By Charles Hallman
Black youth today “have a future of unknown opportunities…and need our support to get there,” said a longtime advocate for youth empowerment at a February 26 Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) Black History Month event held at the MPS Davis Center.
Retired psychologist Dr. Joseph White spoke to nearly 150 people on the importance of young Blacks understanding their strengths. A pioneer of culturally relevant practices in education, youth development and psychology, White was in town last week and made several appearances for Black History Month sponsored by Minneapolis-based Youthprise and the Cultural Wellness Center.
“When we talk about our youth, the last remaining challenge in America is taking charge of our destiny. That is the challenge now in the 21st century,” White proclaimed, adding that Blacks have survived “two periods of Black history” in this country. “Slavery was the first period — it lasted 250 years. Then another 100 years went by [and] we had both de jure segregation by law and de facto [segregation] that just happened.
“They didn’t have the [segregation] law in Minnesota, but when I was a boy growing up in this community, there were hotels that Black people couldn’t go into, and restaurants” that wouldn’t serve Blacks, recalled White. “We must have some strength to survive all of that and land on our feet. Not only did we survive, but some of us thrived.
“We need to help our young people draw on the strength and the wisdom of the past,” said White, who received the University of Minnesota’s Doctor of Laws, the school’s highest conferred award, and is known as the “Godfather of Black Psychology.” He established the Educational Opportunity Program for Black and Latino students in California, and he helped establish the Black Studies Program as psychology professor and dean of undergraduate studies at San Francisco State during the 1960s. White has also served as a consultant for school districts, universities, private and community organizations and government entities.
“When I discovered psychology and went into it,” said White during a brief interview with the MSR, “they called us dumb and ugly, and that wasn’t so from my experience. My mother raised three children by herself, and she couldn’t have been dumb and ugly doing all that. That motivated me to turn psychology upside down and try to change it around.”
During his speech, White pointed out that too many young Blacks rely on excuses. “I am an African American. I am male and I am from a single-parent family. And my mother was on welfare because my parents separated and divorced,” he said proudly. Instead, young people today “need to learn” the seven psychological strengths of Blacks “and internalize them,” he suggested.
These strengths include improvisation, resilience, connectedness to others, spirituality, emotional vitality, gallows humor, and “a healthy suspicion of [White] people who have made broken promises since 1619,” White briefly explained. “These are the basics of Black psychology — I didn’t create them. They already were there,” said the retired professor.
He learned resilience and improvisation from his mother when he was 12 years old, White said. “As long as you live in this world, you are going to be a little Black boy,” she advised him. “And the way you are going to make your way is you are going to make something from nothing. “She was trying to tell me that I needed to be creative, innovative, and I would have to seek out opportunities and have to be resourceful. It took me 13 years to figure that out.
“If you are Black in America, you got to be able to come back from a setback, bounce back from setbacks, and become stronger in the broken places. You are not going to get through 80 years of life without getting knocked upside your head,” says White.
“The second thing we have to work on is internal motivation,” which he says must start early in life. “A four-year-old comes into preschool understanding that something must come from inside you.” However, he strongly disagrees with anyone who suggests that education is not important.
“I guarantee you if you teach these children how to be resourceful, imaginative, creative problem solvers, sometimes it takes two to three tries to get it together, but it can be done,” said White. “My mother looked at me and said, ‘Make something out of nothing.’ By the time I was 25, I finally figured out what she was trying to tell me.”
The mass media is “75 percent negative,” noted White afterwards. “What you see on television are unattainable images of professional athletes…beautiful women and booty, booty, booty. As early as two years old, [children] are internalizing those messages before they know what they mean.
Especially for the males, it influences their definition of masculinity without responsibility. We have to help our children develop a filter to filter out the negative parts…and filter in the positive parts.
“We’ve gone through a structural change in America in the last 25-35 years,” stated White on some of the current problems, such as the high unemployment rates that young Blacks are facing. “When I was coming up, there were jobs in the factories making cars, washing machines and whatever. Now all those jobs are gone and we’ve moved into a high-tech world. The ‘brothers’ don’t feel there will be a payoff for the 10, 12 years they’ve invested in education…
“I think what has happened over the 400 years we have been here [is that] there has been a steady stream of psychology that says one set of people are better than the other. One set of people should make all the major decisions [and] one set of people should have the money, privilege and so on. And then every generation, they loosen up a little bit and let one or two of us through.”
Barack Obama’s election as U.S. president is a prime example, he said. “They say, ‘President Obama came from a one-parent family, how come you can’t do it?’ They use that one or two people as a shield, and it’s hard to change the deep, conscious mind. And America, maybe one of these days, will do some self-evaluation.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokes man-recorder.com.
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