Parenting white children (A book review)

Parenting white children (A book review)

Co-sleeping or sleep-training? Bottles or breastfeeding? Parenting is filled with complicated decisions. How we respond depends a lot on our backgrounds, our support networks, and our individual personalities. As a white parent of white children, I’ve thought quite a bit about how I want to address race and racism with my children.

My children are 15 and 10, now, and my parenting regarding racism has grown as my own knowledge and awareness has grown. For example, as a relatively typical white liberal parent who knew I wanted to be not-racist from the day my first child was born, “exposing my children to difference” was important. (It took many years before I realized that, for me, white was the default and “difference” meant not-white, but that’s another topic.) We bought dolls with different shades of skin, books with stories about children who were Black or brown, and we attended festivals held by different ethnic communities celebrating their cultures. We didn’t go so far as teaching “everyone is equal, race doesn’t matter” in the color-blind way, but we were on the parenting-white-children road without a map.

In my gut, I knew we weren’t doing enough. The trouble is, I didn’t know what to do differently.

I’ve been reading books and writing and talking with people about racism for years. Despite that, most of the time I really and truly feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. I feel like I’m flailing, though I keep trying. There are resources out there to help us white people dig into our own biases and privilege, and there are many, many ways we can actively begin undoing whiteness in our lives. Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America by Jennifer Harvey is the book I wish I’d had when my babies were littler, though I’m glad to have it now. (It’s never too late to start parenting race-conscious children!)

Among the white people I know, there is a deep hunger to figure out what we can do. We know that talking isn’t enough, though we also know that’s not nothing. The guidance in this book is concrete and clear. On the publisher’s website, it describes how the book “offers age-appropriate insights for teaching children how to address racism when they encounter it and tackles tough questions about how to help white kids be mindful of racial relations while understanding their own identity and the role they can play for justice.”

In the book, among many other things, Harvey addresses the common fear I hear from my white peers when it comes to teaching our white children about racism: We don’t want to scare them; we want to keep them safe from the ugliness of the world for at least a while. That understandable fear blocks us from being honest with our children about racism. Setting aside the fact that parents of color, especially Black parents, don’t have the option to keep the ugliness away from their children if they want them to stay safe (so educating our white children in solidarity feels like the least we can do), Harvey makes a strong argument that equipping our children with the specific language of racism, including some of the harsher realities, will ultimately protect our children. As she points out, our children hear and learn about scary stuff—police killing Black people at higher rates than white people, for example—even it we aren’t the ones teaching them. If we haven’t been there proactively helping them build a vocabulary for talking about the issues, we make it difficult for them to process what they learn and they may turn to denial, shame, confusion, fear, or even racism itself. For example, maybe they will begin believing the lie that all those Black people did something to deserve being killed.

Rather than clumsily try to restate what she says in the book, I want to encourage parents or teachers of white children to read it. (Or, do what I do, and get the audiobook.)

And, honestly, though the book is meant to help parents of white children, I feel like it’s also a guide for us white adults about how we might talk to each other about racism. The fact is, most of us white people haven’t learned how to talk about it, I know I haven’t. We’re like little children who don’t have an extensive vocabulary, and it can feel super-awkward. The examples Harvey gives are easy to imagine happening in a wide variety of contexts, not just in conversations with our children. Plus, she recognizes that white adults also need some basic education about racism, including information about the process of racial identity formation. She gives us that. So, we learn more and can be better prepared to help our children learn and grow.

This book isn’t the end-all be-all for dismantling white supremacy, of course. But as I imagine the ripple effect of many of us parenting white children in a race-conscious way, it fills me with hope. We and our children might become much more effective participants in building a more just and fair society where all children get to be safe and get to be children, for all of their sweet little childhoods.


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White supremacy stays strong thanks to white liberals

Last week I had an exchange on Twitter that gave me a tiny glimpse into the disrespect and dismissal Black people face at every turn in our anti-Black country. It was infuriating and offensive. The white woman with strong ties to the establishment Democrats was rude and close-minded. Without calling her out directly, I’m going to review how she upheld white supremacy in ways I’ve done in the past. More importantly, I’m going to share with you what I try do differently now.

First, when another white person is acting in line with white supremacy, it angers me. I use that anger as a cue to look at myself. I wanted to tell her to “eff” off, but that’s a luxury I don’t afford myself anymore. I don’t shut the door on white liberals who are still stuck in the denial I was in; the denial I can continue to be in if I’m not mindful about my own racism.

Second, I’m new to confronting or interrupting racism. I don’t always see it when it’s there. When I do see it, I’m never quite sure what the right response is. And, if I see it and I do know how to respond, I decide if I’m in it on a committed level or in passing. Either is okay, but I think about it. I don’t want to get bogged down in white culture’s insistence on perfectionism, but I also don’t want to thoughtlessly cause more harm.

When this woman tweeted using the phrase “women and African Americans” it rubbed me the wrong way. I’ve come to hear that phrasing as erasing Black women. Honestly, I don’t know where I’ve heard it over the years, but I know in my gut that I’ve heard Black women say that phrasing like that is harmful. In my own opinion I think it’s ugly. I think there’s an underlying assumption in our white supremacist culture that Black women don’t count fully as women. Any time we aren’t explicit that we mean “all women” when we say “women” it’s adding to the “white as default” use of the term and that’s harmful.

The woman responded not with openness but with defensiveness. In her defensive response, I recognized my old behaviors. I remember being so afraid of being racist that if someone told me I was doing something racist, I might have found fault in their opinion. Protecting my self-identity as not-racist was more important than anything.

She defended her use of the phrase, saying “All experts in the field use this terminology,” and “we all know that views of subgroups within particular groups can vary.” Yes, of course, “women and African Americans” is used commonly, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. As Audre Lorde said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Summarizing the exchange: I told her that I’d heard Black women say the phrasing “women and [racial/ethnic group]” was harmful to them. I’ve come to hear it that way myself. It grates on me to hear it phrased that way. It seems to me a simple adjustment of the phrase would be easy, “women of all races and African Americans of all genders.” See how easy that is? But instead of being interested about what Black women have said, she defended her [mis]use of the phrase and expected evidence or proof from some authoritative source.

That’s the next aspect of white supremacy in this woman’s response: Only institutionally recognized sources will be considered valid. I, too, used to put academic or expert citations on a pedestal. General statements based on feelings, intuition, or word-of-mouth are typically dismissed by white supremacy. Instead of evoking curiosity, my tweet was met with disrespect. I’m not a blue check account with thousands of followers and I have no advanced degrees or obvious popular forms of expertise. It reminded me of when I was dealing with DHS (getting food stamps/SNAP benefits and MaineCare) and was treated with more disrespect than I’d ever experienced before. My knowledge alone didn’t count to this woman; imagine how a solitary Black woman speaking up would be treated? White culture, supporting white supremacy, has a limited view of whose voices are valid.

The exchange went on and there were more displays of white supremacy, but this post here is already getting too long. To dismantle white supremacy, we need to change how we value human experiences and voices. We need to live in love, justice, open-mindedness, and curiosity. We need to listen and break patterns if we want our systems to change.

P.S. I told the woman it wasn’t my job to prove anything to her. I was wrong about that. Part of my “job” as a white person in recovery from whiteness is to share useful information with other white people. So, to the woman on Twitter I present just a couple sources she might consider “valid” enough to pique her curiosity. I am confident if she explores the issue with an open mind, she will find it generally confirmed beyond these two links that the phrasing she defended is harmful: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3477987/ and https://upcolorado.com/about-us/blog/item/2843-the-problem-with-the-phrases-women-and-minorities-and-women-and-people-of-color.


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Actions I take (as a white woman) to help dismantle white supremacy

[An evergreen reminder: I am a white woman writing about racism so I might share with other white people what I learn—mostly what I learn from people of color—so we can all work toward societal transformation, liberation.]

“What actions do we take to help dismantle white supremacy?” I asked my nearly-10-year-old to help me brainstorm for this post. Of course, I already know a lot of the things I do on a daily basis, but I’d say 90 percent of the racial justice work I do is mostly internal or bit by bit with other individual white people. I know that internal and individual work is an essential part of the process of recreating our systems, but I want to share in this post actual actions I take as a white woman in this work.

I suggested to my daughter that our listening (and re-listening) to and discussing the “Seeing White” podcast series by Scene On Radio was an action we are taking. She disagreed because, she said, “That’s not action, that’s just education and learning.” She has a point. I want to get beyond the stuff I’ve talked about before in this space; I’ve already talked about self-education, reading and learning from people of color, and (as the kids say today) “diving deeper“ into my own inner world’s messy complicity in white supremacy to shed the garbage and be in the world differently.

One more thing I want to address before I share some of the actions I take is how uncomfortable it makes me to tell you about it. The magnitude of racial injustice in the United States is so vast, whatever I do will not be “enough” if I look at it through a white supremacist lens. Meaning, the perfectionism and the discomfort I feel is a part of what keeps be from sharing. I also don’t want to seem like a “show off.” I return to this document describing “white supremacy culture” very frequently when I’m feeling blocked. I see how white supremacy is keeping me quiet, I assess the context (have I been invited to share?), and I move through the fears.

What actions do I take to help dismantle white supremacy? Some of what I do is:

  • set aside several (usually five to 10) hours each month to do pro-bono grant winning or other consulting services for people of color who are engaged in systemic change work;
  • risk being seen as the “Debbie Downer” just about everywhere I go. For example, when I catch us white people falling into some of our patterns—such as believing we’re the “good ones” so it’s okay to politely coerce people of color to join our activities before we’re ready or safe for them—I find the courage to say something and help our white people groups take steps back and look at ourselves;
  • share resources with my daughters’ teachers and offer to help. I am so grateful that both of my daughters’ schools are doing great work in racial justice, but part of dismantling white supremacy is not being alone in the work, so sharing resources and offering help is a part of that;
  • attend events and participate in workshops geared toward helping us white people do better, such as Racial Justice and the Beloved Community (New England Yearly Meeting [Quakers]), or Tell Me the Truth: Exploring the Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations with our own Shay Stewart-Bouley and Debby Irving (author of Waking Up White);
  • hold a bi-monthly “whiteness class” with my daughters where we explore what it means to be white. If whiteness means oppression and greed and self-centeredness—and history shows that it does—how can we be white and good? (It’s possible, but it doesn’t happen without effort). We listen to podcasts or watch movies and discuss, we set our own “homework” assignments and check in with each other about what we’re working on, and, most of all, we practice talking about racism and whiteness. We also notice how easy it is to let our good intentions slide because racial justice work can seem like it’s not “life or death.” We keep making the time for it.

There. I’ve done it. I’ve shared with you some of the actions I take on a very regular basis to help dismantle white supremacy. I hope these examples can be helpful for you white readers. I’d also recommend looking at this list or this program/workbook for other ideas that might work in your own life.


If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

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