Recently, a friend mentioned that her husband was studying Raising White Kids as part of a church group, discussing it slowly one chapter at a time. Upon reflecting on the idea of how we choose discussion books I decided that oftentimes there is much sense in taking time to slowly digest new concepts or someone’s point of view. In this case though, I was glad I opted for my usual drink-it-down-as-fast-as-possible-to-get-to-the-next-book type of strategy. I mean, it isn’t my intention to make light of an author’s painstakingly crafted material; there is simply so much I want to know that I need to move along and try to process at pace. Jennifer Harvey’s book, though, was hard to read fast.
There are some books about racism that are hard to read fast because they stir up such strong emotions, mainly lament for the brokenness of the world. Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning is one of those. Books like that I have to put down and cry and try again the next day. This book was different though. The anecdotes of racism were still awful to read, but the bulk of the text is devoted to long winding and redundant phrases about systemic racism and complicity and culture that, to me, sort of floated above reality. If I were discussing this chapter by chapter with a group, there probably would have been weeks where I sat pretty silent during the meetings. While silence is definitely okay in some and in these specific circumstances, by reading the whole book at once I was able to extract the four or five practical take-homes. These fell into two categories: first, an explanation for why I balked at the title of this book, and second, how I was actually supposed to talk to my kids about racism.
About three-fourths of the way through the book, Harvey describes the research of a sociologist named Mary Bucholtz who noticed that white high school “students are afraid that if they admit they are white without, in the same moment, demonstrating some reluctance about being white or without distancing themselves from white identity (that is, by mocking whiteness, or vaguely evading the question), they might be seen as endorsing racism. In other words, white identity and white dominance are so tangled up together that asking about one automatically raised the other. So they get silly, snarky, or tongue-tied when put in a position to have to say, “I’m white.”” (217)
That idea really resonated with me. Just two weeks ago, I found my own mouth going dry when I had to answer demographic questions over the phone for the COVID contact tracer who wanted to make sure I had the resources I needed while one of my family members was in quarantine for being a close contact. I suspected that the contact tracer was herself Black, which made me feel strange to be put in a position where she might serve me in some way. I felt like as a white person I had already had plenty of opportunity to accumulate the resources I needed and if I didn’t have them now it was my own fault. I admitted that all four of my children share a bedroom, but I wasn’t going to say that was a problem.
I’m also reminded of a time years ago, when, after reading Waking up White by Debby Irving, I found myself describing the book to an Iranian-Indian friend while sitting in the front seat of her car. Now I look back on that experience and am frustrated with myself for making another person of color sit through the tears of yet another white person waking up to the brokenness of the world.
Harvey writes about this too. She (and the researchers she quotes) call this “disintegration,” a stage of racial identity one passes through on our way to having both a healthy understanding of ourselves and the racial injustices of the world. As she describes it,
“...white people tend to believe things are racially fine in society and that our collective declaration of “Everybody is equal” actually describes the way things are… / It’s inevitable, however, that at some point white people will encounter experiences in which people are treated differently because of race. So such dispositions and beliefs begin to ebb. When we have such encounters at a frequency or intensity with which they can no longer be ignored, the prior “naive belief” that race is not meaningful starts to disintegrate.” (107)
This explains the jolt we feel after a violent racist act and why we suddenly feel the need to act. Harvey says this response is good because it allows white people to realize that they have a personal stake in antiracism. She states we can’t just fight racism for POC as this “lead(s) us into actions that are patronizing, condescending, or otherwise fail to recognize the full humanity of people of color.” A shift in thinking “may also signal a move from guilt to anger -- a kind of healthy moral anger at injustice and an outrage that people of color are being harmed, combined with the recognition that it’s being done in my name.” (118)
Whenever Harvey claims that all whites are complicit in racial injustice, I bristle, and have trouble teasing out why I should once again feel like I’m a bad person and that I should be emotionally charged for crimes I didn’t commit, like the European takeover of American land and subsequent exploitation and genocide of African Americans and Native Americans. At first glance, that seemed like a tall order to me, to place the burden of hundreds of years of injustice on the shoulders of all white children (and their parents) in order to accomplish...what?
There are more dots to connect here -- between those blatant crimes of “long ago” to the subtle and outrageous injustices we see every day. Harvey’s goal in this book isn’t to tell you which injustices to speak out about or act upon. Her suggestions are more subtle themselves and involve brainstorming a mental framework for how to approach situations through a racial lens.
First, Harvey teaches what I’ve heard several times before now, that there is a great difference between how people of color and whites speak to their children about race and equality. In general, people of color talk about race whereas whites don’t. More specifically, “[i]n contrast to “the talk,” for example, a one-dimensional teaching becomes “police are safe; go find one if you are in trouble.” In contrast to “we should all be equal, we all have equal worth, but we don’t yet all experience equality,” a one-dimensional teaching becomes “we are all equal.”” (8)
How to achieve this new perspective? Harvey rejects a color-blind approach which has been our culture’s default for many years, and she argues that while a move to appreciate diversity is “nice”, it hardly gets the job done. Her goal is something different, something she calls race-conscious parenting:
“Race-conscious parenting acknowledges, names, discusses and otherwise engages racial difference and racial justice with children. It does so early and often. It assumes that antiracism must be a central and deep-seated commitment when it comes to how we parent white children and in what we want them to learn.” (18)
What does this look like in practice? From her examples, it means teaching about the complexities of policing in this country and how some children might not want to go to the police for help. It means calling out the fact that we don’t experience equality even though we want it. It means acknowledging the attributes in George Washington that we admire...and acknowledging how we wish he had been different, and how we wish others had spoken up for those he enslaved.
In terms of our everyday actions, Harvey shares a concrete example of parents being unsure of the effects of their teaching but there being clear results. In this case, Harvey’s seven-year-old black nephew was playing on the playground with a group of mostly-white kids when one of the white kids “pointed at him and said, “Your skin’s the same color as poop!”” Another white child “started yelling... “Hey, that’s racist! Hey, that’s racist!” (146) The author describes how hurt her nephew was by the racist remark but that he also saw a friend stand up for him. After they had heard what happened, the defender’s parents were proud of their son. They also admitted they were trying to have conversations about racism at home but weren’t sure what effect they might be having. What a great example of speaking up in a small but deliberate way, of starting in your own life instead of feeling paralyzed by the thought of trying to cure society’s ills at large.
And there were further effects. Harvey concludes that she suspects that her nephew “left the situation less isolated and alienated than he would have had he been left to only receive comfort from his parents…[and that the white friend] left the situation more empowered to act against racism again next time. [Harvey also knows] the bonds among the parents were strengthened: [the white friend’s] parents heard that their parenting choices had positively impacted [the nephew], and [the nephew’s] moms experienced parents in their community taking seriously their responsibility to equip their white children to live out solidarity with their Black son.” (147-8)
Having just read The Coddling of the American Mind in which the authors discuss the increasing tendency of college students to engage third parties in their disputes, I like how in Harvey’s example, the interactions all happened on a peer level, without intervention or necessity of third parties in the moment.
As she discusses how to implement anti-racist attitudes and actions, Harvey discusses the more complex journey of building a healthy white identity. The author’s goal for how healthy white kids view their identity is for them to be able to say: “I’m white, and I’m also an antiracist-committed person active in taking a stand against racism and injustice when I see it.” (234)
When talking about her wish for her daughter to understand “the gap between herself, even as a white person, and racist systems,” Harvey “invite[s] her to strategize how she can actually make that gap even larger through active, antiracist behaviors. / The gap I’m describing here is the same one Bucholtz’s white students unsuccessfully tried to create by rhetorically evading Bucholtz’s question about racial identity. As parents, we need to support children in creating distance between “being white” and “racist” in larger contexts in which these are conflated.” (226)
Those important messages are in there, as is so much more, so I think I still recommend this book. There is no one experience or author or book that’s going to cover it all. Similarly, there is probably no one we will agree with completely. As my husband says, “reading books that make us uncomfortable is how you avoid coddling your own mind.” But I think there’s a lot to learn here. I’m going to have to make some assumptions about the authors here while I make this next statement, but I am going to venture that the authors of The Coddling and Raising White Kids share similar ideologies and hopes for the kids in our country. Also, they are all white. And while they aren’t both about racism, they are both about teaching kids how to think about themselves and others and about how to work together. Still, they approach it in very different ways that demonstrate one example of how our different personalities and backgrounds are going to have to work together to solve our society’s greatest problems.
Bottom lines? White parents and kids can be white and antiracist. We should talk about race early and often, and we should keep the faith that there is something we can do to shift the culture, today, in our own lives.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.