Think Out Loud

Report offers suggestions for supporting teens experiencing racism

By Rolie Hernandez
Sept. 21, 2021 9:34 p.m. Updated: Sept. 22, 2021 8:29 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Sept. 22

The National Scientific Council on Adolescence released a report on how anti-Black racism affects adolescents and gives suggestions on ways to support them. Three University of Oregon professors were a part of the council. Jennifer Pfeifer is a professor of psychology at UO and is the co-director. We speak with Pfeifer and co-director Joanna Lee Williams, a professor at Rutgers University, about their work.

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This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB. This is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. A new report came out recently that’s focused on the way young Black people in this country are affected by racism. The report is called the ‘Intersection of Adolescent Development and Anti-Black Racism.’ It looks at things like school based, disproportionate discipline for Black students, and policies that call into question whether Black Lives Matter. The report was put out by the National Scientific Council on Adolescence. I’m joined now by the two co-directors of that council. Jennifer Pfeifer is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Oregon, Joanna [Lee] Williams is an Associate Professor in the School of Psychology at Rutgers University. It’s good to have both of you on the show.

Jennifer Pfeifer/Joanna Lee Williams: Thanks for having us.

Miller: Joanna Williams, first. How did this report come to be?

Joanna Williams:  This report really was the collective effort of those of us on the council who agreed that was really our first Council Report. It’s our first product and we agreed around the importance of this topic. And there are clear reasons for that. We know that the science supporting the existence and negative impacts of interpersonal racism, structural racism and anti-Blackness. The science is irrefutably clear. Racism negatively impacts many aspects of healthy adolescent development from mental health and self esteem to academic behaviors. These various forms of racism result in reduced access to resources. It normalizes and helps us accept racist behavior and results in less support for positive development within schools, communities, and other institutions that serve Black adolescents. For us as a council bringing together the science, as deep as you heard from the title, with what we know about core developmental needs of adolescents was a clear priority for our first report.

Miller: Jennifer Pfeifer, what’s special, what’s particular about the age group you’re focusing on, adolescents, which you define as beginning around 10 years of age and ending in people’s early 20s?

Jennifer Pfeifer: This extended period that spans about a decade and a half is really a remarkable one with so much growth and development and learning. What’s really exciting and important about this report is how we apply our understanding of adolescent development in general to understand how maybe barriers or challenges to experiencing important aspects of adolescent development can affect the development of Black youth. What we’re doing in adolescence is trying to discover things about ourselves and adapt to the world around us. The report focuses on two key aspects of adolescent development, key milestones, including Identity and belonging, and agency and exploration, and helps us understand how these could be affected by anti-Black racism.

Miller: Let’s turn to one of those. The first one you mentioned, you write this in the report:  ‘As their understanding grows, adolescents become particularly well equipped to appreciate the complexities of racism at a structural level such as historical and contemporary systems of power and oppression. As a result, complex race-related issues may take a central role in identity formation for many Black youth.’ Jennifer Pfeifer, first, what are the implications of that?

Pfeifer:  I think it’s two-fold... well, I think it’s manifold implications. One thing that’s really important is recognizing that adolescents have the capacity and want to engage in this vision and developing a sense of themselves, and that they understand this at multiple levels, spanning outwards from the self into their families, their schools and their communities, and society as a whole. So it’s this appreciation of the complexity that facilitates growth in their identity. There’s a sense in which Black adolescents do draw upon this resilience and pride in their identity. But I think it’s really important that this should not all be placed on youth and on Black individuals in this country. We need to recognize what we may be doing in families and in our communities and as a society that is disproportionately negatively impacting the development of Black youth and Black families.

Miller: Joanna Williams, you note when I say you, I mean that you and others who collectively wrote this report in that same section, you write this: ‘Healthy identity formation for Black youth includes understanding the negative views held by others about Black people and developing positive self identity and positive racial group identity despite those negative views.’ In a sense, you’re talking about having to swim against huge cultural currents. How do you foster that?

Williams: There’s multiple ways to support that. I want to start by correcting a potential mis- assumption which is that most Black adolescents, because of this current they’re swimming against, feel bad about themselves. We know that’s not the case, and that you can be Black in our country and have a sense of pride and joy, and also be quite aware of anti-Black racism. Those two have existed side by side for Black youth now for centuries in our country. Part of supporting that positive identity in the face of interpersonal and structural racism is helping you connect to cultural pride and a source of understanding. Here’s where I came from, here are my ancestors. Here are more recent stories of resilience and resistance and persistence of family members who are from maybe a previous generation or who are current role models of mine. Supporting healthy identity development means supporting a sense of cultural pride and cultural socialization. But it also, frankly, means giving youth some scaffolding around what we call in the racial socialization literature ‘preparation for bias’ so that youth are aware and know how to cope when faced with very specific instances of racial discrimination. I think there’s two parts to supporting healthy identity development. One is around cultural pride and the other is around supporting awareness that youth are not caught off guard.

Miller: Joanna Williams, to stick with you for a second, what do you see as the specifically school-based issues that are most salient here?

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Williams: Well, there’s a number that we identify in the report. We know from the data that Black youth are experiencing disproportionately punitive disciplinary consequences. So they’re being pushed out of schools at rates that are higher than their peers from other racial and ethnic groups. There’s also disproportionality in access to advanced classes and gifted enrollments and things like that. The kinds of extracurricular supports and other enrichment opportunities that can really help youth to thrive as they’re on their educational pathway. There are also a number of other processes that happen on a daily basis. Some of them relate to, and end in, the consequences of negative discipline. Things like being viewed as more adult or more grown than one actually is. We used the term ‘adult indication’ in the report and that’s something that disproportionately impacts Black youth. It can happen in an interaction between a school staff member and a young person in the school setting. We also note the importance of seeing yourself represented and affirmed in the curriculum in ways that move beyond shallow treatments of, say, slavery, or very brief moments in history and then that’s something that doesn’t happen either. So there are ways in which school climate and content and curriculum, in addition to opportunities and access and consequences related to discipline, are all part of the experience for many Black youth across the country.

Miller: I’m talking right now with Joanna Williams and Jennifer Pfeifer. Together, they’re the co-directors of the National Scientific Council on Adolescents, which put out a new study that looks specifically at the effects of anti-Black racism on adolescents. Jennifer Pfeifer, let’s focus on one particular school district in Oregon that we’ve been talking about a lot recently and keeps making national news, the Newberg School District. the School Board there voted last month, among other things, to ban the display of Black Lives Matter signs. How does that fit into what you’ve been studying?

Pfeifer: That’s a great question. I think it has impacts on a number of levels. On the one hand, we were just talking about the importance of pride in one’s identity, and and having a ban on display of signage or flags or other things that support that Black Lives Matter and other minorities identities matter, that can be a very visible type of reminder that your identity is being challenged. Your worth is being challenged just in the ways we were talking about. But I also want to bring up the idea that it also may convey... in the report, we talk about context outside of school, right? We talk about families, we talk about communities, but we also talk about peers and social media. So one of the things that strikes me is that, as you mentioned, there was a ban that the school board voted on. But there was also a history of high school students engaging in online forms of racial discrimination and hate speech. I think it’s important to consider the ways in which actions by schools and communities may send messages to adolescents about what types of behavior are acceptable.

We talk in the report, which is really bringing together a large amount of evidence, many, many studies about the impact of anti-Black racism on adolescent development. We talk about that there, these negative impacts of experiencing racism online. We know that these online communities and ways for youth to connect are important to all adolescents, including to Black adolescents. And yet we have to balance that with the reality that they will experience these negative... they have these negative, aggressive and racist kind of experiences online, and families need to think about preparing their youth for that in the ways that Joanna was just talking about. I think one of the insights from the report is seeing the way these different contexts interact. Your adolescent’s own peers and their relationship with them, in both the online and offline world, are going to be affected by the messages that the community is sharing through actions of schools, and conversations and family members.

Miller: Joanna Williams, what would you tell members of this school board? And I don’t mean to... we needn’t single them out alone because they don’t exist in a vacuum. The political effort behind the ban on, for example, among other so-called political signs, Black Lives Matter signs,  it’s not just in Newberg. What would you tell school leaders based on the reams of research that you’ve been reviewing and taking part in?

Williams: It would start by acknowledging that anti-Blackness or the systemic marginalization of Black people has persisted for centuries, and it manifests at the interpersonal level and it manifests at the systemic and structural level. So we need to find ways to redress the centuries worth of anti-Black racism. Without going into the details of what the Black Lives Matter movement stands for, I think when we think about how do we affirm Black identities. Teachers and other educators being able to have something like a sign that conveys the signal that ‘I see you, I care about you, I’m here for you,’ can go a long way in helping young people feel like they have adults who care about them. That is central for all adolescents for all adolescent development, but it’s particularly important in the context of anti-Blackness to think about something like a small sign or a small symbol sending a huge message that you belong here, you’re welcome here, you’re affirmed here. And those are core needs of adolescents.

The other thing I would do, and I’ve been reading some of the interviews you’ve done on this topic... I love that adolescents themselves are part of this conversation because I think so many youths... sometimes we sort of write them off as not caring. But so many youth are really invested in this and see it as being important. One of the things our report does, we have some youth reviewers who made lots of great contributions, but we also talk about ways youth themselves in their own communities can engage in these conversations and we see them leading on activism all the time. So I would encourage you to keep doing that, so their voices can be part of this conversation.

Miller: It seems like there is such a tricky line there because between wanting to include the people who are most affected and not putting it on the shoulders of the people who are in various ways suffering because of the world that adults and older adults have given to them. How do you think about that line, that it’s not up to kids to solve these problems and yet it would be detrimental if we don’t somehow include kids in figuring this out as well?

Williams: I think it’s absolutely a both/and. I I completely, 100% agree that we’re not asking young people to solve the problems. But we need to listen to how they are being impacted by the problems and to the extent that they have some willingness to tolerate people who haven’t been tolerant of them. Young people often have really innovative ideas on things that can change and are able to make those contributions. I think creating opportunities for that to happen is important without relying on youth to solve the problems that we across many generations have created. So I think there is a balance that we need to just revisit and be mindful of in that process.

Miller: Jennifer Pfeifer, it says in the report that this age group has both particular sensitivities because of their youth, but also potentially more resilience, more ability to respond to interventions. How do you build resilience?

Pfeifer: That’s a great question. I think how you build resilience will really vary across development. Knowing that adolescence spans a decade and a half, there’s certainly a lot of range there. But if I can try to speak in generalities, I think it’s a combination of what Joanna was mentioning about engaging adolescents and showing... because this active engagement and agency is so important to healthy development and developing a sense of self-efficacy, that I have strengths and I can contribute. We talk about adolescents having a fundamental need to contribute. So I think that that is part of fostering resiliency. As you’re looking at youth who may range from an 11 or 12 year old pre-teenager to someone in their late adolescent years transitioning into college or the workforce, the way you do that specifically will obviously vary. But  the general mindset is to scaffold their growth through this by giving them opportunities to explore, to learn and to support them when they inevitably will have failures and setbacks. Those kinds of experiences will build resiliency in youth.

Miller: Joanna Williams, the report on the very cover says ‘Report #1′’ for this relatively new Scientific Council on Adolescence. What’s next?

Williams: We have a couple of priority areas in keeping with, for us, we are a scientific council. So we are as good as science that’s out there. We are looking to some of our experts to talk about what we know about digital technology in adolescence and there are many reports on the topic that we are trying to focus on, specific aspects related to kind of mental health. Thinking about how do we balance issues of safety for younger adolescents in digital spaces as well as how do we use those as tools for learning? Another priority area for us is bringing together the sciences. This speaks to what Dr. Pfeiffer just talked about, on purpose and meaning and contribution in adolescence. So what do we know about the science? What can we learn from, and what can we do based on the research on the topic of purpose in adolescence?

Miller: Joanna Williams and Jennifer Pfeifer, thanks very much for joining us today.

Williams/Pfeifer: Thanks, thanks for having us.

Miller: Joanna Williams and Jennifer Pfeifer are the co-directors of the National Scientific Council on Adolescence. Jennifer Pfeifer is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Oregon, and Joanna Williams is an Associate Professor in the School of Psychology at Rutgers University.

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