Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Raising White Kids While White

The death of Trayvon Martin has provoked a lot of public conversation about the lessons that Black parents teach their children.  Lessons about safety in a dangerous world, and the burdens of a culture structured by racism.  LB is 2.5 and still in the rainbow coalition stage of life, but I've spent a number of years teaching African American history, and having many related conversations with young people about race. Below is my primer (i.e. starting point) for talking to white kids about what race means for their lives, and the lives of their Black and Brown friends in the US.

Notes for my (white) daughter
  • Know our history.  The racial history of the United States belongs to all of us.  White kids need to know the long history of police brutality in Black communities, the history of racially disparate incarceration, and the history of racial stereotypes in American popular culture.  Without that history, you can't understand the dangers your Black friends face.  Without that history, a white parent is a lot more likely to get a call from a college dean and find out that a beloved white child was just found at a college party dressed in blackface (and Babydoll, I don't ever want to get a call like that about you.)
  • Stay out of trouble, think about yourself and think about others.  I know a lot of white girls who have run from the cops, and the worst result was a skinned knee and a stern talking to.  White kids need to understand that their Black friends may have a smaller margin of error when it comes to teenage rights of passage like smoking weed in the park, shoplifting, and pulling pranks. 
  • Know when to speak up. What will you say if your white friend makes a racial joke?  If your white friends say all people of color are "like this" or "like that." If you don't like these comments, respond.  Try some difference responses. Speaking up might not change minds, but put it out there in the universe, because you respect yourself, because you love other people.
  • And when to stand back. You may find yourself in situations when you're with Black friends where your well-intentioned intervention can make things worse.  The police likely don't want to hear your analysis of structural racism.  Know that there are situations where you need to stand back and be quiet because you can't fix it.  You can still be a witness.  Pay close attention to everything that happens.
  • Listen and learn.  It's hard to empathize with people if you don't know what their lives are about.  Listen to people tell you about their lives without defensiveness.
  • Know that you will make mistakes. I doubt that anyone in a racialized society like this one can go through life without offending someone of another race.  As a white person in our society, you will find yourself acting out the role you were born to play.  It will happen.  If you realize you've said something hurtful, done something because of some racist part of you that you didn't know was there, stop and think about what happened, think about what you would do differently.  Consider whether it's possible or appropriate to make amends.  Don't let guilt or embarrassment weigh you down, let it motivate you.
  • Understand affinity groups.  Sometimes your moms want to hang out with other gay people.  This doesn't mean that we hate straight people, but that as a minority it can be really comforting to spend time in a group of people who are like you. Sometimes your friends may want to hang out with people of the same race, that doesn't mean they don't like you, that doesn't mean you can't be friends.
  • Cross-cultural respect.  You know we're are pretty casual at our house.  Not everyone is like us.  When you meet your friends parents, ask them how they would like to be addressed, and follow their house rules.  When in doubt, say Mr. and Ms., keep your feet off the furniture, and don't take the Lord's Name in vain. 
  • Equal doesn't mean the same.  If your white friends say that Black people get special rights, that Black kids get into college over white kids, that it's okay to use the word n***** because Black people do, please come talk to me.  We can look at some data.  We can talk more about structural racism.
  • White privilege.  What does that mean in your life?  Historically that means that you and your family are still reaping the benefits of government programs that helped (mostly) white people: the GI Bill, and FHA loans.  Our family benefited from redlining and discriminatory college admissions policies.  Our home, our financial cushion, and your education are the direct result of this preferential treatment.  That's life in a racially structured society.  I'm not asking you to be consumed by guilt.  I'm not saying that our family hasn't worked hard.  I just want you to know that your success will be due to both your hard work and the extras our family got because we are white.
  • Love yourself, respect yourself.  Once you know all about structural racism, it can be hard to trust your instincts.  This is one of the hardest things about living in a society structured by race as a white person.  Trust your instincts, and know that they can be wrong.
  • Please don't be Abigail Fisher.  See above


  1. Thank you for this. I started talking with my (white) daughter about race when Roozle was about 2 and have stepped it up a bit this week. She's four now.

    Have you started any conversations with LB? And what does that look like? I've heard some parents say that their (white) kids are too young to talk to about race and racism and I'm wondering what age you think is a good one to start the conversation?

  2. Yes, thank-you. And I'm also curious what your conversations look like now as our boy is just the same age. I've seen quite a lot written or talked about how people of color are talking to their kids, and especially boys, following this case, but I've seen much, much less about how we as white people should be talking to our kids, and this is certainly the first piece that has addressed it explicitly.

  3. I guess I'll be learning as I go. If anyone has good resources, I'd love to hear about them. LB is on the young side, because she doesn't really understand colors, and she's at the stage where everyone she meets is a friend. It's hard because as a white parent, I don't want to be putting negative racial ideas into her head, but even little kids need to know that if it's bad to say "I don't like you," it's worse to say "I don't like you because you're brown."

    I think the book "Nurture Shock" has an interesting chapter about race, and the need to talk to white kids not just about themes of universalism, but also about racism and how it works.

    I guess we talk a lot about race at our house, and even though that conversation is way over LB's head, hopefully she will grow up thinking that talk is natural. There are lots of good books for kids, as well as music. I've seen a few anthologies of music of the Civil Rights Movement, and then there's old soul and hip hop with political/social themes that could be a good jumping off point for conversations.

    I suspect the conversations change and get more serious as kids start doing stuff with friends' families without their own parents, and then hanging out with friends without any adults. By that age, I would think that kids are ready to hear some of the harder stuff about our history and about racism in the present day.

  4. I was hoping you'd write about this - it is great and so well-articulated (I'd like to link to it if it's okay with you). We're planning on addressing race much like sexuality - age appropriately throughout K's life in both preconceived and spontaneous ways, as it comes up and before it comes up. At the same time, that means constantly educating and reeducating ourselves, which can be such a challenge.

  5. Definitely feel free to link! I've been thinking more about little kids over the past couple days and looking for resources. I agree, it's a lifelong process (project?).

  6. Can you recommend any picture books about the civil rights movement? My four-year-old is very curious about Martin Luther King Jr. and my explanations have left her a little confused. I'd love something visual to share with her.

  7. Picture books: Becky Birtha's two books Grandmamma's Pride and Lucky Beans. Birtha presents two of her family's stories about segregation in the South, and the changes a child experiences as public segregation is outlawed. Great illustrations too.

  8. I never got any of that did that make me the whitest black kid ever.

  9. I cannot answer that question with the available data! But seriously, clearly each of us as individuals is more than the sum of the demographic categories we occupy. There are a lot of gay things I can't particularly relate to to, and I don't love "you're gay therefore..." As the kids say, "it's complicated."

  10. All very good points!

    I've recently wondered about when the right time to talk about privilege is. Mainly, I wonder if how you attribute success to different groups work the same way as the known effects of how you praise your children's personal accomplishments. Which is to say, does over-emphasis on qualities other than personal effort reduce the amount of personal effort they will tend to put forth when challenged?

    If it does have an effect, it seems like it would be be to attribute success to effort up thru the age that this sort of personality trait is mostly fixed by. By then, it shouldn't after their work ethic to learn about institutionalized prejudice. Alternatively, phrase it in terms of benefiting from the past accomplishments of your white predecessors, which simultaneously attacks the attitude that present inequality is due to the failings of people alive now, without reducing the importance of ingenuity and diligence, or disparaging the Enlightenment values and institutions that kicked off the Industrial Revolution and the prosperity that white people now disproportionally benefit from.