I’m going to admit something: I have not been doing a super job talking about racism with my four White stepkids. And part of the reason is that I worry about a misstep. Saying the wrong thing. Having hard conversations. Not knowing an answer.
I’ve brought up race before, but I often find myself backing off instead of digging in. But considering the heartbreak from which our country is suffering, it’s time for me to put on my big girl britches and go for it.
I was watching the news last week with my one-year-old (biracial) daughter when my 13-year-old (White) stepson walked in. He scooped up his sister, cuddled and cooed to her, then proceeded to make her giggle as only big brothers can do. He then looked up at the news and his eyes filled with the images of mobs of angry protesters, riots, buildings on fire, anger and hurt that has been rumbling for years, now erupting in real-time. He saw a brief clip of a uniformed officer’s knee—a White man behaving badly—on the throat of a citizen. And he asked what was happening and why.
Looking at both my stepson and my daughter, I realized that I have a greater obligation as a parent of White boys. I realized that my stepson would soon grow up to be a White man whose life experiences would be so different than my daughter’s, with all of her intersectionalities of adoption, race, gender. But I was late in getting started on this work. So, in that moment, I decided that it's time to step it up.
I’m rereading Brené Brown’s "Dare to Lead" and seeing so much in this book that is helping me frame the hard work I must do to ensure that my kids are anti-racist. I highlighted this one phrase specifically, dog-eared the page, then decided to write it on a sticky note above my desk:
People are opting out of vital conversations about diversity and inclusivity because they fear looking wrong, saying something wrong, or being wrong. Choosing our own comfort over hard conversations is the epitome of privilege, and it corrodes trust and moves us away from meaningful and lasting change.Brené Brown, Dare to Lead
I had been opting out of those vital conversations with my White stepchildren because I feared this idea of saying something wrong. Of not knowing an answer. Of not having the perfectly right thing to say. But in doing so, I was doing a disservice to my White stepkids, my Black daughter and to the world by side-stepping these hard conversations.
I must do a better job of raising my White children. We all must do a better job raising our White children—otherwise, they will grow up to be White adults behaving badly. Here’s what I mean.
- We must first do the work ourselves as White parents. We don’t know all we need to know about racism. We are White. We only know our own experiences, our own perceptions—and we don’t always recognize our own implicit biases and privileges. But we don’t need to put any more weight on our Black friends. We cannot ask them to teach us. We must do this ourselves. We need to do some reading, talking, learning ourselves: Critical race theory, the history of race in America, White fragility, and so much more. We need to learn alongside our White children. And we need to not just talk to our kids about racism, but we must do some hard work ourselves to be anti-racist and walk the walk. Margaret Hagerman, in her book "White Kids: Growing Up With Privilege In a Racially Divided America," found that even white anti-racist parents could perpetuate inequity when teaching their kids about race if it’s just talk without action. Let that one sink in.
- We can emphasize that we ourselves, as adults and parents, have a lot of growing to do to be actively anti-racist. In "Dare to Lead," Brené Brown talks about being a traveler and not the map-maker. We don’t have to have all the answers. In fact, we shouldn’t. We have a lot to do ourselves. But we can emphasize to our White children that we are learning alongside them and strive to learn more, do more.
- We must teach our children about the structures that exist to stoke and support ongoing racism. There is no good reason that in this day and age racism still exists. But it does. It’s rampant. There are many bad and deeply ingrained reasons that racism exists, reasons that we don’t see as White people. And so much of what we do and do not see is not done away with just by teaching anti-racism, but by addressing the systems and structures that nurture it.
- We must teach our boys that most likely, they will still be the demographic that will be “in power” when they become adults. Our country has shown it’s not ready for an accomplished female president, only 7.4% (37) of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, there are only 4 Black Fortune 500 CEOs, and if you read the news, it doesn’t appear that things are on the upswing for minoritized populations. So I’m going to put it out there that when my three boys are in the workforce, people who look like they do will make the majority of our country’s decisions. What will they do with that power?
- We must teach our children that if they see something wrong, they must speak up. Complacency and silence can be just as bad as active, in-your-face, explicit racism—in fact, it is almost worse, because it’s much easier to be passive and hope that things will just pass. But hope is not a strategy. We must teach our White children to speak up, speak loudly and always do the right thing. Like this viral tweet, we must raise all work to raise this girl.
- And we must teach our children to not be afraid to engage in conversation with the mind of both a learner and a listener. I’ve found that when I try to engage in conversations with those whose opinions (or morals) differ from mine, if I listen first, my conversation partner is more likely to listen, too. And every time I listen, I learn a new perspective. Change doesn’t happen with one conversation, but with ongoing dialogue. Like Brené Brown says, we can’t opt out of those hard conversations. It’s going to be messy. It’s going to surprise us. At times, we will disagree and leave things unresolved. But we must not be afraid.
But what does this really look like? How can we make the first step?
With permission, below is a quote from a Facebook post from one of my colleagues, Jen, who is an assistant professor at Mount Holyoke College, specializing in Latinxs in education, women's education, social justice education, LGBT2Q issues in education. In regard to how she is talking about anti-racism and race with her 7-year-old daughter, Ita, Jen posted,
I’ve been having conversations about race and racism with Ita (as she wants to be called) since the beginning (of her life). Those early conversations started out one-sided. She had adopted the Disney movie “Pocahontas” as an early favorite, and I still don’t think she’s watched the whole thing without me pausing it to fill her in on what was going on. “Ok who was there first? And then what happened? And how are the Native Americans being treated? What do you think of that?” Last night in her bubble bath as we talked about George Floyd, she said “the only thing I like about being White is that I can speak up for Black and Brown people. I mean, they can speak up for themselves, too, but I can help.”
Solidarity. A seven-year-old can get the concept.
Today our bacon-and-eggs chat was about Whiteness, privilege and liberation.
Resources to Support Your Learning as a White Parent
This is not an exhaustive list of resources: Please feel free to add your best, most helpful resources in comments. Many of my resources are specific to teachers because much of the content transfers well to parenting.
- What We Should Be Teaching Our White Students, by Leigh Ann Erickson.
- Beyond the Golden Rule: A Parent’s Guide to Responding to and Preventing Prejudice, from Teaching Tolerance.
- For White Teachers Teaching White Boys in the Suburbs, by Tom
- Why White Parents Need to Do More Than Just Talk to Their Kids About Racism, by Margaret Hagerman.
- Anything written by author and blogger Kelisa Wing.
- Talking About Race resources from the American Museum of African-American History and Culture
- Let’s Talk! Discussing Race, Racism, and Other Difficult Topics with Students, fromTeaching Tolerance (this is for teachers but I found it useful as a parent).
- To Future White Teachers: Here’s a List of Resources So You Don’t Have to Ask Your Coworkers to Explain Racism, by Tom Rademacher.
- Yours Kids Aren’t Too Young To Talk About Race: Resource Roundup, by Katrina Michie.
- The Teaching While White Facebook Page, blog and podcast.
- Anti-Racism Resources for White People.
- Seeing White podcast from Scene On Radio (thanks for this recommendation, Josh Parker).
- A Conversation With My Black Son video from the New York Times (this would be great to watch with kids and then discuss).
- An Anti-Racist Reading List, from the New York Times
- Jose Vilson’s blog
I know I’ll be talking to my husband this weekend. I know we are not doing enough. I know we can do better—in fact, we have an obligation to do better. I know we can do more to raise not just anti-racist White children, but children who become adults who work to change the system. To speak up and act. I hope you’ll do the same.
Let’s get started.