I was doing some online shopping the other day, looking at a number of black-owned businesses for our group post on our favorites, when questions started popping into my head: “Is it cultural appropriation if I were to wear a head wrap? There are no pictures of white people wearing them…” and “Are these shirts OK for white people to wear? None of the models are white…” And then it hit me, and my heart dropped into my stomach: this is what it is like for black people all. The. Time.
Of course, that one moment does not equal a lifetime of experiencing racism, and I’ll never know what that feels like. But the realization that simply seeing myself represented is something I’ve taken for granted my entire life — and that is like a punch to the gut. And in that moment I was humbled. To my core. I have to do better. We have to do better.
Shana and I grew up in Marquette, Michigan, a fairly white area–it may be the most diverse city in the Upper Peninsula, but that’s not saying much. My mom, who grew up in Menominee (another city in the U.P.) had never seen a black person prior to going to college here in Marquette. She had never seen a black person before the age of 18. Fortunately, Shana and I were lucky enough to spend a year of our childhood (’87-88) in East Lansing while Dad was working on his PhD at Michigan State University, and that was the first time we really experienced any kind of diversity. We lived in Spartan Village–the married student housing where families from all over the world lived.
My school, Spartan Village Elementary, had an event called International Night, where students would walk out with flags representing the country they were from, and we’d all perform songs and dances from those countries. Students would wear traditional clothing from their country (I wore a polka dot dress) and bring traditional foods that everyone got to try. It was like a crash-course in diversity.
I was one of a few white kids in my class, and I honestly don’t remember it being a thing–but I was in the first grade and hadn’t yet learned about racism. (And I realize that it is a privilege to learn about it instead of experiencing it first-hand.) That year, I was exactly the age my daughter Greenlea is now. And while I’m so glad I had that year to develop friendships with people of other races and religions, I’m worried that Greenlea doesn’t have that same opportunity. She is growing up in a white community with very little diversity.
Every time she asks me a question about what’s going on, I hesitate, not knowing how much I actually want to dive into The Issues with her, nor how much her little mind can understand. And truthfully, I don’t even know where to begin.
How do we make diversity a normal, everyday part of our lives when the world we live in is still so segregated?
I’m only now beginning to understand how difficult and complex the issue of racism really is. I mean, I was taught—in school? By my parents? I don’t even know now, but by well-intentioned white people, for sure—that I was not supposed to see color and that everyone is equal. I mean, it’s a great idea, but it’s just not accurate. We all see color. And we’re definitely not all treated equally. And I’ve only recently learned how destructive that line of thinking really is—how it fails to acknowledge and/or recognize the problem of racism in our society. I think this article from last year put it best:
I’m only now realizing how I’ve–at the very least–contributed to the problem through my own ignorance. Being horrified over the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and thinking “Oh my God, how long has this been going on? Why hasn’t anyone done anything?” and then moving onto The Next Thing in life without actually doing anything other than commenting on a few social media posts, thinking I was such a Woke Social Justice Warrior. It may be embarrassing, but it’s the truth–and there’s a whole lotta white women out there who are just like me. And it’s on us to actually do the work and to make the changes–not on our black friends and acquaintances to tell us how. This emotional labor lies squarely on our shoulders.
How Do We Raise White Kids To Be Anti-Racist?
So what do we do? I mean, aside from educating ourselves (and family and friends) by reading articles like this and watching documentaries like 13th and Burn MotherF*cker, Burn!. And aside from supporting black businesses (we’re increasing our coverage of black-owned business to 15% at TME) and donating to charities like Black Lives Matter or the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Because while those are worthwhile steps we can all take that are more productive than social media commenting, it still doesn’t answer my question of how to raise my daughter–my white-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed daughter–in an area where most people look like her. How do I raise her to be more aware and sensitive to the struggle of black people? If color-blindness isn’t the goal–and it’s decidedly not–how do I raise her to have relationships and friendships with people of diverse backgrounds in a place that’s not exactly known for its diversity, but for its homogeneity?
That’s not a question I have an answer for. I’m struggling. I want to get it right. Because this? Isn’t OK. And my desire to remain silent because I’m not sure how to talk about race with my kids or to rely on those comfortable, but inaccurate phrases like “everybody’s equal” isn’t going to make it any better…now that we know better.
So for what it’s worth, here are some of the things I’m going to do with my kids: I’m going to diversify their bookshelves by adding books that feature black characters and other POC. I’m going to actively seek out more diverse areas to travel with them. I’m going to share what’s happening in the news with them in ways that they can understand and TALK to them about racism, even when it’s uncomfortable and even though I don’t exactly know how. Because living in an area that isn’t diverse isn’t an excuse for raising kids who don’t know any better.
And suggestions? Always welcome. I’m listening.
We actually made a conscious choice to move away from 91% white Livonia, MI to a significantly more diverse town (64% white) because we wanted our (blonde haired/blue eyed) kids to grow up with more diversity. Obviously not an option for everyone, especially up north. Representative books and toys are definitely a start though! Food is another great way to learn about different cultures, traditions, holidays, and ways of life.
Raising Race Conscious Children is an excellent resource for talking to young children about race. One of the most helpful things was – don’t wait, start now. There are age appropriate ways to discuss everything that’s going on. And once your kids have a background and something to reference, every subsequent conversation has a jumping off point. “Remember when we talked about XYZ, well it’s happened again, and here are some actions we can take.” I highly recommend it. Raceconscious.org
I just want to say, as a black mother of black boys, I love your honesty and your heart. I love what you all are doing to ACT.
I will share that I quietly judge woke white friends who live in white neighborhoods and send their kids to white schools. I, sincerely, don’t think you can teach kids to value black people (being specific here intentionally) if they’re not building real relationships with black people. A component of racism and its continued perpetuation in our society is fear. White people will no doubt fear my black sons as they grow older. And we will always be afraid of that which we have never truly known or experienced. So… part of being anti-racist, in my opinion, has to include a commitment to not living a segregated white life. If moving is not an option, is a more diverse side of town a quick drive away? Join a church there, shop at the target there, look up Mocha Moms in your area and try to make a friend who would have a play date, join your local NAACP chapter and invite new friends over fir dinner. Being intentional is the key.
I can’t stop thinking about this honest comment. Thank you. xoxo
I have been having the hard conversations with my 11 yo for a while, but for my 7yo we have mostly been reading books with more diverse characters then what we have in our town, and talking about what living here must be like for the few kids of color. We were reading Dragon Hoops (I got it for my graphic novel obsessed older, but turns out strong recommend as a way to introduce some of these topics if you can handle some cursing (literally “f***”, typed like that) in the text). When we got to the section on women’s basketball he told me that Georgeann Wells had it “worst”. I stopped and had him explain and he fully explained intersectionality, which… I don’t think we have explicitly discussed. They can get it even if they aren’t seeing it, but they have to start thinking about Black lives (and all lives beyond their experience) at all.
That said, I love your posts and am adding a recommendation for The Brown Bookshelf for kids books: https://thebrownbookshelf.com/ . The kids also engaged with the KidLit Rally because they knew many of the authors.
Especially since you are a former teacher, you can also be involved with your kids’ schools: are they reading books from a wide variety or authors and that feature characters in all kinds of situations? (In other words, a book that features a non-white protagonist shouldn’t always be about that character’s struggles.) Are they learning about history from multiple perspectives? What is the school/district doing to recruit and retain a more diverse teaching force (this is a nationwide problem)? Are there racialized tracking processes and/or racial disparities in discipline in the school? I’m a teacher educator and am happy to talk more about things parents can do in their kids’ schools.
This post was eye opening for me. https://www.instagram.com/p/CBCsk1GACEl/
DTGB, thank you. This is so important. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
Thank you for these specific ideas! I wonder what, if any, ways we can find to connect with people in this time of social distancing, since some of these things will be great ideas to file away for after the pandemic.
As an educator I would suggest starting with children’s books with diverse characters and about diversity. If museums are your thing look up African American and other culturally-focused museums in the cities you travel to (once they open post-Covid, of course). Almost all major cities have one and they almost always have a children’s section. As a white mom to biracial children I am happy to see TME address being anti-racist in raw, honest and information-seeking posts. Keep it up!
What you DO is as important if not more important than what you say or read or watch with your child. For example, you will need to examine why you live in such a white town, not just for yourself, but so you can be honest about that with your daughter. Segregation is something we white people often do… Even in big cities, we cluster together and send our kids to predominantly white schools. That sends a huge message, much bigger than anything we can read to our kids.
If you’re looking for another book recommendation, my 6 year old daughter loves the Zoey and Sassafras series. STEAM, fantasy, young POC female protagonist, it seems right up your alley!
I love this article and am struggling with the same things, although my area is more diverse. How do I as a white momma with with white kiddos do better? So the tension and the struggle are genuine and real and it resonates.
I wanted to speak to “how” to talk about it and “what” to say. As a counselor who specializes in play therapy, I often here similar questions about lots of tricky subjects, sex, for instance. And my answer is usually something along these lines…
First, answer the question they are asking. And then wait. If she is asking about what is going on, give the simplest answer that is honest and truthful. And wait. If she needs more information right now she will ask more questions.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t provide other information, right? Like you said, going to more diverse places on vacation. Seeking books with more characters with POC. Watching shows that are diverse. Letting her listen in on conversations you have with others. Going to safe demonstrations when appropriate (safety is key, yah?). Let her see movies and tv shows that address topics on racism that are age appropriate. Point out that, you know, hon, these things don’t just happen in books or on tv. And wait. (I grew up thinking that racism was only something that happened on a Saved By The Bell special. I’d never encountered it IRL until around age 15).
So FWIW, we do have a long way to go. Teaching Colorblindess is no longer sufficient or appropriate, no matter how well intentioned. Thanks for writing this. White women need to see things like this as they are struggling themselves or to help them be aware that the struggle is necessary.
For younger kids, I’ve been hearing good reviews of the Sesame Street/CNN town hall on racism. My son is only 2 but we might watch it anyway, bc he always picks up more than we think.
Also agree with others that it’s incumbent on white people who have self-segregated into overwhelmingly white towns and school districts to really think hard about that, and consider whether you could live somewhere with more diversity. Segregated schools and neighborhoods are a huge factor in racial inequality. We all want the best schools for our kids, but is a school with no (or few) Black or brown people really the “best”? This Medium post was jarring (in a good way) for me: https://forge.medium.com/mom-why-dont-you-have-any-black-friends-e59f37e62ed9
Hey, Scotti! I love this post, BTW, even though I didn’t tell you yet. Jill’s comment reminded me of this anti-racist education collective my friend and former co-worker/teacher started in North Carolina (yes, we’re hoping they can expand nationally), but if you can get G’s teachers and/or schools to get into this, that’s a start: https://www.weare-nc.org/. They also do workshops for parents. https://www.facebook.com/weare.nc.org/
I loved this post. Thank you for sharing. Being part of a minority group that isn’t black, I wasn’t inundated with the extreme injustice that black people grow up in, so I am in no way equating my experience with someone who did, but I was amazed when I realized (some time in my adult life) that white people don’t grow up in a context where your race is a constant Thing that you have to think about. Or something that people use to judge you with before you even open your mouth (in a negative way). Or something that makes you feel VERY out of place when you walk into a restaurant or store or city that doesn’t have any people of color. Are they judging me? Do they think I don’t belong? Are they going to harm me because of my race? How can I act more “American” right now so they realize that I grew up in this country?
There was a youtube fad a few years ago where people made videos title “Sh*t people say to….” and I LOVED it. I’ve been on the receiving end of plenty well-meant-but-totally-ignorant comments and it was nice to watch a video where I wasn’t “a minority”. So, when someone who is white actively tries to understand ANY culture besides their own, it makes me feel… I don’t know… hopeful? Hopeful that the America who verbally celebrates diversity will actually accomplish it one day in action.
Having said all that, I only have this one book recommendation: https://www.amazon.com/Give-Your-Child-World-Globally/dp/0310344131/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3QUMWTN9FLBH8&dchild=1&keywords=give+your+child+the+world&qid=1591629939&sprefix=give+your+%2Caps%2C146&sr=8-1
I think it’s technically categorized as a religious book, but there are so many ideas about how to integrate other cultures into your child’s awareness. Even as a minority in America, it’s important for me to highlight other cultures and other struggles besides our own.
Also, for all of you are following this post for suggestions, two amazing, thoughtful, mindful conversations from The On Being Project with Krista Tippett are “Let’s Talk About Whiteness”, with Eula Biss: https://onbeing.org/programs/eula-biss-lets-talk-about-whiteness-sep2018/ and “How Can I Say This So We Can Stay in This Car Together?” with Claudia Rankine (referenced in one of my Unpacking posts from last year): https://onbeing.org/programs/claudia-rankine-how-can-i-say-this-so-we-can-stay-in-this-car-together-jan2019/. Both are podcasts, and easy, peaceful listens.
Love your post! my kids recently read Ruby Bridges and Separate is not equal. Both of them are true stories, they help opening the dialog with the kids about racism and the effects of it. Highly recommend them to start talking with your daughter about this hard reality.
Thank you for your post. Its important that we have these type of conversations.
I’m fortunate to live in a diverse area so my friends and my kids friends and classmates are also diverse. Last year, when me daughter was in kindergarten, I donated a doll house along with doll families that were POC. I plan on donating books to all my teacher friends and family that feature diverse faces and voices.
Another thing that I’ve done for myself is attend an allyship workshop. It was so informative and incredibly eye opening. I’d highly recommend for all my white people wanting to do better. The workshop I went to was through “service never sleeps” and was held in the Unitarian Universalist church.
Thank you for your post. We are expats from Australia living in the USA and while the kids are in a fairly diverse school the neighborhood is not diverse at all. The comments and suggestions are really helpful. We need to do better and there are no excuses.
Thanks for this article, Scotti. I think that the biggest problem with white people saying they don’t see color/are colorblind is that they are ignoring vital and integral parts of the other person’s identity and experience. I’m a black woman, and when someone tells me they’re “colorblind,” I know they have absolutely no interest in getting to know me as a real person. I’ve often thought that white people think saying someone is black is an insult. It isn’t. Black people know we’re black, and we’re proud to be black. Just because mainstream society sees you as worth less doesn’t mean you yourself have to believe those lies. A suggestion I have is that you yourself read books by and about diverse people (and not just racially/ethnically), watch tv shows and movies about diverse people, and listen to all kinds of music. Follow different kinds of people on IG. Be an example for your daughter so that all kinds of people are present in your home in all kinds of ways, and it’s normal, and not just a PSA moment. And make some new friends. Have fun with it— diversity is fascinating, not something to be afraid of.
This is a great resource on how to talk about race at any age, broken down by age. https://www.prettygooddesign.org/blog/Blog%20Post%20Title%20One-5new4?fbclid=IwAR0mRKToNJTPb-k1W8-LCzgkRo6b0pM7jOvQSjPoPsx07MV4YWiDl3HhYb4
Short of moving, can you join an integrated church or try something like travel sports or summer camp that draws a diverse group of kids, specifically including Black kids? I’m white and grew up in a very diverse town (about 30% white), but in addition to the everyday interaction of school and neighbor kids, going to church alongside POC kids (Black and non-Black) and playing sports at my diverse public school were important. I formed real friendships with BIPOC girls that were based on shared interests and values. My first sleepovers were at Black friends’ houses and I attended Sunday school and youth group with a mix of Black and white kids and leaders. You can’t create that with thoughtfully curated books or occasional activities. It comes from regular, meaningful interaction. I am not magically a perfectly anti-racist adult but it really helps that my archetypes of Black men are mostly based on my friends’ dads and my teen youth group leader rather than stereotypes in the media or token interactions. FWIW I’m not even religious as an adult but I am so grateful for the community I grew up in.
I’m in NC and will definitely be looking into this!
I grew up in Los Angeles and my husband grew up in San Francisco where we both attended public schools and made friends with children from all backgrounds. We opted to send our kids to the local public schools in our LA neighborhood to give them the same opportunity to have a diverse group of friends. My daughter just graduated from Syracuse and I remember visiting with her. They are very proud of being a diverse school. I was happy that they took pride in their diversity. When my blonde/blue-eyed daughter made the decision to commit she said that the only thing she disliked is that it’s such a white school. In her experience, it was. In LA many parents send their kids to private school and I know that they’re trying to give their children the best they can afford but I’ve always felt it’s also racist/classist. Perhaps unintentionally, but still. I have had this conversation with friends whose children attended private schools and it always ended in a fight. Just something to think about.
Me too. DTGB is so right. I have thought this for a long time (I’m white), but have not acted on it in meaningful ways. That is going to change now though. The status quo in this country is unacceptable. Thanks for your honest but kindly delivered comment.
(That was supposed to be in response to Shana’s response to DTGB way above)
Given the amount of screen time my kids are getting right now, does anyone have movie, series, or video game recommendations for 6-8 year old kids?
This segment on The Takeaway today (21-minute listen) had some really good insight and advice: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/takeaway/segments/white-parents-need-talk-their-kids-about-race
I posted the last half of your comments to another woman as it seemed to perfectly answer her question. I really hope that was ok. If not, say so and I’ll delete it. And thank you!
I’m an educator and was fortunate to hear Kaitlin Kamalei Brandon present on her thesis, The Spectrum of Multicultural Literature. When reading to children about myriad subjects, in particular race, it’s critical to show Black children, amongst other children of color, just doing normal things (they don’t always have to be the hard-hitting educational books on MLK, Rosa Parks, etc.). Brandon’s Spectrum outlines three types of books, some that are simply inclusive, some that portray diversity, some that explicitly mention it, and some that engage children in deeper conversations.
As others have said, the ideal thing would be to engage with communities of color and foster genuine relationships. But, while we’re riding out this pandemic, this would be a great way to approach multicultural literature! https://colorfulpages.org/the-spectrum/
I’m in the WJL camp – I grew up with ignorant racism that was, critically, not structural racism. My half-white child will experience neither. Examining Blackness in America is a start, but honestly I’m already tired of the sudden woe-is-me-I-never-understood-my-privilege-oh-dear-what-can-i-read-to-make-it-better. An awareness of underprivilege must be general, too – it’s not for tourism. It means you not only read about Black characters, or Malala Yousefsai’s book, or whatever the darkest flavor of the day is. It means you are paying attention to the fact that Muslims in Kashmir are being systematically stripped of citizens’ rights, it means that you read the news about the civil war in Yemen, or the struggle of indigenous people in Brazil’s new cattle country. Talk about the world, the whole world, at your dinner table. Learn to extend empathy; have the littles understand that there are lots of perspectives in the world that have real consequences. Including, by the way, the ones we think are “wrong”. Then, understanding racism becomes ordinary instead of urgent, it becomes civic duty instead of sympathetic observation. It lasts.
My son is 8 and just about mature enough to understand the news. But it doesn’t matter when we start. This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.
The worse thing you can do is only write about this topic once. Keep on! Revolutions didn’t happen overnight, so keep it up!