Anti-Racist Parenting While White: An Inquiry

Sherri Spelic
Sep 17, 2018 · 10 min read

Several weeks ago I was struck by a question that felt urgent and necessary. The question arose after reading a thread of tweets in response to an article in the New York Times. Essentially, a white parent elaborated on her duty and commitment to raise her white children to identify racist behaviors and to interrupt the logic behind them wherever possible. In reading the thread, I felt grateful for this individual’s clarity of purpose and it made me wonder more generally about how white parents in the United States, take up the task of educating their children in a distinctly anti-racist household. I asked myself: What does white anti-racist parenting look, sound and feel like?

I’m not white, so I asked some of my white friends whose anti-racist stances and actions I deeply respect and consistently learn from. I raised four questions and received wonderfully thoughtful, honest and generous responses from five people. Three women and two men, located in New Jersey, Wisconsin, Oregon, North Carolina and Tennessee.

“We often think we need to “wait” for the right time, but there is no such thing.” (image CC0)

Here are the four questions and some of their responses:

How do you talk to your child or children about racism? What led you to open or continue the conversation?

As it comes up. And it comes up a lot: When we talk about US history. When they ask questions. When we are reading stories or watching media that show bias or stereotypes. As they try to sort out incidents at school. It is a framework we use to interpret the world, because it is everywhere around us.

I have tried to talk about racism steadily with my 12 year old son throughout his life. I have shared my work to understand my own role in racism and white supremacy, white privilege, white fragility, othering, tokenism and exceptionalism. I have been led to keep this topic at the forefront of our lives through my work in education, my connection to issues of social justice, and my desire to raise my son differently than I was raised.

I point it out when I can, or feel like I should. When talking about policing especially policing of protests, eg Black Lives Matter, and the difference in how those protesters were treated to the local Women’s March, that my daughter and I went to, which had no problems at all with the police), entertainment (esp movies or tv shows, I’m not around them listening to their own music much, so I don’t know — in that case I tend to call out stereotypes)… Another conversation I had with my daughter around policing was when she started driving, and I was talking her through what to do if stopped by a cop — I pointed out that we, as white women, are the “least threatening” category of stop, and the racist reasons that black and brown people in the US are much more at risk for police violence than we are.

We always talked to our kid about race, gender, power, LGBTQ issues, pretty much since the she could talk. We believed that it was part of the world, and we saw our job as parents to help her understand the world she lives in.

Among the responses, what stood out for me were two things: the fundamental awareness of the pervasiveness of racism and a willingness to be deliberate in talking with children about how it shows up in their lives and the lives of their friends.

What have you learned from your child or children about their understanding of race and racism? Under what circumstances have they shared their experiences which involved racial aspects?

My children are ages 8, 6, and 4. They see skin color and understand that people look differently. Our conversations have been limited to me asking if he plays with the students of color they have in class. I know the names of the kids so I usually ask how is so and so doing or when is the last time you played with xyz. I learned that children as old as 4 can understand cognitively what racism is. There is no need to wait until they are “ready” for it or until an event has occurred to speak about it.

I have learned that my child has absorbed some harmful lessons about race and racism from his schooling. While his teachers have been interested in exploring these issues, they lack the tools to engage with students effectively or beyond surface level lessons. His school still mainly focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr. during Black History Month, has not demonstrated depth of inquiry into Native American history, and confines conversations about racism to isolated overt language incidents versus interrogating widespread systemic issues. My son shares his thinking if he feels he has had racist thoughts by noticing differences in others that he attributes to race. We talk openly about where he gets these messages and what we need to do to unpack them and re-humanize.

The single biggest thing I have learned from doing this is that there is never a bad time to have an awkward or difficult conversation. We often think we need to “wait” for the right time, but there is no such thing. The right time is when you think you need to have the conversation, and I have found that my kid appreciates the opportunity to ask questions bluntly, when they are on her mind.

I think that there is an ability to see difference from a very young age (different skin colors, different hair, different languages, etc). Young kids can see and discuss and enjoy the variety of ways people look and the languages they speak. That is about normalizing difference and celebrating diversity.

Racism, in my mind, is more about the way we as a society use these differences to oppress and disenfranchise groups of people. To be antiracist, kids need a sense of how history operates in the present, how we have come to have the society we have that positions people in different ways, to see how those old stories about who people are operate in big and small ways and work deliberately against them. This part of racism/anti-racism work takes a little more sophisticated understanding.

My kids are fairly observant, so they will bring things to me. Not just the big things but the little things. My white daughter was in class with a Black friend, and she noticed that the teacher would “dress code” her friend all the time, even though their clothes were similar. We talked about that her friend is curvier, and the data that show that more developed girls get dress coded more, but we also talked about that her friend is Black. Even though the teacher is Black, we know that there is disproportionate discretionary discipline against Black kids. This reminded her of a middle school teacher, who, when he was losing control of the class, would consistently call out one of her Black classmates. We talk about this, and we talk about what it might mean to speak up.

What have been the most challenging barriers you’ve encountered in attempting to lay an anti-racist foundation in your child’s life or children’s lives?

My friends and family are mostly white. This means that while I speak about being anti-racist the people that walk through the door are usually white or light brown. This modeling shows I am somewhat hypocritical in what I say I value vs. what I am actually doing.

Countering the messages he receives from school. Helping my son understand that we need to go deeper in analyzing our own thoughts, behaviors and tendencies and privileges. Accessing resources by non-white voices in his schooling. Even just having the conversations with friends and family members that are in our community can be challenging. Our predominantly white community does not want to talk about race.

The elementary schools near us, in particular, were very white, so part of our rationale for applying for a centrally located magnet school was that we wanted our kids to be in school with a much more racially mixed group of kids. To have to navigate school district bureaucracy to give my kids a multi-racial educational context was a pain (and honestly that was not our only motivation, but it was definitely a factor in my satisfaction with their educational experience).

I don’t always know the answers. We can see dynamics at play, we can name them. Of course, we can support our friends of color. My daughter affirmed her friend’s experience of being singled out unfairly. But how do I advise them on going to the next step? When do they, as children, speak truth to power? How can they do that?

Please tell us a success story of anti-racist parenting.

I asked my kids what is wrong with saying there is a black person walking down the street. They answered that is just their skin color and there is nothing wrong with that. I also asked them what they would do if they heard someone making racist comments. My daughter stated she would call the comments racist and tell the person to stop speaking like that. That shows they are prepared to speak if something happens. I know knowledge and action are different so we talked about what it would feel like later if they were bystanders instead of upstanders when racist things occurred.

I’m not confident that I have one. I’m uncomfortable in saying I’m successful at this, because I don’t actually know. I hope I am. I talk to my kids about race in the same way that I talk to them about sex ed — as and when I think I should be, not in an all at once “Big Talk.” My son will be taking US history classes this year, and the second semester his teacher is going to be having the kids talk about things like institutional/structural racism in the US, and I will be interested to hear what he comes home with. Maybe I can see if we were effective then. Perhaps I will see there’s more work to do.

When my kid was in daycare, they talked about MLK. And it was okay, but it was a pretty whitewashed version. So over the weekend, we sat down and found videos of some of his speeches because we wanted our kid to hear his words in his voice. This led to questions about his life, his death, his work, and the work of the people who surrounded him. And when my kid would ask a question, my wife and I would do our best to answer it, and then we’d find background sources to both check what we thought we knew and to get more details. We spent around an hour talking, but it felt important for our kid to know that while we celebrate MLK now (and a lot of people try and appropriate and distort his work) during his life, he faced violent hatred, to the point where he was killed for it.

During the Black Lives Matter protests at one of my daughter’s schools, she walked out in solidarity with some of her classmates. When she was approached by a reporter to talk about the walkout, she demurred and put the reporter in touch with the African American leaders. She was aware that a white reporter is probably more comfortable approaching her, a white student, but she also knew that is how whiteness stays centered, even in moments where it really shouldn’t be. I was really proud of how she handled that.

I left space for respondents to leave any other comments.

We have choices on where we take our kids outside of our house and neighborhood. I purposefully have them at a summer camp that is racially mixed. When we go to playgrounds I make sure the kids there are racially mixed. I make it a point to talk about various races and religions with them. My actions are intentional.

I would describe myself as “working toward anti-racism,” rather than “anti-racist” because I am learning and trying to get better all the time. Racism is a social phenomenon, and our society keeps shifting. What I “new and did 10 years ago might not fit today, and what I know and do today may be inadequate in 10 years. I think part of this work is to put yourself in a position where you are always learning.

Another part of the work of anti-racist parenting involves teaching children to take real responsibility for their actions. In our family, we emphasize that a lot in all aspects of our actions: saying sorry is not enough, you have to show that you have learned and want to do differently moving forward. To me, this is foundational to an anti-racist stance. We live in a racist society, and we are all a part of that. When we “go with the flow,” we may act in racist ways and hurt people, even if we are not “meaning” it. Intention is not the whole story here. If we don’t know how to look at our actions, reflect, take real responsibility for their consequences on others, and then aim toward changing our future actions, we can’t truly do this work.

One of the things that motivated me to pose these questions was a sense that resources on white anti-racist parenting were few and far between. While I am confident that there are thousands of white families across the United States and elsewhere who are raising their children to be firm in their anti-racist stance, I also believe that there are many more white parents who genuinely struggle with how to address racism at home and beyond. Professor Jennifer Harvey urges parents to consider the consequences:

White children are exposed to racism daily. If we parents don’t point it out, show how it works and teach why it is false, over time our children are more likely to accept racist messages at face value.

She goes on to argue that the need to raise white children who can appreciate difference, acknowledge injustice and care enough to speak up is at an all time high.

The respondents to my questionnaire offer us anecdotes and reflections that I hope can serve as a springboard for continued dialogue. Like the task of parenting itself, anti-racist learning, teaching and development are lifetime efforts rather than a one-and-done event. For the long haul towards justice we need sustenance, support and direction. Sharing our wins, losses and questions along the way helps us grow our patience and perseverance as individuals and communities.

My 10 year old is learning about optimism and the notion appeals to him. As parents we are not only here to teach. My young son and his older brother remind me regularly how much we as parents are here to learn. Taking a cue from my youngest, I remain optimistic that anti-racism can be learned, taught, spread and sustained for our collective benefit today, tomorrow and every day.

*I want to say a special thank you to my 5 respondents who volunteered their time, care and insights with me and all of our readers.

Identity, Education and Power