What Is Vicarious Racism and How Does it Affect Children?

Children are constantly exposed to news of violent racism like the recent terrorist attack in Buffalo, New York, but experts are just beginning to understand how it affects them.

Single father comforting a son in his lap while working from home
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After the racist shooting in Buffalo, New York, I sat with my Black adult patient as he wailed with sorrow. His whole body shook. Unfortunately, it was like déjà vu for me. As an adult and child psychiatrist, I witness the impact of widely-televised anti-Black racist violence on my Black patients, including children and adolescents. Some are angry, some are depressed, some are terrified, worrying about their safety as Black people in America.

What Defines Racism?

In truth, there are many definitions out there. Racism refers to attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, backed by social, institutional, and political power, that reinforce a system of dominance, rooted in oppression, against individuals based on their perceived racialized group.

A racist ideology is usually associated with physical attributes like skin tone, hair texture, and facial features. Racism can also be specific to a particular group, such as anti-Black racism, racism directed at individuals racialized as Black. It is important to underscore that racism is based on race, which is a social construct, created in the 1400s by the Portuguese to arbitrarily justify the enslavement of people on the continent of Africa. "Blackness" was synonymous with inferiority while "whiteness" was equated with superiority.

What Is Vicarious Racism?

Vicarious racism, also referred to as secondhand racism, refers to exposure to racism experienced by others. Exposure can occur through reading or hearing about a racist experience, witnessing a racist experience, or seeing it televised on the nightly news. Traditionally, it was thought that one could only experience vicarious racism if the person targeted was a close friend or relative, but contemporary experts have begun to challenge this school of thought.

With the prominence of social media and widely-televised police brutality and violence towards Black Americans, more individuals might experience vicarious racism than was previously supposed. For example, a recent nationwide study showed that Black adults reported more adverse mental health symptoms during time periods in which high-profile police killings of Black Americans, or their resultant legal decisions, were reported in the media. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when anti-Black and anti-Asian racism was widely publicized, Black and Asian adults reported poor mental health symptoms due to vicarious racism.

The effects of vicarious racism can also extend to physical health, affecting cortisol levels and blood pressure, for example. While most research examining racism and health focuses on the individuals directly targeted and the research focused on vicarious racism is largely focused on adults, children are far from immune.

How It Affects the Mental Health of Children of Color

It is important to acknowledge that though vicarious racism has adverse effects on the mental health of children of color, there is little research on it. Although there is a growing field of research about the mental health effects of racism on adults and children of color, psychiatric research is primarily focused on white children, and the racist experiences of children of color have been understudied and have not been prioritized.

What is known is that caregiver experiences of racism are associated with depressive symptoms in their children and lower ratings of psychological well-being in adolescents. Children experiencing vicarious racism can also experience low self-esteem, anxiety symptoms, and increased substance use. Children can also have behavioral changes and become more withdrawn. Because children are in the process of development, which is not only shaped by their family but their wider social environment, they may be particularly vulnerable to vicarious racism and threats to their sense of safety.

Fewer studies have examined the effects of non-caregiver experiences of racism on children and even less have looked at the impact of anti-Black police violence in the media or other publicized racist events, such as the rise of anti-Asian racism and violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even so, a study in JAMA Network Open showed that adolescents experienced feelings of hopelessness when confronted with media and online-based vicarious racism. Teens also expressed that they felt that adults underestimated how aware of racism they were.

What About White Children?

Some experts maintain that all children, including white children, are adversely affected by vicarious racism. Others disagree. As mentioned, vicarious racism occurs when one is exposed to secondhand racism by close family contacts. In order for white children to experience vicarious racism in the traditional sense, they would need to have a close family contact who is a person of color, and America still remains a pretty segregated country.

Most white children live in predominantly white neighborhoods and associate with mostly white people. When it comes to white adults and media-based vicarious racism, white adults are less likely to experience adverse mental health symptoms in the context of highly publicized police violence towards Black Americans. This has not been studied to the same scale in children. However, a small number of white teens have described feelings of hopelessness related to the pervasiveness of racism in a recent study, similar to their peers of color. So whether or not white children experience adverse effects from vicarious racism, and to what degree they do, is likely a multifactorial and varied issue.

With the rise of anti-critical race theory discussions in schools, there have been a lot of discussions questioning when and whether white children should be exposed to the realities of racism in the first place, in case they should "feel badly for being white." In addition, school curriculum continues to center the struggles of white people and undervalues the struggles of non-white children. This experience is quite different from children of color, who will not just experience vicarious racism, but will also be direct targets of it. In addition, there is a long history of white society being desensitized to violence towards Black people which continues to this day. White parents and caretakers will need to be intentional about addressing this within themselves and their children.

How Parents Can Help Children Cope

It is crucial that parents acknowledge and validate their children's experiences with vicarious racism, rather than minimizing or dismissing them. It is important to discuss and name racism for what it is and explain to children that racism is pervasive in society, and that it is natural, normal, and healthy to feel sadness, hopelessness, and fear when witnessing racism.

Parents should be aware that if children are exhibiting severe depressive symptoms for more than a couple of weeks, including changes in appetite, sleep, low mood, irritability, or loss of interest in normal activities, they should call their pediatrician for a mental health visit. In addition, if children begin to express thoughts or plans of suicide, it is important to alert their pediatrician or go to an emergency department to get the child evaluated. While many times, the depressive symptoms will subside as more time passes after a racist event, sometimes children can develop clinical depression or anxiety, and need further support from a pediatrician or child and adolescent psychiatrist.

Finally, parents must do their best to empower their children. It is actually protective when children and teens are involved in anti-racism activism and are more aware of the impact of racism in society. Socio-political awareness can help children to feel less powerless and to feel that they can be part of making the world a better place.

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