Distinctly Detroit podcast: Riana Anderson talks about helping families cope with the stress of racism and her life in Detroit

Source: U-M Detroit Center

Riana Anderson

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Riana Anderson

Riana Anderson is an assistant professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. She was born and raised in Detroit, and has returned after living, studying, and working across the country. She is the developer and director of the EMBRace (Engaging, Managing, and Bonding through Race) intervention and loves to translate her work for a variety of audiences, particularly those whom she serves in the community. Here’s an excerpt from the podcast.

Tell us a little about your current work and how you got to where you are today

What I always tell folks about the work that I do is, if you know anything about me you know that Detroit is the love of my life. I always conceptualize myself as a young girl growing up on the west side and thinking about how various environmental things impacted me. There were a lot of challenges that we had growing up, but there were also a lot of fantastic social structures like my family or community or activities that I was engaged in that helped to protect me from some of these things. That is a framework for the way that I think about black life. How do we have both challenges and joys that can come together to make the best black family, the best black children that we can possibly have? I think about racism in particular as one of those challenges and the way that families have “the talk,” which in our literature is racial socialization. I think about the ways that we socialize our children to those challenges, but again, the joys of black life and black culture, and how those two things together can produce psychologically strong beautiful black children and black families. So that’s what I work on as much as I can.

What now, more specifically, do you do in that discourse?

What I was talking about was racial socialization, this idea of how families have “the talk.” Families have this talk all the time. You don’t need a clinical psychologist like me to come in the mix and tell families to have “the talk.” That’s one of the strengths that black families have. They’re already naturally kind of doing these efforts to help their children cope with and deal with what’s going on in the world. My job really is to think about, well we have this rich literature. We have all these strategies that black families are already engaging in. And then we also know from a clinical psychology perspective all of these tips and tricks and ways to discuss things better. So why not meld the two? Why not have “the talk,” this culturally rich strategy, and these therapeutic strategies? Why not put them together and have families be able to have “the talk” in a therapeutic way?

So I developed what we call EMBRace, which is Engaging, Managing, and Bonding through Race, this intervention that brings families together to have “the talk” with a clinician, so that the clinician can help families to unpack and unearth some of the things that they didn’t know were impacting them. As an example, take a parent who has been looked at as a parent for 10 or 15 years and now has the job of teaching a child about how to cope with the world. When’s the last time the parent was able to think about themselves as an individual or even as children themselves to say “what didn’t you get when you were growing up, what’s challenging for you even now as an adult that you haven’t talked about for the past 10 years?” Let’s give you the space to unpack that so that you’re able to do this job of parenting so much more effectively now that you’ve unpacked your own stuff. We think about how to create spaces, places, time, and strategies for families to have “the talk” in a therapeutic way. 

Can you tell us about your educational background and was there anything there that helped to direct you to this path? 

I went to the University of Michigan for undergrad. I was a psychology and political science double major at the time, which essentially allowed me to think about the individual level factors in psychology and these greater political social structures that are impacting this individual. Beyond community psychology, I didn’t see that there was a lot about how this greater environment was impacting the individual and the individual’s psychological wellbeing, and it took experiences with Teach for America which was actually my biggest training opportunity. So of course I did my PhD and a number of things after that which I’ll come back to in just a second, but it was actually what I did right after undergrad, which was Teach for America in Atlanta with these beautiful children who taught me more than any textbook could ever teach me, that really we just unearthed how a child’s development and what happens in their community and in their family can impact a child themselves. That was the richest training opportunity, the richest education that I’ve ever had. And here I am supposed to be the teacher and I’m learning all this stuff. I’m really grateful for that experience and really grateful to be in touch with some of my students to this day.

So from there I went to the University of Virginia and earned my PhD in clinical community psychology. The educational experience there, of looking at how the literature talked about black families and black parents, in particular how there was this deficit orientation, this language of disfunction that, as a person growing up in Detroit with a black family, I struggled to read through. I thought, “This does not describe who my family is, it does not describe who my neighbors were, it does not describe anybody I know. Who’s writing this? What perspective is this coming from?”

I started finding some literature that spoke to a different way of conceptualizing parenting. I’ll give you a quick example. In a lot of the literature, setting boundaries for your kids, being a bit “harsh” on your kids is not something that folks strive for. It’s about letting your child explore and be in spaces where they can be autonomous. In theory and in some laboratory practices, this is perhaps a good outcome for you. But if you can imagine being is spaces where you can have too much autonomy, going off around the corner, for example, and being out of the vantage point of a parent can actually be more challenging to a child. You would want to keep a tighter approach. You would want to understand that saying “no” very declaratively is the difference perhaps between you getting hit by a car or being in a dangerous situation and being safe.

So, this authoritarian approach versus the authoritative approach is something that the literature always kind of speaks to as a problem. But then some black scholars called it “no nonsense.” They say, “Listen, you can do both. You can be warm, you can be empathic, you can be understanding, if the situation allows it you can let your child be autonomous. But in situations where there’s no backtalk and there’s no back and forth, I need my child to come hither.”

To hear a reframe like that changed my whole outlook on what we can do with parenting and it made me look for what are the strengths that we already know we have and how can we utilize those strengths in various ways. So that’s where racial socialization, that’s where the therapeutic blend of what I was doing really came together at that time. 

What brought you back to Detroit? 

If I’m honest, I don’t want to see a snowflake. I want to travel to see snowflakes, but I don’t want to walk outside and see snowflakes. If I’m honest, I tried really hard not to come back. I was like, “let me go to L.A., let me go to these really warm places,” and I just kept hearing my name and the word Detroit together and it just brought me at one point to tears.

I actually had the opportunity to take a job at Michigan or another institution. I chose the other institution because I was chasing warmth and I came back home for a wedding. As I was sitting in a coffee shop, tears started coming to my eyes of just how much I needed to come home. And it’s not about family per say. I have a loving family here, but I also have a loving family out in California. There were opportunities to be enriched in both spaces. Clearly I was getting all of my juice and yoga and everything out in California, but there was this overwhelming feeling of “you are supposed to be in Detroit, you are of Detroit, you are for Detroit, you are made because of Detroit, you have a responsibility to come back and do the work here because these are the children who encouraged you to do the work in the first place.”

Just looking around my neighborhood, thinking about the kids who were my peers or my mentors, and thinking about what if we had spaces where we could have sat down and children and talked about how race and racism impact us? What if our families would have been able to engage with clinicians in a way that’s not stigma filled or deficit oriented, but in spaces that are like “you’re doing a great job as a parent, here are a few more strategies just to assist your already amazing work.” What if we had that type of protective network and the more that spoke to me, I was like “ok, fine, I’ll come home.” Just don’t be a lot of cold weather and snow! 

Was there something that sparked the idea for the EMBRace intervention? 

I think I am part of what we would call the third generation of black psychologists. So, a lot of psychologists, when the field was beginning to first understand about black culture, their job really was just to put black psychology on the map, to say that race was a factor that’s going to impact the ways that individuals are going to be well psychologically. Again, this idea that it’s not because of being a black person, it’s blackness, it’s whiteness, it’s these racialized ecologies around this that are going to impact an individual and how they develop and function. So that was just in 1969. The sheer goal was just to say, “we’ve got something that we need to be considering.”

The next generation and a half said, “well here’s some variables that might be related to that.” So maybe this is how discrimination is related to psychological wellness for black people, so you’ve got maybe an x/y model, this very basic linear model. Then the next half generation or so said “ok, we’re going to go ahead and have moderator variables,” so the condition by which x and y is true. So, discrimination impacts your psychological wellbeing if you have a racial identity that’s not fully developed.

The more your racial identity is developed, the less that association is. Or in my case, the more you talk about racial socialization with your kid, the less the psychological struggle would be for that child. You start seeing these conditions by which something is true. All those things were published and we have decades of this really rich, wonderful literature, and I’m reading it and I’m itching because I’m an interventionist. Ok, we know this stuff, so now what. What are we supposed to do? And folks are saying it takes a solid 10 to 20 years to build an intervention and I’m like, “Great, I’ll do it in three months. Let’s do this.”

After my graduate degree at the University of Virginia, I went to Yale for a clinical internship in which I was in the community center at Yale and was able to take part in my fourth or fifth intervention at that time. So I’d been well trained in clinical and community interventions, and I started developing interventions at high schools there and really started getting this practice of not only analyzing data for the intervention, not only sitting with community stakeholders to start it, but how do we actually go through this entire process of actually getting an intervention off the ground, talking to kids about it. How do we do it?

I did a post-doc fellowship at Penn and once I got there, I had all these years of experience, all these opportunities, and I’m working with one of the foremost scholars on racial socialization, and we go to a community meeting and I tell them about this idea. I told them I wrote an application to get funding for my proposition and I was going to be thinking about this idea over the next two years then I would develop it later in life. They told me cool, we want it in the next semester. I told them that’s not how things work, I’m not going to be able to give them an intervention in a few months and they said, no, we want it. So, we started creating an intervention and developed it in a few months. It was something that my mentor and I had been thinking about and had been writing about in these applications for me to get funding to do this fellowship but it was the voice of the community that said, “no, you’re going to do it sooner than you think.”  

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