The Case for White Parents Talking About Race with White Kids
“If we grow the babies up right, they just might redeem us all,” said the prolific Imani Perry.
When I heard this in the middle of Imani Perry’s conversation with Krista Tippett from On Being, I got the chills. It felt so true and so significant, capturing everything that feels important to me right now: knowledge, change, hope and reconciliation.
And yet, I don’t think many parents, regardless of generation, race, religion or class would disagree. Don’t we all want to “grow the babies up right”? Aren’t we all doing the best we can to raise our kids to be good people? Don’t we all hope for our kids to go further than we have and be better than we are? But are our greatest hopes, lessons learned, care, and intentions enough? (Never mind the necessary blood, sweat, tears, and heartache that go into parenting.) Perhaps “all that” is enough to attain individual success (depending on who you are, although of course it’s never guaranteed), but is it enough to create more equality, peace and justice, to fix the wrongs, and solidify the rights?.
Generation after generation of white folks has sought “grow them right”, doing the “best they could with what they had”, but our progress towards social justice has been slow, at best. Yes, things have changed, some barriers have been lifted, but the social indicators for blacks in our country are terrible. I certainly don’t feel as though we have outcomes in this country that we can feel proud of.
I believe it’s possible to do much better. I believe our children, my children, represent another chance. But what does it mean to “grow them right”? What messages do I give? What experiences do I provide? Especially, given my own limitations, blind spots, and insecurities. Especially if I don’t have a model to follow or pass down.
I was raised to be colorblind. “It doesn’t matter if you are black, white, or green”, I was told. We are all the same. What matters is who you are on the inside. But despite the sentimental statements, reality was plain as day for anyone with eyes. To me, black people were different and rare in my environments. White people were “normal”. Black people were more often poor and involved with crime. They were often homeless in the city. Whites were “everyone else”. Every volunteer effort from my school (except Adopt a-Grandparent) was about helping black people in the city. Being black was “bad” or “unfortunate”; being white was “good”. It took me long time to feel comfortable saying the word black in a regular voice. I whispered it for decades. And it’s not surprising. Why would I feel comfortable saying a word that was either regarded as taboo or so often associated with bad and undesirable circumstances? It felt like an insult. Something to overcome, if you’re lucky.
I am not at all alone. My entire generation was raised to be colorblind, all with the best of intentions. And, often by folks very sympathetic to or even involved with the civil rights movement. According to Mychal Denzel Smith, “As children of the multi-cultural 1980s and 90s, Millennials are fluent in colorblindness and diversity, while remaining illiterate in the language of anti-racism. They were taught by their elders, Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers, about how to think about race and racism. The lessons Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers gleaned from the Civil Rights era is that racism is matter of personal bigotry — racists hate people because of the color of their skin, or because they believe stereotypes about groups of people they’ve never met — not one of institutional discrimination and exploitation.”
As such we are ill equipped to recognize and ameliorate the persistent and flagrant racism that still exists in our society. And worse still, we can’t even talk about it. “There’s this whole generation that is scared to tackle this subject, and they were brought up in a world where the topic was fraught with anxiety and danger,” Denzel Smith continues. Not only does our ineptness cause us to be fearful, it actually leads to a decrease of sensitivity about “meaningful racial differences” and further entrenchment of individual racism! If racism is about one-to-one discrimination, and people are responsible for their own outcomes, then how should I interpret the disparities between whites and blacks in this country? So I feel like there’s nothing more deflating to hear as a well-meaning white person that what you are doing not only didn’t work, but instead makes things worse. It ushers in a host of defenses all of which I’ve heard and felt: damned if you do, damned if you don’t; there’s no hope for change; it’s just going to take time then; there’s no right way to handle something this complicated; defeat.
This isn’t what I want. But if I do nothing differently then I’m on the path to creating more of the same. I hope (with everything I’m made of) that my kids become courageous, justice-seeking and big-hearted adults who value racial and social justice. Yet I, like so many other white parents, don’t have the language, skills, or confidence to lead the way. All I know is that a philosophy of colorblindness, tolerance, and representative diversity isn’t enough to right the wrongs. And all I know is that despite knowing what’s “right”, I still have fears and hesitations.
I still fantasize that the goodness of my heart and intentions will shine through the awkwardness and ugliness. I could chance it…perhaps through osmosis and the slow ticking of the clock of time, my kids and their world will turn out differently. I worry about what to say. I worry about taking away their innocence. I worry that by pointing out race they will notice it more. I worry I’ll draw negative attention to an otherwise neutral topic. I worry about what they will say in public. I worry about what I will say when they say something in public.
And that’s not even the worst of it. Confronting the worst of it is the worst of it. The real truths just feel too awful to say. I wish I didn’t have to ever talk about injustice, violence, slavery, assassination, lynchings, rape, discrimination, and the realities of what Jonathan Kozol calls “savage inequalities” to anyone, least of all my kids. It is just too ugly to let seep into my kids’ consciousness.
Yet, it needs to be done and here’s why:
1. Its real. Denial is a further trauma. Change can’t occur without acceptance of truth (and responsibility).
2. It is a flagrant demonstration of my white privilege to act like an ostrich and put my head in the sand around topics of race and racism. Any child who is a racial minority is aware of their race from a very early age and experiences or witnesses discrimination and racism from a very early age. It is unfair as someone benefitting from the status quo to just keep kicking the can down the lane, especially if I know better.
3. Kids notice race even if you don’t talk about it. Studies show that six month olds consistently recognize racial differences. Two year olds categorize based on race, and three to five year olds express bias based on race.
4. If you don’t talk about it, it sends the message that it can’t be talked about. It becomes a taboo topic within the family. Further, other studies have shown that racial minorities perceive more racial bias from people who don’t mention race. “The impression was that if you're being so weird about not mentioning race, you probably have something to hide.”
5. If you don’t talk about it, they make sense of it anyway, drawing harmful conclusions. Kids under 5 easily demonstrate in-group bias, high-status bias (preferring things from high-status groups/individuals, in our society – whites), and add meaning to complex race/class intersections in ways that favor what appears to be predominant and pervasive.
So it needs to be talked about. Deliberately. And early. And often. And substantively, meaning beyond “there is a rainbow of skin colors” kind of message. Understanding discrimination is an important part of the message and leads to an important cognitive shift. The most fascinating study (done by Rebecca Bigler) that I’ve read is summarized as follows by Melinda Wenner Moyer:
“In 2007, Rebecca Bigler, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, conducted a two-part study—the first among white 6-to-11-year-olds at a Midwestern summer school, and the second among black 6-to-11-year-olds. All of the kids were read short, positive biographies of famous Americans, half of whom were black and half of whom were white. Half of these kids were also taught about discrimination the famous Americans experienced; the other half did not get this extra lesson. At the end of the six-day study, Bigler and her colleagues assessed the children’s attitudes toward black and white people in general. The kids who had been taught about discrimination had higher opinions of black people than did the children who had simply been read the positive biographies.”
This study, while also being another good example of the failings of the colorblind approach, also expands the “talk about race” mandate to include “talk about discrimination”.
I have two good friends who constantly say, “when you know better, you can do better”. This post is about me acknowledging (to myself in a way that can’t be retracted) that now I know better and it’s my responsibility to do better. Already I am getting more and more comfortable with the WHY and WHAT. But I’m still (and probably always will be) on the HOW. More to come on that soon…