This February, like every February, my nine-year-old son came home from school talking about Black History Month. In our affluent, predominantly white community, children learn that back in the 1950s and 60’s people fought for equal rights for all regardless of race.
The lessons are part of a history class, and children learn about historical figures that were central to the Civil Rights Movement, such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Teaching about our nation’s struggle for equality as if it is part of history is inaccurate when so many Americans suffer today — right now — because of the way society reacts to them.
“Mama, it’s so awesome that MLK solved inequality and made it so black kids and white kids can go to the same school, isn’t it?” My son looked at us, innocently over his plate of tacos.
In our house, his comment led to a family discussion about how inequality is alive and well in the world. No, son, the civil rights leaders of the previous century didn’t solve racism. Until people like us — white and privileged — begin thinking and behaving differently, the problem will never be solved.
I grew up in an area of the country that elected President Trump — an area where his hate-filled messages about non-white people cause joy for those who can’t see beyond their own noses. Just last summer, when I visited my hometown, I attended a barbeque where one of the guests had a swastika tattoo on his forearm.
Growing up, I heard adults use derogatory terms to describe people of color and saw them lock the doors if a dark-skinned man walked past our car. When adults behave in these ways, children notice and internalize the lesson. Even white people who would be aghast if someone called them racist buy into systemically held biases and stereotypes.
That is the world I come from, but that isn’t the world in which I want to live. As a white woman, I have to consistently face my biases, think deeply about their origins, and take conscious steps to unravel them. It is also my responsibility to ensure that my children don’t develop separatist worldviews.
Thinking and behaving differently starts in our homes
In eighth grade, my daughter left our predominantly white, affluent district to attend school in an urban area where she was in the minority in most of her classrooms. The change in her daily life was immediate, challenging, and valuable. When the topics discussed in her classes turned political, she reacted like a privileged white girl, at least at first.
“In school today, a group of kids was talking about the Black Lives Matter movement. I just wanted to say that all lives matter, and it shouldn’t be about race. We’re all the same,” my 14-year-old said as we finished dinner.
This was the moment my husband and I realized we were raising racist kids. We’re a bit slow.
My husband and I urged our daughter to spend more time listening to her classmates’ point of view rather than butting in with her opinion. As a privileged white girl, she has no business arguing about whether the color of our skin matters. The fact is that, for her friends, the color of their skin impacts their lives every day.
Young black people experience systemic racism when they walk into a convenience store, and the clerk follows their every move; when they stand on a sidewalk and a woman in a car stops at a nearby stoplight and locks their doors; when they interact with the police.
The color of our skin shouldn’t impact the treatment we receive — we can all agree on that — but it does in very real ways. Until our privileged white children understand that racism is alive and thriving in so many facets of American life, we can’t even begin the healing our society needs.
I handed out homemade cookies later that evening to everyone at the table for dessert. I skipped my daughter.
“I want a cookie,” she said.
“Yes, everyone wants cookies,” I replied, sitting down and enjoying mine.
“But I’m the only one who doesn’t have one. I want a cookie too.”
“Yep, I know. All people like cookies,” I kept the smile on my face.
“But everyone else already has…Oh, I get it. Black Lives Matter because, for so long, they’ve been treated as if they don’t.”
Now, a senior about to graduate, my daughter has completely changed her position on the state of American racism. Would she have remained ignorant without our continuous challenge of the ideas ingrained in her by the community in which we live? Would attending a diverse school have been enough to mold her? I’m not sure, but I do know that the combination is a potent antidote for the assumptions afforded us by white privilege.
It’s our responsibility as parents to educate our children about the reality of the world. Public schools have to toe the line between curriculum and constituents, and often that means they gloss over difficult issues rather than dive into them.
Except for the rare teacher who bucks the system, the inability of public schools to adequately discuss racism with students was even the case when I taught in an urban district for 13 years. We cannot expect our schools to do the job of removing racism from our world.
Our systems are racist because of our history, but racism is not history
I’m not sitting here accusing all white people of being racist, don’t get it twisted. I’m pointing out that our systems (education, criminal justice, employment, etc.) are inherently racist because of the historical context in which they developed.
I live in Connecticut, which is both one of the wealthiest states in our nation, and the most segregated. When the National Guard forcefully integrated schools in the wake of civil rights legislation, northern states, like Connecticut, or even Minnesota were left out. The result is de facto segregation that still impacts educational opportunities today.
The de facto segregation of zoning and housing policies that existed in northern suburban areas proceeding, and even after, the civil rights movement affects housing and education today. This segregation has continued to flourish despite half-hearted attempts to integrate districts using magnet and charter schools. A report on Connecticut racial segregation by Trinity college says that:
“These policies and the segregated conditions they produce are often seen as “natural” or “normal”. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva explains in his book that thinking of segregation as normal or natural, for example, is one of the ways that racism persists without individual racist or bigoted acts. And if there are no individual acts of racism, but rather supposedly race-neutral policies, then claims can be made that racism no longer exists. If racism has vanished, as this logic goes, then the State and others can cite individual choice, preference, or merit as the cause of conditions like racial segregation rather than taking social responsibility and then seeking to remedy this condition.”
I live 18 miles from the district I taught in for 13 years. The two communities are worlds apart. My home district has one-to-one technology for students, a plethora of extracurricular activities for every interest, and takes coach buses on field trips. The community in which I taught takes children on very few field trips. Teachers purchase classroom supplies from their paychecks, and we often run out of paper.
The district I work in is considered a low-income urban district. Those are pretty-white-people words for communities that are mostly nonwhite. And for a long time, I’d have described the district that way. Now, though, I want to call it what it is.
A racially segregated district with subpar educational opportunities.
The education my children are getting is far and above the education of children in more impoverished neighborhoods. If you don’t think that’s systemic racism, then I’d urge you to read Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum or if data-driven discussions are more your thing Segregation by Design: Local Politics and Inequality in American Cities by Jessica Trounstine.
When education falls short in neighborhoods serving minority children, society unravels. The school to prison pipeline is alive and well in America’s cities, and a history of racist practices is to blame. Until that embedded racism dissipates, we will continue to see young black men, and women receive less foundational support, less enriching experiences, and higher rates of imprisonment.
For details about how educational inequality is alive and well let’s turn to the U.S. Department of Education report of Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups 2018
- The achievement gap in reading between white and black students didn’t change between 1992 and 2017.
- The mathematics achievement gap didn’t change from 1990 to 2017.
- More black students are suspended than any other ethnic group, even when they aren’t the majority of students in a school.
- Three times as many white students take high school calculus than black students.
- The unemployment rate for young black people is double for white people in the same age group.
Teachers in urban school districts know these statistics without needing to read this report. They see it when they enter school buildings every day. This lack of change isn’t because teachers aren’t trying their bests every day; it’s because the education offered to primarily minority districts is subpar.
Systemic racism doesn’t end when students finish school. When people find themselves in the criminal justice system, the color of their skin, even when controlled for type of crime, is a huge determinant of their outcome. Our country imprisons black people at a rate five times higher than their white counterparts. The disparities between the incarceration of white and black offenders are most notable when looking at drug offenses.
These systems exist because of the history of our nation, including slavery, Jim Crow laws, and deliberate and de facto segregation. My children know the difference between the amount of money their school district spends per pupil, and the significantly lower amount urban districts spend. They also know, in age-appropriate terms, the catastrophic impact of that inequity.
The civil rights movement is not our history, it is our current battle, and we need to teach younger generations the truth.
This is not the school district’s fault. It’s the fault of systemic racism that dates back to slavery. (Yes, fellow white people, it does. Stop pretending it doesn’t. I know you didn’t own slaves, but pretending that slavery doesn’t have a ripple effect on the lives of millions of people is short-sighted.)
Following slavery, America had systems and structures in place to ensure that “those people” didn’t live in “our neighborhoods.” The results of that racial segregation are evident every day in classrooms across America.
Remember, I grew up in white-America next to the fourth cornfield on the left after you got off the interstate. Everyone I knew was white. Everyone I loved was white. Some people I knew drove around with confederate flags. Then, I started teaching.
Teachers fall in love with their students. It’s inevitable. And I fell in love with mine, especially the kids with the biggest problems. These tiny humans were brought into a world of struggle through no fault of their own, and I had no idea until it smacked me in the face. Suddenly I loved people who made me come face to face with my racially-biased upbringing.
The 8 years I taught in classrooms made it clear — until we fix systemic racism, there isn’t a chance in hell that our society will become equal, inclusive, or any of the other buzz-words people throw around.
What we say right now matters
Three months after my son wanted to celebrate the accomplishments of the civil rights movement, our household has had several conversations about race and the systemic oppression of minority groups that led to the current protests, riots, and looting.
Are looting and rioting the answer? Maybe not, but I have no right to judge the behavior of others when I haven’t lived in their shoes. It is not my job, as a privileged white woman, to question the experiences and actions of the oppressed people.
I’ve seen my share of peaceful protests of systemic racism, and not a lot of change. Rioting is a natural and historically common response to systemic oppression. What did you all think was going to happen if black lives continue to be disposable?
If you’re asking if looting and rioting are the answer, you’re focusing on the wrong question. What you need to focus on, what you need to ask yourself and your children is: how can we be part of the solution?
Sure, you aren’t racist. I hear you, but it isn’t enough to just not be a bigot. You need to take decisive action and be an antiracist. For ideas on how you can make a difference, I encourage you to read How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. Then after you read it, get to work.
Sure, discussing a police officer killing George Floyd was difficult with my nine-year-old who is only beginning to learn that the world is a complicated and sometimes scary place. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t tell him. As a privileged white boy, he needs to develop an understanding of how he fits into this world, and the peace afforded him merely because of his heritage.
For everyone who thinks we shouldn’t discuss such things with our children, think of the black family who has to talk with their sons and daughters why they are treated differently from their white friends in public.
Systemic racism forces parents across our nation to teach their young people how to interact with the police so that they don’t end up the target of brutal racism.
Systemic racism means that when a black mother holds her newborn boy, she knows he is 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than the white child crying down the hall. Discussing racial inequality and overt racism isn’t optional for black families, and shouldn’t be for white families either.
In white houses across America, we need to talk about the difficult issues and challenge our kids when they say or do something that places judgment or generalization on a group of people. It is our duty to ensure that our children encounter racially and ethnically diverse populations. When you’re at the park, are you interacting with the darker-skinned families or retreating to your corner of the playground?
As privileged white parents, we must teach our children that racism still exists and is woven into the fabric of our nation, but that the things we do today and every day can get us just a little closer to the world we’d like to inhabit. Seek out opportunities for your children to encounter people who are unlike them — familiarity breeds friendship and friendship can inspire collaborative change.
Let’s dispel the myth that everyone is treated equally by pointing out social injustices, discussing the history behind them, and talking with our children about how to make things better. I wish I could go back to that barbeque last summer and confront the man who thought it appropriate to tattoo racism on his body, or at least confront my family members about their association with such a human.
Once we’ve talked to our kids about what’s really going on in the world, let’s act on what we say. Buy books for your children that encourage diversity, start including people from different backgrounds in your friend group, and get out of your own cozy little neighborhood to interact with the real world.
Educating our children is such a small step that I doubt the effects of it will ripple out very far, but if all white parents do the same, we can outrun the hatred that is so ingrained in our society.