There is one thing about black parents and their parenting practices that many use to make judgments about their competency and level of caring and compassion. This is about the way they discipline their children—spanking, beating, or whipping[‘whupping’] their kids. Some spank and some ‘whup’. Either way, lots of folk can’t understand it and consider blacks unsophisticated and a violent people. Their form of parenting is frowned upon. In most cases, allegations of such parenting and disciplining children is immediate cause for investigation, potential prosecution, and being charged with an offense, punishable by law. Every child, not just one specific child, could be removed from the household, placed in foster care, and the parent[s] may be jailed. It becomes a primary gateway to child welfare system involvement. At an extreme, parents may also have their parental rights terminated .
How has physical violence, corporal punishment as a means of discipline come to be a ‘tradition’ of sorts among black parents? With white families, rarely does one hear about spanking children. …unless a chronic, easily identifiable problem. Even so, the punishment handed to such parents, rarely includes family separation. There are fewer punitive interventions for corrective measures offered to these parents. This is particularly true if the family has some wealth or influence. In the not so distant past, when an enslaved child or adult was found to be even mildly literate, that was the punishment-violence and intimidation. When they were disciplined, or were ‘whupped’, they were beaten until bloody, skin broken and often near death.
Parents, as well as other ‘community’ members, were encouraged and absolutely instructed to beat their own children and one another. Moreover, it pleased the whites to see an enslaved black parent beating their child. Many times, rather than having a ‘master’ beat their child, a parent chose and sometimes begged to do it themselves, for at least, it would come from love not contempt. The hurt, however less severe from a parent, was nonetheless psychologically devastating to both parent and child. As African blacks were forced to become more ‘Americanized’, from one generation to the next, they learned that this was the only language understood by whites. They came to adopt physical violence and verbal/psychological abuse as the ‘go-to’ form of disciplining their children. It was the model they were taught by white people as discipline-coercive control, and never viewed as purely violent. For them, it was about survival.
Just as lynching was a public event, so were beatings, used to send messages and teach lessons. Other blacks were made to witness these events. Children, too. Historical trauma and ACEs! The trauma! If you didn’t beat your child, a white person would do so, and the outcomes were certainly more devastating.
It became a common practice for black parents to beat their children- not out of intentional abuse or the absence of caring. It is out of love and fear for their children’s safety that has been handed down to them from their enslaved ancestors. An oft stated rationale for parents who beat their black child was also that “it’s better that I do this now, rather than the white man later”. The irony in this is that parents are labeled abusive for disciplining their children the way whites did their ancestors.
Black parents who hit their children not only risk drawing the attention of child protective services, who are over-represented in communities of color, but also having their children placed in foster care, which is a pipeline to the juvenile justice system and similar adverse paths that disproportionately impact black youth. Indeed, black children stay in foster care longer and in light of that trauma, they often don’t receive adequate therapeutic services.
A practice that was thrust upon them, after being forced to do so for generations, is now a punishable offense. Families can be separated if they do, when there was a time when this would be the result if they didn’t beat their children. This insight in no way assumes universality, adopted and used in every black home. In fact, the higher the education and income, the less likely that spankings are used by parents. On the other hand, the realities that exist for black and brown children and adults, has possibly caused an increase in parents hitting their children. This is not always in response to some misbehavior. It could be a warning about particular social ‘mores’ unheeded by a child, who may not understand that there are still restrictions on their movement in society. It should not be considered an intrinsic behavior, as that assumption is an ‘immaculate perception’.
Funny how practices formerly encouraged, mandated by whites relative to parenting children as a form of social and coercive control, seen as discipline, are now used against black parents. “Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” A question to ponder is why is it that, when there is a stream of straightforward logic that flows through each of us, but never acted upon until science backs it?
Some issues need not the confirmation of research to determine its validity. Visualize slavery, and the ways that the enslaved were themselves treated, where the origin of a new practice among a people without any history of violating children utilizing corporal punishment. The goal for black parents has always been to protect, care for and love black children should not inadvertently facilitate the flow through racist systems, but rather support healthy development and success later in life. Experts in child development and parenting practices affirm no solid science suggests that hitting children, to any extent and regardless of race or ethnic background, is beneficial for them or society. While many black parents hit to keep their kids from “turning out bad,
One need not fact-check, nor does one need to conduct research beyond the revisiting of American History, eyes open, to understand why black parents[and other parents of color] use physical ‘beatings’, ‘whuppings’ or even what some deem ‘light spanking’ to discipline their children. Violence begets violence! If fact-checking were to be the source of determining historical origins of physical violence against children by their elders, hear this:
Historians estimate that about 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World before the abolition of slavery. About 1/4th of them were children-anyone shorter than about 4ft tall. This is a significant factor in eventual parenting practices of blacks. Bringing over mostly youth — coupled with the violent suppression of West African cultural practices — meant that traditional African child-rearing practices faded the same way African languages and religious practices ultimately did. Had the slaves who crossed the Atlantic been mostly adults from the same tribes and nationalities, spoken the same languages, shared the same blueprint for child-rearing that was practiced in the societies where they were enslaved, and been given freedom to rear their children without interference from whites, then maybe traditional African child-rearing practices could have been preserved. But none of those conditions prevailed. Consequently, to argue that “whupping” children was a tradition brought over from Africa, or that it is a culturally consistent practice today, is simply false.
Once in America, as parents, slaves were under incredible pressure to shape their children into docile field workers and teach proper deference and demeanor in front of white people. Sexual abuse, brutally tortuous beatings, child deaths and being sold away from their relatives for the rest of their lives characterized plantation life for black people.
After emancipation, unfortunately not quite free, there were still rules of racial etiquette and beatings continued. This time, a coercive southern labor system emerged that depended on black child workers. Once more, white people co-opted black parenting to ensure it maintained the same strategies as in slavery. With the okay from the black church, the reasoning was this:
Prepare black children to deal with the chronic stresses they would face that would keep them alive.
Hypothetically, if blacks were afforded two or three decades after slavery-they would have been able to parent without fear of lynch mobs, police violence and racist discrimination, this practice would not be so widespread. But when belonging to a group of people who are in constant fear of their lives and their children, it is understandable how that historical trauma can cause parents to interpret cruelty as love, protection and responsible parenting-even when counter-intuitive.
The use of corporal punishment in black communities today is a clear byproduct of centuries of slavery, the racial terrorism of the Jim Crow era, and exposure to racism that continues to eat away at the vitality of black life.Since before this country’s founding, black parents have been encouraged to be part of the dehumanization process of their children. In the final analysis, we must be openly conversational on how racial trauma, chronic stress and internalized racism have left children of color vulnerable to family violence. Ultimately, we cannot talk about ‘whuppings’ in these communities without talking about history and how society perpetuates the same or similar conditions present yesteryear.