Who Is Shaping Our Kids’ Sense of Self?

A child’s self-concept is learned.  He senses, feels, and assigns meaning to external stimuli in his life.       Jawanza Kunjufu

The Whole Brain Child (Daniel Siegel, M.D and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.) talks about the downstairs and upstairs brain.  The basic functions of the downstairs brain are innate reaction and impulses, fight and flight, anger and fear.   The upstairs brain facilitates sound decision making and planning, control over emotions and body, self-understanding, empathy and morality.   At its best, the brain is integrated.  The upstairs monitors the downstairs; the downstairs monitors the body.

Brain integration occurs when children are supported in learning to use their brains just as they are when learning to ride a bike. Even kids growing in the most supportive situations have to develop the skills needed to effectively use the upstairs brain rather than giving in to the reactive downstairs brain; also known as the primitive brain.

So imagine kids, mostly males (ages 7- 20) involved in an activity that requires them to lie, run game, steal, duck and dodge business owners and the police, carry a persona that can be interpreted as aggressive or potentially violent while living with the threat of being arrested.  Then, ask yourself which brain are they learning to rely on?

This writing is about that activity and related behavior that puts kids brains at risk because they’re caught up in a game of hustle and be hustled between guilty White people and African-American adults.  Both are liabilities.  White people because they allow themselves to be hustled.  African-American adults because they are using our kids to play white guilt like it’s a fiddle without regard for how this can shape African-American kids’ sense of self and the impact it can have on how they perceive their place in the world.

Here’s what’s happening.

The young “hustlers-in-training” have flyers asking for money to support sports teams associated with public schools, private schools, churches and community organizations or groups such as the Southern Little Rock Association for the Deaf.   As I understand it, the kids are instructed not to let the hustled take a flyer which might be why the kids extend them the way you would a tissue on which you have blown your nose.  Thus discouraging the hustled from reaching for it, let alone touching it.

(I bought a flyer asking for money to buy uniforms and equipment for “S.O.S.A.D (Save Our Sons and Daughters) Youth” whose “goals and dreams is to play in the ALL AMERICAN YMCA NATIONAL SOFTBALL FINALS.”  The team location: YMCA, 6330 S. Stony Island.  I called.  The YM has no such team.   (SOSAD NFP started in Detroit, Michigan in 1987 but show no activity since 2002)

Anyway, kids who don’t have flyers cradle a box of Famous Amos chocolate chip cookies – the ones generally purchased in bulk from wholesale grocery houses.  But, from what I observe, the cookies are props, maybe to show the African-American male’s willingness to do whatever is necessary to earn an honest living even if it means publicly laying his dignity prostrate at the feet of the very people who, as one grown hustler said, “Think a black man ain’t shit.”    I refrained from asking the obvious question.

Although young males, up to early teens, also work the streets, their primary assignment seems to be inside of businesses.   Some of the hustlers are young but obviously too old to be in anybody’s elementary or high school.  Then there are older men who claim to be coaches or sponsors.   They work the streets and are almost never seen with the kids on whose behalf they are hustling.

Here’s how it works.

Young kids, mostly males, go in Starbucks, Panera and other eating establishments three or four at a time.  They walk through the way you do when you want to get the lay of the land.  Then they split up and go from table to table asking customers for money.  If a customer’s cell phone is on the table a kid might put the flyer on top of it. When he picks up the flyer, he takes the phone and break for the door.  All of the other kids follow.   I have, on four occasions, seen kids snatch a wallet or purse.  Whatever the thievery, try to imagine the commotion that must be going on in the downstairs brain of these young kids.  The “excitement’ created by this kind of primitive behavior probably cause their bodies to feel like a working garbage truck sounds.

On weekends, some kids come in the same business several times a day.  Sometimes Managers let the kids leave on their own.  Most of the time they ask them to leave.  Some kids just leave.  Some refuse and leave when they get ready.  Others leave a trail of profanity behind them and if the manger is white, they remember to call him a racist.   Managers say they don’t call the police, the kids know they’re not going to call.  “So, one manager asked, “What can we do?”

This is not the behavior of kids who are being developmentally appropriately silly so when you say, “Boy, what is wrong with you? they run and giggle so hard they almost knock each other down and all you can do is shake your head.   These kids are being coached and monitored by what Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) calls sub-oppressors – people who become oppressors of their own people.   They employ the same tactics as drug dealers:  give the shorty a few dollars to do their dirty work because they probably won’t get stopped.  If they do, they probably won’t get arrested.  If they get arrested, they’ll just go to ju-vey.

An eight-year old who came into Panera verified this.  During our conversation, I asked, “How would you feel if I came into your business bothering your customers? “I’d be mad,” he said.  “What would you do?”  “I’d tell you to get out.   Our conversation ended with me saying, “I want you to go home.”  His response: “I can’t. My Father is outside.”    And, he was with four other children – one girl, all under the age of ten hustling their hearts out while he stood watching like their overseer.   Granted this man may not have been the kid’s father but he was real grown.

So, I asked myself, am I witnessing African-American sub-oppressors making people who are ashamed of their history of oppression pay?   Could be.  What if this is about reparations?

Contributors to Should America Pay?  Slavery and The Raging Debate on Reparations, believe masses of African-Americans are engaged in a reparations movement because, “They have not lost the memory of the historical atrocities inflicted upon them and they will never forget or dismiss the continuation of this mistreatment by this country.”    Molly Secours, also a contributor who identifies herself as a middle-aged White woman, believes reparations are due because of “all of the subtleties that prohibit people of color from walking though the world with the same ease and privilege that most Whites enjoy.”  In a Case for Reparations (Atlantic Monthly, June 2014) Taneshi Coates says America will never be whole until it pays its debt to African-Americans who are systematically shut out of wealth-building opportunities.

People are genuinely attempting to work through the complexities associated with America paying this debt but hustling sub-oppressors are not among them.  And neither are guilty White people.

In The Content of Our Character, Shelby Steel says, guilt “makes us afraid for ourselves and so generates as much preoccupation as concern for others.   The nature of this preoccupation is always the redemption of innocence, the reestablishment of good feeling about oneself…. It can lead us to put our own need for innocence above our concern for the problem that makes us feel guilty in the first place.”

Nine and a half times out of ten, our kids are hitting up White people for money.  This gives me some sense of what sub oppressors are filling their heads with.  And, it makes me think Shelby might be on to something.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched kids walk right past me and other African-Americans and take their appeal to the white person.  Now, unless white people suffer from a collective visual impairment, there is no way they don’t see this too.  I have ease-dropped on my share of conversations between the hustler and hustled. The kids approach White people with just the right amount of deference.  The responses that “Make Me Wanna Holla” include –  You’re going to be the next Michael Jordan?  Who is your favorite football player?   I bet this is a big help to your Mother.  It’s nice of you to help your school out.

I know from experience, White people are good at asking questions but I have never heard a hustled White person ask the questions I and other African-Americans asked:  Do you have a school ID?   Does your school have a website?  Why does your coach have you out here collecting money?  Do you have your coach’s phone number?  Can I get a receipt for my donation?  But, I guess one does not ask questions if as Shelby says, “An ill gotten advantage is not hard to bear – it can be a mark of fate – until it touches the human pain it brought into the world.”

Guilt, reparations and hustling.  And our kids are doing the asking and the collecting.  African-American sub-oppressors willing to accept a dime, a quarter, a dollar as payment toward a debt that is bigger than most of us can comprehend is using “make whitey pay” as an excuse to hustle.   And, guilt-ridden White people willing to pay because “Blacks, then, become their redemption and as such, they must be seen as generally less than others with needs that are “special,” “unique,” “different.”  (Shelby)

I’ve talked with a lot of African-Americans about this.  Most are concerned about what it means for our kids.  “What can I do?” they ask.  But, sadly, it’s more a statement of resignation than an action question.  To those who justified this activity by saying, “They’re just trying to make a little money, Yvonne,” I say, “This is not training for budding entrepreneurs.   And, to those who said, White kids “do the same thing.”   I say, “White privilege is not transferrable.  African-American kids, even in 2016, cannot move around in this society with the same fluidity as White kids.  All this does is make them more vulnerable than any kid ought to be.

It is not ok for our kids to be running from a place of business because they have stolen something or to be “evicted” because they are doing something they have no business doing.

It is not ok for us to be asking the same question store managers are asking.   And, it is not ok for us to leave our children’s understanding of how African-Americans are and will response to racism and racist practices in the hands of the guilty and the hustler.

So what can we do?

For starter, we ought to follow the lead of those African-Americans who don’t give these kids money:  The message – I do not approve of what you are doing.  We can also put voice to this in our homes, churches, community organizations, CAPS programs, youth groups, parent meetings, mentoring groups, schools, theater and other arts.   We can use this as an opportunity to engage in dialogue around a salient point made by Coates: our focus needs to be on systemic racism rather than the individual racist.  If we do this, we make individual white people responsible for their own guilt and the hustler responsible for earning his own living.   We force them to leave our kids out of their self-serving mess.

Most importantly, we need to wrap our kids in the blanket of protective factors we know are required for their brain health.  These include positive socialization, consistent and growth- producing guidance and disciplinary practices and modeling from authentic cultural bearers and community influencers.

By the way, people employed as teachers, coaches, youth development specialist, etc. who are encouraging our kids by making flyers for them ought to be fired.  Trusting the fox to watch the hen house makes no sense.  To paraphrase Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man) we don’t need African-Americans who render our kids invisible simply because they refuse to see who they are and what they can become.













3 thoughts on “Who Is Shaping Our Kids’ Sense of Self?

  1. Yvonne, this is an outstanding reflection and call to action. Thank you for writing this. I greatly appreciate the various insights you bring into the fold, which range from psychological and emotional development to race and racism to criminal justice to good parenting and modeling by adults. I never bother giving to kids with these stupid, raggedy pieces of white paper for some non-existent charity or fundraiser. In fact, the kids don’t even bother approaching me, as they can tell that I and other Black folks know they are full of it. This is one of your best blog posts yet. -Kelly

    • Kelly, It is not surprising that you are among the people who show high regard for our kids. We have to do that for all of them, not just the ones we know and to whom we are related. .

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