Four Generations of One Family’s Perspectives on Racism

Brenda JohnsonDuring my doctoral program, I conducted two mini-studies on race and racism. The first was with successful Black professionals coping with micro aggressions in the workplace. I presented the findings from this study at the 2014 Academy of Human Resource Development (AHRD) conference in Houston where the audience had some interesting follow-up questions that led to a second mini-study regarding coping strategy development. This additional exploration led to a family focus group with four different generations, ages 16-78, from my own family. In that focus group, I heard many stories about their perspectives on racism.

This focus group was used to begin to explore my own critical family history. Its purpose was to gain a better understanding of how we have survived and thrived for generations in the workplace, academically, and even athletically in spite of on-going, persistent racism and micro aggressions. Racial micro-aggressions are subtle yet sometimes blatant insults or exclusions perpetrated against others because of their race. Over time, these constant insults or exclusions damage the well-being of its victims (Torres & Driscoll, 2010). I wanted to know what my family did to prepare us to thrive in spite of multiple embedded institutional barriers that are doing harm to so many in America. The literature finds that positive racial identities and coping strategies are important in overcoming racism (Forsyth & Carter, 2012; Torres, Driscoll, & Burrow, 2010).

The focus group was held over dinner and recorded. Questions were prepared in advance as part of a class assignment. We talked for more than two hours and within that time, each participant shared stories in relation to their experiences with race and racism and how they managed to process their positive and negative experiences. For some, this was the first time ever having these discussions and I heard stories from family members that they had never shared with anyone before. It was funny how they talked about this experience for several months after the focus group.

One key coping strategy my family embraced was education, as it is viewed as “the one thing no one can take away”. Other common coping strategies found in both studies included career development, spirituality practices, support systems, hyper-vigilance or awareness, and empowered action as a last resort. Social capital was also an interesting finding. From my parents’ generation through my 16-year old son, my family has always had diverse social connections, recognizing that good and bad comes in all colors.

16 yr old:

“We are all human, we are all beautiful people no matter what color – Jesus made us that way… so don’t look at someone differently from their different colors.”

“As a kid you don’t look at a friend as a color. I like kids because of who they are not because of what color they are. I was not taught to hate.”

19 year old:

“I think you guys always focused on academics and made sure you do well. I think it helped that you put us in better schools and it laid a foundation for how I would do in the future.”

“I got a lot of questions about my hair a lot and I am glad they asked instead of assuming that I just didn’t wash my hair. I got that question a lot. I don’t think I looked at the whole race differently or treated them any differently but I think I was guarded.”

52 year old:

“I think they tried to protect us. That could have been positive and negative. You get blind-sided when it happens to you. I didn’t see racism until Jr High. A girl was bullying and called me out of my name and from that time on, I just didn’t get close to any white person again. Prior to that when we moved around all over the place in the military, all of my friends were white and when that happened I just stayed away from them after that.”

79 year old:

“We were taught that we couldn’t do anything with the white race. We could play with them. During my time until you were about 6 years old, you could play with them but then they went to their school and we went to our school. We were totally separated.… Although years later, some of the kids I played with between the ages of 4-6 they was asking about me and wanted to get back with me.“

This exploration of my family’s perceptions and history from this focus group was combined with stories that have been told over the years to engage a critical family history framework. I examined contextual issues and reflected regarding how my family’s story and how our present reality has been shaped and influenced by social, economic, political processes and relationships. Going through this critical family history process for the first time was emotional and eye opening. In comparison, our family has done quite well within the larger family unit. Four of five siblings have college degrees; two of us have graduate degrees. We are all doing somewhat better than our parents. This success can be credited to military exposure which led to international travel and cultural exposure, access to education, diversity acceptance in communities, a strong foundation of faith, private spaces such as my sorority, the AME church, and the various social networks that encourage, inspire, and support us through good and bad.

This framework of a critical family history was brand new for me and it is funny how stories change when you look at them from a different lens. A new sense of admiration and understanding of the strength of my parents emerged when I stopped to really think about the messages in the story that were not shared from a critical perspective.

The stories were told in a humorous way, although they were not funny when people experienced them. The truth is that the stories demonstrated a great deal of strength, perseverance, and resilience in face of the repeated assaults and triumphs in spite of white privilege such as:

  • The time my father was forced to go to the home of a white customer of my great aunt simply because he didn’t say “Mr.” or the anger my father felt when he saw his father in-law cowering and calling a white customer Mr. in order to keep his business.
  • The choices they made to escape the ugliness that they sought to protect their children from as my father snuck into the military at the age of 17 in order to see the world, and how they moved a little further away from family after retirement in order to assure we were in better schools.
  • The impact of interracial marriage laws on my grandmother and my mother as we were deprived of the love of my white Irish grandfather who was sent away when it was discovered he had bi-racial child. The pain he must have felt as he would come home to visit and admire my mother from a distance at the bus stop and simply say “that’s my girl” but was not allowed to give her a hug or ask her about her day.
  • The pain of my undercover feminist mother trapped in a traditional social role as she raised five children as a homemaker but made sure to insist that I never become dependent on a man.

There are some key artifacts that offer a daily reminder of what I have learned through this process or reframing what I thought I knew about my family. My “war room” consists of several study aides including my father’s bible from the 1980’s. Within it there are the traditional birth, death, and marriage records but also throughout the book, he has dated written personal notes, mostly about family members and events going on that I review from time to time. The bible is read often in order to continue to grow and mature spiritually as a key coping mechanism for anything that comes up in life. I also am blessed with two binders of sermons from my paternal grandfather who was a presiding elder in the AME Church. The messages in his sermons can also be examined critically as they contain current events from the 50 through the 70’s some of which addresses the political impact on Blacks. These books are a reminder of where the passion for social justice arises within and the importance of the Black church as a private space.

A picture of my mother in high school sits in my family room in a case below a five-generation pictorial family tree. All of the images represent the life they lived in order to make things better for us. My mother could clearly pass for white and her daily reminder from both blacks and whites in rural Alabama in the 30’s through the 50’s that she didn’t belong contributed to her strength and confidence in who she is a black woman. I plan to add a modern artifact for my kids and beyond. A video tape was made of both of my parents for an adult development class assignment. It shares details about their life, how they were raised, influences in their life, etc. I want to edit these videos and add additional stories so that my children can use them in their own growth and development.

I am thankful for the opportunities my generation benefited from as a result of my parents choices to prepare us with education, yet I fear for my children as they confront a repeat of the racial hatred faced by all of those before me. I am now challenged with seeking to assure that my children’s coping skills are strong and that their identities are clear as they move forward to fulfill their mission in the world. Stories, old and new, need to be a part of that process of growing, maturing, awareness of self and ancestry, and an appreciation and understanding of those who came to prepare the way for them.

Brenda Webb Johnson is a doctoral candidate at the University of South Florida, College of Education, Adult Education department in Tampa, FL.  She currently serves at the Education Coordinator for the National Center on Homelessness among Veterans. Brenda worked for more than 20 years as a Clinical Social Worker for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) before switching to education, leadership development, and competency development within VHA.


Forsyth, J. & Carter, R.T. (2012). The relationship between racial identity status attitudes, racism-related coping, and mental health among Black Americans. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 18(2), 128-140.

Lee, J., Sleeter, C., & Kumashiro, K. (2015). Interrogating identity and social Contexts through “Critical Family History”. Multicultural Perspectives, 17(1), 28-32.

Lewis-Coles, M.L. & Constantine, M.G. (2006). Racism-related stress, africultural coping, and religious problem-solving among African Americans. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 12 (3), 433-443.

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Sue, D., & Constantine, M.G. (2007). Racial micrco-aggressions as instigators of difficult dialogues on race: Implications for student affairs educators and students. College Student Affairs Journal, 26(2), 136-143.

Torres, L., Driscoll, M. W., & Burrow, A. L. (2010). Racial microaggressions and psychological functioning among highly achieving African-Americans: A mixed- methods approach. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 29(10), 1074.

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