How Child Abuse and Neglect Plant the Seeds of Racism in Our Children

In the United States of America, it is a time of reckoning.  As a nation, as a people, who do we want to be?

Divided? Filled with hate and judgment of each other? We must decide.

In 2016, a reader commented on my blog, and it made me think deeply about anger, hate, and the harsh way that humanity judges and treats those who are different from ourselves. That reader’s comment inspired me to write this blog post on Psychcentral. Today, in 2020, it is still highly relevant. I have updated it and republished it here.

The Comment (Slightly Edited)

I’m a white working-class man. I was abused physically, sexually, and emotionally by people I trusted as a child.

The unquenchable anger from the white working class is not caused by a government or system or any other institution. It is caused by neglectful and abusive parenting. You simply can’t stay that angry, resentful, and cruel all your life if you grew up with loving people, no matter what government you have.

When people call others, like millennials, “pampered” what they are really saying is that they wish they had received that kind of care when they were young. When they brag how their toys and playgrounds were unsafe and they turned out OK, what they are really saying is that they wish someone had cared enough to put rubber matting under their own swings when they were growing up.

These people’s parents, guardians, and leaders deflected their own anger from the true target, their own parents, to “others” who did not look like them.

As a child, your parents really scare you when they spit out whatever nasty words they may have used to describe people who are of different races or creeds. You get afraid of these people, and because they don’t look nor talk like you they are very easy to spot. The working-class white people’s current anger is the flip side of genuine fear. A fear you were taught before you could form words.

A man stood on my street corner the day after the election and shouted to all of us, “Those ****” are going to get what’s coming to them now.” He looked like a 60-year-old teenage boy who can’t stop being afraid.

Neglect and abuse are passed down like a family heirloom and often go side by side. Parents will often go from one to the other as the day goes on.

As a trained therapist I believe you could provide much value by teaching people with this much hate how to break the chain of hate by raising their children with attention and love.

Anger

Truth be told, I felt somewhat stunned as I read this comment. It expressed in perfect prose some things that I know, with every fiber of my being, are fundamental truths.

Yes, anger is the flip-side of fear.

Yes. The way we treat our children shapes our world.

Yes. Of course. Childhood neglect and abuse are the root causes of anger, racism, and hate.

Anger is a fascinating emotion in many ways. It flows like water, touching and affecting all who are near it. One important way that anger differs from other emotions is that it always seeks a target.

Anger is not satisfied floating freely, like sadness or other forms of pain. Anger is built into us as a self-protective measure, so it naturally needs to be directed at someone or something.

So what if that “someone” who’s the true target is our parent? Our parent who is angry or scary, or inattentive. Our parent who has hurt or neglected us, but upon whom we are completely dependent for food, clothing, shelter, and all forms of care.

A child’s own anger seeks another, safer target; one removed as far as possible from our childhood home. The farther removed the target, the safer it feels for us. It’s a natural human process that is virtually wired in.

How You Can Help Break the Cycle

  1. Be aware of your own childhood-based anger. If you grew up ignored or in any way abused, you do have anger about it. And it’s okay. In fact, it’s healthy.
  2. Listen to the messages of your own anger. What’s it trying to protect you from now? Is it really people who are different from you? Or is your anger actually trying to protect you from the people who, for whatever reason, failed to protect you or nurture you, or even actually harmed you, as a child?
  3. Work toward the courageous act of directing your anger where it truly belongs. When your anger goes toward its true target, it will at first feel painful and scary. But this is a huge step toward your own psychological and emotional health. Your tremendous courage will pay off for yourself and for your children.

Here’s what I believe. Racism will never go away until we all face the true source of our own fear and anger. I hope that we can stop misdirecting our feelings, and have the courage to parent our own children differently than we were parented ourselves.

Let’s face our own pain, and work through it in a healthy way. It’s for the children. It’s for our country. It’s for our world.

Childhood Emotional Neglect can be invisible and unmemorable so it can be hard to know if you grew up with it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test.  To learn more about how CEN affects relationships see my new book, Running on Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

Warm thanks to Tyler, who authored the candid, thoughtful comment that inspired this article.

This article was originally posted on Psychcentral. It has been updated and republished here with the permission of the author and Psych Central.

Jonice

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Ros - June 14, 2020 Reply

I have a similar problem to Emily. However both my parents are emotionally immature. My mother is probably a covert Narcissist. I have limited my exposure to my parents for years because it just made me feel frustrated and angry. When I read your book and discovered that this is the best course of action I felt relieved of a lot of guilt for doing this. My question is, how do I stop feeling so angry about what they did to me. I feel if I could explain to them how it has affected me and for them to express compassion and understanding and be sorry I could get closure. But I know this would not be their response. I am in my 50s now and I’ve spent my entire life trying to recover from my childhood. I know intellectually that both my parents were themselves treated the way they treated me. But the anger is still always there just below the surface. I control it well but it’s so exhausting. How do I forgive them and finally have peace?

    Jonice - June 15, 2020 Reply

    Dear Ros, instead of controlling your anger, maybe you can try to process it. Accept your anger, own it, and put it into words. Perhaps you can write a letter to your parents describing your anger and why you have it. You do not need to send the letter! Just writing it will help you process and release your feeling. I encourage you to seek out a CEN therapist from the list for help processing your anger as well. All my best wishes!

Janet - June 14, 2020 Reply

I am a 57 year old white female who grew up in a small town. I was sometimes bullied by black girls. I really have no idea why because I feel like I didn’t ever do anything mean to them. I was shy and quiet most of the time. After that experience I feel like racism can go both ways. Even though I had that experience I am trying to understand their point of view.

    Jonice - June 14, 2020 Reply

    Dear Janet, I’m sorry that happened to you. This is the harm that goes around and around in the world. Harmed children harm other children. Who knows what those girls were dealing with in their own lives. And now you are harmed by it too. Any time children are mistreated for any reason, it has ripple effects. Thanks for sharing.

Emily - June 14, 2020 Reply

Hi Dr. Webb,
I have enjoyed and gotten so much out of your articles and books and I do believe I have CEN and that my parents are both WMBENT parents. It has been a struggle to find a balance of relating to them with boundaries to protect myself while also making sure I spend adequate time with them as they are so kind and well meaning and love me their only child so much and they are getting older and I don’t want to have regrets of having neglected them. I also believe they are too avoidant and sensitive to be able to handle the concept of CEN if I were to broach the subject with them and it would be nothing but but a drain on all of us (and would then make me feel sad for hurting them) so I keep the interactions with them surface level and kind and that’s how they like it. I have tried to go deeper many times in the past and it’s never been more than frustrating and depressing. I’d love it if you wrote a blog about this specific type of dynamic.
Also, I feel like many blogs focus on a main path to healing through raising your own children differently and improving your relationship with your spouse. I’d love it if you’d write a blog about how to heal when you are single with no children or siblings and your relationship with your parents is limited to surface interactions and having to be pretty stifled around them. Where do you go to heal in this situation? I also wonder if there is a relationship between having had CEN and wanting but never finding a romantic partner and never having children as a female in midlife. Thanks for your work, I really think it hits the nail on the head but my specific situation feels left out when so much focus is on healing through marriage and children which I don’t have. Thanks again.

    Jonice - June 14, 2020 Reply

    Dear Emily, actually healing doesn’t happen through spouses and children. Healing CEN happens within yourself and how you treat your own emotions and that’s what the entire book, Running On Empty, is about. I did write my second book, and also blog, about marriage and parenting too because when you start healing yourself, it has ripple effects in every area of your life. I surely do take your point and your request. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

sahmpaw - June 14, 2020 Reply

I personally do not know any racist people. But somehow there are all these white racists out there? This is the narrative you are buying into but if you look at the data to find out the true source of “systemic racism” it’s fatherless homes. There was a recent article in The Federalist about it. Black children are disproportionately being deprived of a home with a mother and father and it’s white liberals who have created it through the welfare state. You are a white woman. I think it would be wise for you to listen to black people on the subject of racism. We are hearing very loudly from liberal black people through these riots but conservative blacks have a voice and deserve to be listened to as well. Take care and God bless you.

    Jonice - June 14, 2020 Reply

    Dear Sahmpaw, I have spoken with many black people and heard many stories of blatant racism and unconscious bias directed at them. I’ve also heard about their pain and have personally witnessed some biased actions against black people. I’ve looked at myself to see my own biases and accept that since I’m white, I’ll never be able to come close to understanding what black people have had to endure in recent years, much less the long, horrendous history their parents, grandparents, and ancestors have experienced. I know without a single doubt that there are many kinds and levels of racism. That said, I’m interested in hearing the experiences of all, conservative or liberal. Thanks for sharing!

JB - June 14, 2020 Reply

Thank you for this article. It has helped me see where my anger has come from over these last few weeks. I was getting angry I thought because I kept hearing all white people are privileged and racist. I grew up poor and truly try to be kind to everyone but I was increasing getting mad over Black Lives Matter and of course they do! But I was like why don’t white people and other shades matter too! We all matter. You have alot of nerve thinking you are the only one who matters. Now I see I am screaming in anger as a little child…I matter, pay attention to me, I deserve to be here. I also see that is what the black community is crying out for too. It is like my anger has released and I see I just want love too. That is what we all want love and acceptance.

    Jonice - June 14, 2020 Reply

    Dear JB, I can’t tell you how much your comment means to me. You said it so well and expressed what many struggling people are up against. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Valerie - June 14, 2020 Reply

    Sahmpaw,

    First, black and white women have worked hard to empower themselves to be free of limiting and abusive relationships with men for quite sometime now. This is one factor which accounts for there being majority single mother families in both black and white experience. In addition, an increase of poverty (which is associated with single mother households) and of black men being absent from black families is a direct result of Clinton era welfare reform as well as sentencing and arrest policies that disproportionately impact black people. This is systemic racism.

      Valerie - June 14, 2020 Reply

      Thank you, Jonice for this article, including the really powerful comment. I think this is spot on and I really appreciate the work you do.

    Tanya - June 15, 2020 Reply

    JB,

    I’m a black woman, (attorney, multiple degrees, written 2 books) and I only JUST recently learned how best to explain Black Lives Matter. So I’m not judging anyone else who has been confused by it before now, as I couldn’t translate it well enough myself even with my background.

    Example: My Stepmom had breast cancer. She’s a survivor and now volunteers at hospitals and fundraisers. If we were at a fundraiser with her and someone came running into the room yelling “LIVER CANCER MATTERS” you would think they were a jerk.

    Having a rally to attract attention to and support breast cancer does not take anything from Liver Cancer or Prostate Cancer. It’s the people closely impacted by a subject asking others to care like they do.

    An even more accurate analogy would be if our rally were for a rare and underfunded form of cancer, like Adult Leukemia, and the very well funded, mainstream, big pink ribbon breast cancer folks showed up demanding our stage.

    I loved this analogy soo much, I’ve decided expanded on it and share it here.

    I’m glad you can look at your upbringing and spot the seeds of your anger. This article and you are both right, that something inside of us has to feed the anger we direct outside of us.

    I’m glad you shared because soo many people will read our words. Very brave and thank you.

    Tanya,
    Black Wife of a White CEN Man

    P.S. And because you are kind and this is a race discussion in part, I’ll share this thought with you also. I do not like the word racist. I’d use it for the kind of people who would call me the N word in traffic. However, I believe it’s a mistake to use the term “Anti-Racist” as a rallying cry. I think it makes people avoid looking at themselves because who wants to put their hand up for THAT? I wouldn’t.

    The best definition for white privilege (I’ve never used this phrase in 46 years & its everywhere now) is that your life has not been made HARDER by the color of your skin.

    Most would agree, it’s often made easier – but erase that bit because you grew up poor. It just wasn’t made HARDER. Are all white people racist? Of course not. That’s asinine.

    Have whites been automatic beneficiaries of something that someone else paid for? Yes. That’s what I think is being surfaced, at least by non radical folks.

    It is that subtle, automatic beneficiary status, that you’d receive, even unasked for, that I would not, that is at issue.

    If you have that, and you do, acknowledge it those who do NOT have it, are tired of not being able to get it and often, paid for it. Guilt is not required but humility is helpful.

    The observations of “I didn’t ask for it” and “I don’t agree with it” should never precede or supplant “I have it”. That last bit gives me the empathy I think many are seeking. 🙂

    I hope you received this as it was intended, an attempt to give some new perspectives that you can then share with other good people you know.

    As suffers of CEN and it’s effects we know how VALUABLE it is to just feel HEARD. Thank you all for listening.

    And thank you to Dr. Webb for opening her forum in this way. These are dangerous times for white people to speak up (so many are being verbally pounced on, which makes me cringe) and I respect your clarity and your willingness to swim past the buoys of safety.

    Oddly enough, it would seem the black race has suffered sustained Emotional Neglect and just like us CEN folks, are struggling to find their way through the pain of it to recovery.

      Jonice - June 15, 2020 Reply

      Dear Tanya, thank you so much for sharing your comment. It’s very helpful to hear your thoughts and explanations. No doubt about it, the black race has suffered sustained Emotional Neglect. All my best to you!

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