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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