I was in a heated conversation recently with someone close to me about race and privilege. Heated, because this topic is so important to me — I desperately want this world to be a better and more just place for all people, but especially for our children — for my nephew and niece, my neighbors, the children of the chaplains I work with, the children I meet at the hospital. And as I tried to answer my friend’s questions, I thought about a new resource I love, the book Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America, by Jennifer Harvey (Abington Press: Nashville, TN, 2017)
I don’t have kids.
But I love kids, and love people with kids — I’m an aunt, and spent many years as a children’s hospital chaplain.
And the kids I love, and the kids loved by people dear to me, span a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. I’ve lived and traveled in diverse places, calling home Washington, D.C.; Berkeley, California; and Anchorage, Alaska. One of my passions is teaching about cross cultural communication, anti-racism work and recognizing privilege.
In February, Lutheran colleagues and I facilitated a workshop on “Talking about Race in our Families.” We had rich conversation with a dozen or so people, who shared stories, opened hearts and exchanged ideas. And the kids, who had their own activities, reminded us that “When we know better, we do better!”
A few days before the workshop, we found this book, and I love it. The author highlights:
- why “colorblindness” doesn’t work.
- the importance of normalizing conversations that involve race and difference
- that racism is structural, not just how each of us individually perceives and responds to others
- the importance of equipping our kids to be able to talk about and think about race — not as dangerous thing but as one of the many things that make each of us unique. And that includes helping white kids conceptualize what it means to be white
- so many concrete examples of ways to respond to kids’ questions and to encourage normalized conversation about race, along with the acknowledgement that this can feel really awkward and hard at times.
Harvey writes, “We need to be authentic and teach our white kids about racism, but be mindful of doing so in ways that enable agency and not despair. We need to feed their sense of purpose and capacity in this regard. It seems to me they need to have a sense of hope and possibility; a vision of the kind of world they want to live in and a sense that their behavior and actions can help create that world.” (P. 162)
I love the hopefulness and potential for change and action that Harvey brings to her writing. Unfortunately, so many conversations around race, for white people, become quickly infused with defensiveness, frustration and helplessness — Harvey offers different options.
She also notes that “white students don’t have an embraceable, positive, meaningful racial identity in a context where everyone else gets to have one. As a result they become deeply alienated from the whole enterprise of diversity — and, I would add, by extension they become alienated from commitments to racial justice (p. 220).”
Harvey recommends that “Our children are not and should not perceive themselves to be generic Americans. Nor should they only reluctantly confess, ‘I’m white, I guess.’ They should not be left to internalize the fears expressed in ‘Mom, am I racist?’ What they need to be eventually able to say ‘I’m white, and I’m also an anti racist-committed person active in taking a stand against racism and injustice when I see it (p. 234).”
So, what can we do? These are just a few of the suggestions Harvey offers:
- Notice and name race early and often. Talking authentically about race and racism responds to children’s actual experiences and teaches children as they develop and grow to be able to do the same (p. 59)
- Practice, practice, practice! Talking about race openly and explicitly takes practice — there’s no way around those awkward, challenging feelings (p. 95).
- Make a commitment to normalize talk about differences (skin tones, bodies, the ways different communities of color identify, etc) — this preempt the pressures kids experience to treat difference as a taboo (p. 95).
- Acknowledge that white privilege and injustice exist, while also supporting the recognition that white people can join with others to fight injustice–and (find) ways to help our kids do that (p. 134).
- Allow our children to be vulnerable and feel the ache and hurt of the harm that injustice causes. We may want to insulate our kids from it, but the humanity of even the youngest of our children is directly tied to their ability to identify with that suffering (p. 284).
- Parents of white children can — and must — step into the unknowns, chart what is mostly still uncharted, and become resilient participants alongside parents of children of color who are already at it and have long ben so. A racial justice movement is alive and strong in this nation, and it needs all of us to be all in (p. 284).
I highly recommend this book — it offers action, encouragement and hope for a more just and loving nation.