VCU professor to explore ‘emotional code switching’ among African American youth

Psychology professor Fantasy Lozada received an NSF CAREER award to study emotion regulatory flexibility among African American youth, which helps them to protect against racism.

Fantasy Lozada.
Fantasy Lozada, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, received an NSF CAREER award to investigate how African American youth develop emotion regulatory flexibility, which can protect against racism. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Research has shown that that most African American youth have or will experience racism during their lifetimes, and these experiences increase their risk for negative life outcomes, including poor mental and physical health and less academic success. Yet to protect against these negative outcomes, some African American youth learn various ways to manage their experiences with racism.

Fantasy Lozada, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, has received a National Science Foundation CAREER award to investigate how African American youth develop a specific form of emotional competence, called emotion regulatory flexibility, that can protect themselves from racism.

“Emotion regulatory flexibility is the ability to shift the way one experiences, expresses, and manages their emotions according to the demands and expectations of a social context,” Lozada said. “A lot of research that measures human emotion tends to think about the way we might habitually express and manage our emotions — such as a tendency to hide or suppress your emotions from others when you feel them. Instead, emotion regulatory flexibility captures how we adjust our emotion expression and regulation according to different social contexts and changing demands. Emotion regulatory flexibility is our ability to be flexible to our context and has proven to be an important emotional skill for maintaining one’s well-being in the face of both short-term and long-term stress.”

A person with emotion regulatory flexibility, she said, has the ability to engage in a wide range of strategies and knows which strategies to choose that will be the most advantageous for the current social context, and also how to monitor the social environment for feedback to adjust their strategies accordingly.

“To successfully navigate a racially diverse society in which one is considered a racial and cultural minority, one has to be able to act in ways that allow you to be successful in multiple cultural contexts,” Lozada said. “African American youth learn how to manage their emotions by the cultural expectations of both spaces that are dominated by African American cultural values such as the home context and spaces which are dominated by mainstream or White cultural values, such as schools. So, this emotional code switching competence is a type of bicultural or multicultural competence.”

Lozada’s five-year project, “Understanding Emotion Regulatory Flexibility among African American Adolescents,” conceives of emotion regulatory flexibility in the context of both the experience of racial discrimination and in the navigation of various racial and cultural contexts.

“For example, consider an African American student who is being taunted and racially denigrated by a peer in school,” she said. “Likely the student feels a range of negative emotions, but mostly anger. What does the student do with this anger? The student may quickly assess the context — [such as] characteristics of the aggressor and whether there are trusted teachers or peers nearby — and make choices based on this information.”

The student might lean into that feeling of anger and use it to confront the peer, she said, or the student might go with a different strategy, such as walking away. 

“Finally, the student also is able to monitor their own feelings and any changes in the environment to make further decisions on how to navigate the situation, such as experiencing pride for standing up to the peer’s racist remark so the student continues with this strategy,” Lozada said. “Thus, having emotion regulatory flexibility may help African American youth navigate racial discrimination with low cost to their psychosocial well-being.”

It is important to better understand emotion regulatory flexibility because African American youth have to navigate multiple cultural experiences every day, Lozada said, while also navigating the experiences of racism and marginalization they face in their neighborhoods, schools and broader communities.

“These racist experiences range from individual level experiences in which they may personally experience racial discrimination or witness other African Americans’ experiences of racial discrimination to more systemic experiences such as when African American students are systematically diverted from advanced educational opportunities,” Lozada said. “Racist experiences can also be deadly — the misattribution of African Americans’ emotions and behaviors as dangerous and explosive is an implicit bias that makes African American youth more likely to have interactions with police officers and for those interactions to cost them their lives.”

Lozada was inspired to undertake this study after interviewing African American parents as part of an NSF fellowship from 2014-15, “African American Parents’ Beliefs About Race and Discrimination, Socialization Practices, and their Adolescents’ Socioemotional Functioning.”

In that study, Lozada asked parents to talk about how they taught their children about emotions and whether they had any thoughts or concerns about their children expressing certain emotions as an African American child. For example, some described worrying about their children expressing emotions like anger and sadness in front of others because of racial biases against African Americans.

“Many of these parents described that they wanted their children to learn to understand to express their emotions in contexts where their emotions would be affirmed and acknowledged (such as around other African Americans) instead of in places where their emotions would be interpreted as inappropriate and dangerous (such as around non-African Americans and particularly White Americans),” she said. “What parents were describing was wanting their children to be aware of racial context when managing their emotions and using that information to make choices in how you express yourself.”

The new study fits within Lozada’s larger program of research, which focuses on understanding the cultural and race-related experiences that contribute to the emotional development of ethnic-racial minoritized youth.

“Although I examine development in both the home and school context, this particular project will focus on the home context and specifically the parent-adolescent relationship, in which African American parents communicate messages to their youth about their emotions and how to manage those emotions generally and within social interactions,” she said.

As part of the study, Lozada will follow families over a three-year period to understand how parents change in the ways that they teach their adolescents these skills.

Lozada will work with current VCU psychology graduate students Deon Brown, Rachel Davis, Alexandra Merritt and Stephen Gibson in her School, Home, and Internet contexts of Emotional Development Lab, as well as undergraduate students who have been working with the SHIELD lab over the past year.

Additionally, Lozada will partner with the Mary and Frances Youth Center to take lessons learned from this research on African American youth’s positive development to create a training workshop for youth service providers in the Richmond area focused on the social and emotional development of African American youth.

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