How Hate Speech Affects Children

Dr. Allison Briscoe Smith describes this in several articles from the Greater Good Science Center: In a PBS interview a few years back, Beverly Tatum, a clinical psychologist and former president of Spelman College, explained that messages about race are like a smog, filling the environment with ideas about who is good, who “counts” as a person, who is to be feared, and who is respected and admired. When our kids see a white man on TV sucker-punch a black man at a Trump rally, they go to school and talk about what they’ve seen.

Young children internalize this behavior and learn very quickly who “belongs” and who doesn’t. We must remember that young children, and even teenagers, still have very impressionable brains.

Even into adulthood, our children continue to learn about race within the context of what their developing brains can understand. Children under the age of eight tend to make big generalizations because they have a hard time seeing people as individuals.

Thus questions like “Are all Mexicans bad people?” “Are all brown people Mexican?” “Are all Spanish speakers bad because they are Mexican?” are hard for some young people to distinguish.  This can be especially challenging in the current climate where politicians and their followers are using hateful language, especially those who are getting the message that they and their families are bad and deserve to be sent away.

Additional racial anxiety can be felt in multiracial families. There have been several stories where a multiracial little girl worried that she would be separated from her mother because Trump wanted to send brown people away—and she was dark while her mother was white.

For many children, the hateful language used in this election is making them feel like they don’t belong.  It’s also making other kids and teenagers feel like they have the right to taunt or tease those kids.

The speech and behavior of the Trump campaign has and can cause hostility among people, and can have a real social impact, as when white high school students in Indiana chanted “build a wall” to predominantly Latino students from another school, mimicking Trump’s campaign slogan.

On playgrounds, kids tease each other with “He’s gonna send you back to your country.” Even in a therapy session, a white therapist was asked by her Latino eight-year-old client: “Who are you voting for? Do you not like Mexicans either?”

This is a psychological and cultural problem that needs to be addressed by parents, educators, and mental health professionals.

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