized groups need.
L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy (2014) note that “messages about racial pride were among the most common race socialization messages for black families.” They go on to highlight that these messages of pride “can serve to buffer biases as well as instill a greater individual and group identity.”
3. Learning about position in the social hierarchy
It falls on marginalized families to delicately prepare their children for the gauntlet of racial discrimination, and through this preparatory work, children come to learn about their position in racial hierarchies.
As Thomas, Caldwell & Hill De Loney (2012) note, “it befalls on the parents to prepare their children” for “possibly hostile environments because of their race.”
The Cultural Ecological Model model originally saw this race socialization work as potentially disadvantaging children by promoting “distrust and anger toward mainstream institutions” (Harris, 2011), while more recent work has demonstrated that such messages “better prepare youth to deal with prejudice, stigmatization, and discrimination” (Harris, 2011), as discussed below.
4. protection against discrimination (including promotion of mistrust)
A literature review of studies on ethnic-racial socialization by Simon Carlisa found that there is extensive research demonstrating that Black families, in particular, place a strong focus on preparing their children for racial bias. Carlisa (2021) argues:
“Black/African American families have an extensive history of prioritizing conversations that prepare Black youth for racial bias. ERS studies centering Latinx and Asian American families revealed that generational/immigration status was an important factor for what types of ERS messages were discussed in those households.”
Studies have also found that Black families can socialize their children into mistrusting authority figures on account of historical and present-day biases in policing and institutional racism. This mistrust often encourages children to avoid officials so as to evade unwanted trouble. Such practices demonstrate the engrained problem of intergenerational biases within social institutions which, to this day, sustain inequalities in outcomes for minority groups.
As L’Heureux (2014) notes:
“…black youth observe the struggle and limited life opportunities of their parents and other black adults and decide that formal paths, such as education, are not tenable for Blacks in America.” (L’Heureux, 2014)
Categories of Parental Socialization
An influential study by Demo and Hughes (1990) created three categories of parental socialization, which demonstrate different approaches to the socialization process.
The three categories are:
- Individualistic and/or Universalistic Attitudes: This includes parents who taught their children to have a positive self-attitude, embrace the idea that all humans are equal, and to be a good citizen.
- Integrative/Assertive Attitudes: This included parents who emphasized cultural heritage and pride in your identity, the importance of standing up for yourself, and the importance of trying to get along with the dominant race.
- Cautious/Defensive Attitudes: This included parents who taught their children to mistrust authorities, understand that whites hold cultural power, and keep your distance from them to avoid harm.
Cautious/defensive attitudes were most commonly found within dominant-black communities and led to strong association with racial identity, while integrative/assertive attitudes were more common in multicultural environments, and individualistic/universalistic were found to be correlated with positive attitudes toward Black culture (Camille & Bowie, 2013).
Demo, D. H., & Hughes, M. (1990). Socialization and racial identity among Black Americans. Social Psychology Quarterly, 364-374. (Source)
Fordham, S., & Ogbu, J. U. (1986). Black students’ school success: Coping with the “burden of ‘acting white’”. The urban review, 18(3), 176-206. (Source)
Harris, A. L. (2011). Kids Don’t Want to Fail: Oppositional Culture and the Black-White Achievement Gap. Harvard University Press.
L’Heureux, L. M. R. (2014). Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Sanders, K. E. (2016). But mommy doens’t do it like that: considering cultural congruency between home and child care in the development of African American children. Guerra, A. W., & Sanders, K. E. (Eds.). The Culture of Child Care: Attachment, Peers, and Quality in Diverse Communities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Smith, D. T., Jacobson, C. K., & Juárez, B. G. (2011). White Parents, Black Children: Experiencing Transracial Adoption. Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Incorporated.
Thomas, A., Caldwell, C.H., & Hill De Loney, E. (2012). Black like me: the race socializaiton of African American boys by nonresident facthers. Esmail, A., & Sullivan, J. M. (Eds.). African American Identity: Racial and Cultural Dimensions of the Black Experience. Lexington Books.
Woods & Kurtz-Costes (2013). Race identity and race socialization in African American families: implications for social workers. In Hall, J. C., & Bowie, S. L. (Eds.). African American Behavior in the Social Environment: New Perspectives. New York: Taylor & Francis.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]